Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Rules of the Game

I was sitting at a writers group meeting a couple of weeks ago, when one of the members, let’s call her Jane, began telling her idea for a story she wanted to write. It was about a woman and her experiences in the city—New York City, of course, what other city was there—growing up and maturing through various jobs and relationships (actually the character sounded quite similar to Jane herself.) After Jane finished summing up the story, a another member of the group asked, “well, what’s the conflict of the story?”

You could almost see Jane’s brain screech to a halt. I was sympathetic to the hard truth. It’s not always about beautiful words flowing from the author’s head on to the page—there are rules to follow.

I realize it’s pretty obvious, you need a conflict in a story. But the idea of rules in fiction is so, um, industrial.

Slate recently ran a long article about MFA vs. NYC literary culture, based on another book by Mark McGurl. It was fascinating, but what unnerved me was the way the author of the article summed up New York novelists (aka, writers trying to sell their novels to publishers) and their work so concisely:

“The best young New York City novelists go to great lengths to write comprehensible prose and tie their plots as neat as a bow. . . she doesn’t worry about who might read her work in twenty years; she worries about who might read it now. She’s thrown her economic lot with the publishers, and the publishers are very, very worried. Who has both the money to buy a hardcover book and the time to stick with something tricky.”

As someone who works in publishing, I don’t want to believe it. Nobody wants to write anything truly original—perhaps mold-breaking—because big publishers won’t go for it? I'd like to think that every novel, especially those that I’d want to publish, are as unique as snowflakes swirling in the air.

The idea that novels are all the same, and the call for something new, was the topic of David Shields' manifesto Reality Hunger. It’s actually pretty funny if you think about it. The way novels can be described. James Wood in The New Yorker wrote about the rules of mainstream realist fiction: “the cinematic sweep, followed by the selection of small, telling details (“It was a large room, filled almost entirely by rows of antique computers; there was an odd smell of aftershave and bacon”); the careful mixing of dynamic and habitual details (“At one of the computers, a man was unhurriedly eating a spring roll; traffic noise pierced the thick, sealed windows; and ambulance yelped by”). Okay, so it’s true.

I recently asked some friends, what was the last book you read that was really different? Some said Tom McCarthy. Or David Foster Wallace. I felt like going back to the writers group and telling Jane—write it how you want it! Be different. Start with the end and finish with the beginning. Don’t listen to anyone.

But I can’t forget that a lot of readers—I’m thinking of those who buy every new Grisham or King—buy a book because they know exactly what they are going to get. And they are happy doing it. It’s like getting on Big Thunder Mountain for the 24th time. It’s going to be fun.

1 comment:

  1. Wood's takedown of realist fiction is one of the most brutal things I've ever seen. It's good to be reminded that literary realism is a genre with its own set of arbitrary rules, but I can't help but feel bad for Chang Rae-Lee, whose novel Wood was supposedly reviewing.