Kevin Brennan Writes About What It's Like

Gatecrash — Part 7: Accept no imitation


Let’s face it — alienation is going to become a big theme in this society (as it does on a predictable cycle), and our literature will have to start dealing with it instead of dishing up a thousand and one thrillers each month. The plots that come from an overwhelming sense of aloneness in a crowded world might very well depart from the seven usual plots, especially when we begin to work in the idea that everyone isn’t what he seems to be. Kafka might have been on to something…

There are always tried and true structures to be relied on, of course, and the Greek rules of rhetoric still apply, but I think we can anticipate stories emerging that feel different from quests, journeys, comedies, tragedies, strangers coming to town, rags to riches, and beating the big bad monster. The journeys could become inward and cease to be what we think of as journeys. The monsters could be invisible. The stranger coming to town may not be a stranger after all but a familiar in disguise. What kind of world would this feel like, and what kind of character would help us explore it?

Or what kind of tone would be right for the world of alienation in which “nothing is real”? Think of music again and how Kurt Cobain’s anger and angst ushered in a new sound — how raw and primal it felt.

Or David Byrne’s strange timbre that he used to depict personas who don’t know who or where they are anymore.

(Not to mention Isaac Brock of Modest Mouse.)

How do we get tones like that into novels without driving away readers who are used to transparent prose that doesn’t get in the way of the story? (Another restrictive idea in publishing!)

The material will come to dictate the tone, just as now there’s a fairly generic sound to most novels — that sound that lets the plot and characters do their unsurprising things without interference from the writer. It’s a little like the way plays are still performed on the proscenium stage; the stage doesn’t literally get in the way of the play, but it does limit what the play can do. There’s a theater group in San Francisco, as a matter of fact, that performs in unlikely venues like a Civil War era fort or a World War II troop ship. The effect can be disorienting, but it produces a completely different kind of experience than the traditional stage, and that’s what we need in fiction: the technical equivalent of performing a play in a different setting. The fictional voice has to change to open up possibilities for a new experience.

Yes, many have tried. Many have succeeded too. Donald Barthelme. Robert Coover. A.M. Homes, David Foster Wallace, Annie Proulx, Stephen Dixon, Ali Smith, along with lots of others. But the paradigm never seems to change as a result. Instead, tiny niches are created where what’s typically called “experimental” fiction can be practiced without injuring anyone’s sensibilities. Mainly because hardly anyone reads experimental fiction. The new paradigm may well be hiding inside some of these works but they’re like bottom-dwellers in the ocean: no one ever sees them. They don’t hurt anyone. They just do what they do.

Because success breeds success in our culture, it’s hard to introduce something new without going through a very slow evolution, almost by changing things subliminally until the new thing feels acceptable. But by then it’s not new any longer.

This means we practice nearly invariable imitation. The fallacy is that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but no real artist will be satisfied with a career based on nothing but that. Artists have “influences,” and even the best of the best have influences. It’s a matter of what we do with the materials and methods handed down by our influences. It’s how we take the clay they used and find new shapes to mold out of it. It’s how we take the story-telling brilliance of Dickens, for example, and adapt it to the themes and aesthetic character of our own day. We should be taking the most innovative writers of the 20th century and extrapolating what they did into the near future, paving the next few miles ahead of us. Otherwise what they did were just detours, or appendages on a larger, sedentary art form.

I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t have the vision or skill to do what I’m suggesting. I’m not adept enough — despite my best efforts — and I’m not daring enough either. It will take a nearly mad creator, or at least a brazen one, to bust through the wall of conformity. Someone like a Van Gogh or a Robin Williams, or another David Foster Wallace, for that matter. And he will do something so different and revolutionary that big publishing has to take notice and embrace it.

The change has to come eventually, or the novel stagnates and dies.


© 2016 by Kevin Brennan

17 comments on “Gatecrash — Part 7: Accept no imitation

  1. kingmidget
    January 19, 2016

    “a nearly mad creator” There’s something to be said for the idea that the idea of boundary-busting creativity you’re discussing requires a bit of insanity. And most of us are unwilling to go there.

    • Kevin Brennan
      January 19, 2016

      They always say there’s a thin line between genius and madness, and that’s probably been true in literature too. So many greats have been bipolar, or manic depressive, as we used to say.

      Some people might think making up entire worlds in your head is a little nuts anyway!

      • kingmidget
        January 19, 2016

        You know, I read this post again tonight, and, well I don’t know. One of my half-completed pieces is a look-back story where an old man lives alone on the shores of a bay and the flashbacks explain why he is there. Alone. By himself. Alienated from pretty much everything. And he’s fine with that. His best friend is the egret that feeds in the shallows each evening. And he’s fine with that. I have tried to write it more lyrically or poetically than anything else I have ever written. And I planned on a happy ending for him — a return of a high school sweetheart that pulls him out of his misery. Maybe I need an alternative ending that takes the alienation that much more deeper. I don’t know, I read your post again, and maybe this isn’t quite what you’re getting at, but your post certainly prods me to consider something other than the usual and the happy for an ending. There’s something I could do this that would really plumb the depths. Hmmm…..

