Kevin Brennan Writes About What It's Like
Things can be done with the physical book that can’t be done in the ebook. It is, after all, an object that offers shape and texture, scores of options for typography, and design opportunities that don’t exist for the ebook. One provocative sample is A Life in Books: The Rise and Fall of Bleu Mobley by Warren Lehrer (Goff Books), in which Lehrer uses design and illustration to tell the story of a fictional author. A physical book can also be turned around and upside down, and there’s been at least one novel in the early 2000s (which I can’t locate, unfortunately, though Lehrer describes something like it in his book) and several children’s books that require the reader to turn them upside down at the halfway point and read from the back until he reaches the halfway point again. An innovative writer with a flair for the tactile, and who’s a little bit playful, might come up with a book whose pages need to be folded back on themselves to reveal important messages or plot points, a bit like the old back covers of MAD Magazine. Or one could have marginalia scrawled on the pages with a separate plot (that of the invisible “reader”) implied by what’s revealed in the margins. (And just yesterday I was made aware of the 2013 “novel, S., by Doug Dorst and J. J. Abrams, which does exactly that!) “Why not send your reader to a mirror to be able to read a page printed backwards?
We’re just brainstorming here. Inspiring, though, isn’t it?
Ask yourself: What did The Beatles do to change pop music? They didn’t reinvent rock and roll; their songs generally used the same blues and R&B foundation everyone was playing. Instead, they messed around with the conventions of pop, changing the kinds of sounds that could be used, adding layers, trying different instrumentation, and manipulating the tools of recording. How about Talking Heads? They changed pop music by applying world music sounds to a funk foundation.
Someone needs to take “pop fiction” and turn it on its head.
Then there’s the language itself. From Finnegan’s Wake to A Clockwork Orange to Everything Is Illuminated, the way the writer uses language has been a hallmark of innovation. English is a stunningly malleable language, with a massive vocabulary, influences from all over the world, rhymes, puns, layers of meaning, and much more flexibility than many others. We can make words up if we need to, like Lewis Carroll’s “portmanteau” words; we can write in dialect; we can sprinkle the text with foreign phrases and transcribed sounds; we can even, God forbid, abandon the rules of grammar and rhetoric if the effect is potent enough. Most great and remembered authors are known for their use of language. Not enough is being done with it in commercial fiction.
Let’s turn to the more typical elements that writers use to put a fresh stamp on capital F fiction. Characters, for instance.
One of the most restrictive ideas in publishing is that readers like to see themselves in novels. This has had the dampening effect of encouraging writers to rehash the same kinds of protagonists, shelf after shelf of gals looking for love, gals dealing with family problems, gals trying to balance career and children, families dealing with disease and misfortune, professors screwing students, lovers killing cheating lovers, wandering men with deep dark secrets. There’s an everyman quality about the characters because readers are looking for recognitions: That could be me, I’m glad that’s not me, If I were her I wouldn’t do what she just did, God I wish I could have that guy! Male readers often look for vicarious experiences in sports, military adventures, sexploits, and business (I’m giving myself permission to generalize here), while women seek to relate or empathize with the main character in matters like family, career, sexploits (again), and self-worth.
This is the cookie-cutter approach to writing, though, and because there are infinite ways to vary the themes, we have an infinite number of similar books on our hands.
Every now and then, though, someone writes about a character you wouldn’t think to focus on. Rachel Kushner in The Flamethrowers gives us Reno, a motorcycle-racing female artist in 1975, who inadvertently falls in with Italian revolutionaries. Michel Faber, in The Book of Strange New Things, gives us a preacher trying to spread the gospels on a distant planet. Looking further back, Nabokov put us in the brain of a brilliant pedophile, O’Connor paints the cynical Hazel Motes, Faulkner confronts us with the disconnected thoughts of Benjy Compson, and Atwood horrifies with Offred, a “handmaid” in an evangelical dystopia.
The possibilities — the great ones show us — are as endless as the hackneyed roster of heroes and heroines we’ve been spoon-fed for years.
Though I do believe that innovative characters are not enough to change the form, they are certainly part of the artist’s toolkit and can be used with some of the other elements noted above to work at getting off the beaten path. Again, Picasso took representational painting and boiled it down to its basic forms — geometrical shapes, colors, and spatiality. In music, composers like Schoenberg altered the guiding conventions and created a different kind of sensibility, and in fiction, the development of stream-of-consciousness changed the direction of literature for good. It can be done. History is a litany of examples.
It’s been said, however, that there are only seven kinds of stories, so if that’s true, what’s the point in fussing around the edges? Will the next paradigm create a new kind of plot?
Maybe, with the new millennium well underway now. In our post-9/11 world, where mass surveillance is not only possible but practiced and where social media has already changed our concept of identity, new stories can emerge. Before technology made it possible for our privacy to be violated without our knowing it, self-definition was an easier idea. We put ourselves out there but we couldn’t control what the world made of us. Now, we can fabricate an identity online and ensure that it’s our “brand,” the avatar of self that we want perceived. Fiction should be able to do something compelling with the notion of self that is hologram more than human. A new category of plot, akin to rebirth or tragedy? That depends on what the most creative among us can come up with.
© 2016 by Kevin Brennan