      • Kevin Brennan
        January 19, 2016

        Nothing wrong with throwing caution to the wind! And if it doesn’t seem to work, you can try another tack.

        Onward and inward!

  2. Carrie Rubin
    January 19, 2016

    I admire writers who try something different, but as a reader, I also like the tried and true. There’s comfort in that. Sometimes we just want to escape into our favorite genre and know what we’re getting. Having the option to pen either type of novel would be the best world for readers.

    Great series.

    • Kevin Brennan
      January 19, 2016

      I’m with you on that. I’m not saying the old tried and true shouldn’t exist; just that, can’t we get some new stuff, Mom? Huh? Come on, how come we can’t get some new stuff!? 😛

      • Carrie Rubin
        January 19, 2016

        Haha, most definitely. I don’t know if you’ve read ‘How to Be Both’ by Ali Smith, but she shakes things up a bit. There are two parts of the story set in different centuries. Half of the books were sent out starting with one story, the other half the other one. I read it for my book club and we were able to share our different perspectives depending on which half we read first. Pretty interesting.

      • Kevin Brennan
        January 19, 2016

        Thanks for the tip. I’ve added it to my ever-growing list, but it sounds like it’ll scoot up to the top sooner than later. Love the idea!

  3. John W. Howell
    January 19, 2016

    As I read Town Father I get a sense of innovation in the use of poetry and separate circumstances (circus) to set a definite mood. As you say I don’t have the talent to get as far out there as you suggest. I’ll just keep pumping those thrillers that are sort of like thrillers but with some differences.

    • Kevin Brennan
      January 19, 2016

      I guess each writer does what feels natural. There’s nothing worse than forcing “something different,” except maybe trying to imitate another writer who pulls it off.

      I didn’t set out to do anything especially innovative with Town Father… other than the premise itself. 😜

      • John W. Howell
        January 20, 2016

        I get that. I’m enjoying the story

  4. Adrienne Morris
    January 19, 2016

    I wonder if writers who are experimental mean to be experimental or are just being who they are.

    • Kevin Brennan
      January 19, 2016

      I bet it’s often the latter. Gotta think that most writers kind of go with what’s in their head rather than fabricating something unnatural. One of my favorite experimental writers is Donald Barthelme, though, and I’d hate to spend more than a couple minutes in his head (if he were still alive), based on his stories.

  5. 1WriteWay
    January 21, 2016

    Recently I listened to a novel (crime fiction) that started with the verbal certainty of a woman’s death and then the whole story was told by a witness. So I’m listening to this novel, hearing about this woman and her flight from a murderer and wondering how he gets her in the end … only to find out he doesn’t. Her death is faked. Perhaps that’s not within the realm of experimentation that you mean, but as a reader, it was fascinating since I started with an assumption and had challenges to that assumption grow greater with each chapter. And the novel was heavily character-driven, which (sadly) few crime novels are.

    • Kevin Brennan
      January 21, 2016

      Sounds like a great way to expand the possibilities of a genre. Take the formula and use it to mess with the reader’s expectations. I like!

  6. bmickhugh
    October 29, 2016

    I don’t expect the novel to change all that much. The form was established in the early 2oth, and we can draw a comparison with music, the current form of which was established in the 50’s/60’s. In music, when musicians come around with something new – metallica, or nirvana, for example – these revolutionary bands still generally stick to the popular form. And it’s worth mentioning that all types of new music – including dub-step- find success and popularity through melody, arguably the defining characteristic of music – it’s always been there. The novel might begin to sound different, but the focus on plot will always be there (storytelling the crux of fiction) and the established form will only ever see slight variations. The novel of 2399 will be recognized as the format of the 1925 novel.
    What we do have though is a new medium – blogs – which enable us to experiment and create an entirely new form of writing, something which isn’t quite prose or poetry, not exactly fictional but not wholly like a journal entry. This is what I’m trying to do with my own blog, Mick’s Neon Fog – and yes, there’s plenty of disillusioned estrangement from society, that’s the time of human history we’re in. There are some other blogs creating this new litetary style, most notably A Journal For Damned Lovers (does anyone have more examples? I need new blogs to follow).
    All that said, eventually this new blog format is going to crack into storytelling, creating a powerful, new, multimedia story, which will supplant the novel in the same way bands supplanted the orchestra. We still have orchestras, and will probably always have novels, but there will be a new mode of storytelling for the novel to compete with.

    • Kevin Brennan
      October 30, 2016

      Thanks for your thoughts on this. My impression, though, is that the novel form emerged in the 18th century and hit full stride in the 19th (Dickens, Austen, etc.). It was jump-started in the 20th via writers like Joyce and Faulkner. I think we’re still sitting in the postmodern doldrums.

      It’s hard to predict, but I have trouble imagining the novel as we know it still being around in 2399. Technology is changing fast, and the nature of “reading” itself is evolving. You’re right: blogs are smearing opinion and fiction, but other stuff is going on that takes eyeballs away from books per se.

      Fascinating developments though! Thanks for stopping by and chiming in.

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This entry was posted on January 19, 2016 by in Publishing and tagged , , , , , , , .
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