Novel or Novelty Gimmick?

It was sheer coincidence, reading three novels with unconventional structures in quick succession. So uncoventional that one might question if they are even novels. They certainly felt more like essays or biographies or memoirs, but with fictional narrators and characters. You could say it’s a trend, but while two of the novels are recent, one was published in the 1970s. In fact, it might be safe to say that such novels have existed since the beginning of time: 1001 Nights, Tales of Genji, Tristram Shandy, Don Quixote all mess up with our love of clear chronology and neat linear narratives. So why do I feel that perhaps there is more of an appetite for it now, and that some authors and publishers are deliberately jumping on the bandwagon? Is it indeed that, as our attention spans have shortened, as we get inundated with scraps of half-digested and unproven information, we find it difficult to believe in the authoritative author’s voice and unified narrative?

The three books that got me thinking about all this and more are: Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights, Joanna Walsh’s Break.up and John Berger’s G. However, other recent publications also come to mind, such as Jenny Offill’s Dept of Speculation, Heidi Julavits’ The Folding Clock, Rachel Cusk’s recent trilogy (I’ve yet to read Kudos), Lisa Owens’ Not Working  and Maggie Nelson’s Bluets. I’ve loved some of these and not liked the others all that much, so I don’t think it’s a lack of willingness to engage with experimentation. (On the contrary, how often have you heard me complain that the author has an original concept but simply does not go far enough?) When done successfully, you can feel there is an underlying pattern and intent there, even if you are not sure that you understand it. At times, however, the lack of structure or ‘démontage’ of structure feels more like a lazy mess than deliberate experimentation.

The authors of these novels (not all of them describe their work as novels) justify what they do by saying they are ‘lassoing moments that were about to be lost’ (Julavitz) or they are emulating Heraclitus’ river (no matter where you step into the book, it is never the same book – Maggie Nelson). Tokarczuk speaks of the constellation novel, where each person detects their own pattern, based on their past experiences and present sensibilities. Cusk presents the flat, bland heroine who seems to reflect back the thoughts, desires and words of all the people she meets – what I would call the would-be objective anthropological narrator (although we all know that there is no such thing as complete objectivity). Joanna Walsh describes her work as ‘hybrid’, and her ‘novel’ is about the end of an affair (which seems to have existed largely in the narrator’s own mind), a travelogue and lots of internal monologue or attempted dialogue with the absent lover. John Berger’s retelling of the adventures of Giacomo Casanova during a troubled period of history is anything but a conventional biography, going off on substantial tangents and interspersed with secondary characters’ thoughts and back stories. Meanwhile, Jenny Offill argues that the broken structure of her novel reflects the narrator’s broken state of mind, with thoughts randomly coming into her head without too much context. Lisa Owens’s heroine is full of acerbic asides and amusing observations – a fragmented, post-modern Bridget Jones maybe.

I fall for the theoretical explanations of purpose every time, but I have to admit that not all the books are equally adept in the execution. I still think it is far harder to have an overarching theme that plays out through a perfect balance of characters and plot. The danger of fragmentation of course is that the novel becomes a kind of pick’n’mix. Readers will like certain parts and hate (or skip others). Perhaps it is not that different to how I read War and Peace, skipping over most of the battle scenes, unless they featured Napoleon or Prince Andrei? Or does it help if I think of them as poetry, like in the case of Bluets?

Perhaps that is why I enjoy the Spanish or Latin American novels way of storytelling? There are many, many tangential stories in those novels that seem to bear no relationship to the main story and yet you feel that you are progressing, that there is a purpose to the story. Of the books I mention above, I felt that same sense of ‘the author knows where she is going’ with Flights and Bluets, and they are the ones that stayed with me most. And a final point which puzzles me: why are most of these novels written by women in the English-speaking world (which is most certainly not the case in the Spanish-speaking one)?




21 thoughts on “Novel or Novelty Gimmick?”

  1. What an interesting question, Marina Sofia. I do think there’s a difference between choosing a story structure for its own sake, and choosing a story structure because it serves the story one wants to tell. To me, it’s a bit like choosing voice. Do we choose first person, present tense because it’s ‘out there’ at the moment? Or is it because it is the best narrative voice for a story?

    1. Very good point. I do wonder if editors sometimes advise writers to be more ‘trendy’ for commercial success, looking at what is currently selling.

  2. I am intrigued by ‘Break.up’ and will add it to my shopping list for my next trip to the book shop. I must say you have a fabulous eye for details and a remarkable way of writing about them.

    1. Thank you kindly – I suppose I read like a writer and have to ponder: how did they do that? is it possible for others to achieve this? how would I do it? (Well, at least after the initial going green with envy phase and telling myself I’ll never reach that level.)

  3. Interesting post Marina. I like experimental, and books that break the mould, but I agree they don’t always work. It’s risk taking, I guess, and it would be dull maybe if authors never tried it! 🙂

    1. It’s hit and miss – and I wish that publishers would encourage their authors to do more of this instead of producing the same reliable goods year in, year out.

  4. Thought provoking post. I read a fair amount of experimental fiction and find it can be read so differently by different readers – as all books are but moreso. I sometimes ask myself if some of these books are adored because certain readers feel they should be. I enjoy many of them but some seem to me to be pushing boundaries for the sake of doing so, perhaps not necessarily a bad thing of course. Literature can benefit from a push in a new direction – as with Mike McCormack’s Solar Bones.

    1. And sometimes I enjoy a book simply because it is bold and different, purely for its style and nerve! But it does feel like some of these types of novels are becoming more widely appreciated nowadays, which is why I’m wondering if public reading tastes are changing.

  5. I’m ok with fragmentary structures as long as I feel they are serving a purpose and working towards some kind of cohesion. But I get the feeling some authors who adopt this approach are having more fun than their readers

  6. I feel like unconventional structures work wonders when they serve the plot. But sometimes I get the impression that authors just end up using them for the sake of being different and highbrow, which can be annoying.

  7. I’m very interested in these unusual book structures but I personally do find them more difficult to read because I don’t read experimental fiction in general. Which one did you like best?

    1. Lisa Owen’s Not Working is perhaps a good way to ease yourself into the genre (or lack of genre), because it is quite funny and easy to read. Personally, I liked Bluets and Flights best of the bunch.

  8. I am thrilled with the idea of experimental novels, but then when I am honest with myself, I really don’t enjoy them–in fact usually start them and never read to the end. Go back to my comfortable linear plots. Probably due to when I grew up and how tired I am when I can finally have an hour to read.

    Thank you, Marina, for your reviews–I am going to give those books a try. See if I can expand my consciousness.

    1. Well, I like crime novels and many of those follow a fairly predictable and conventional route, so there’s nothing wrong with liking linear plots. Experimentation is not a guarantee of literary quality, nor of entertainment!

  9. Yea, verily, this business of fractured narratives is a fraught one! I really liked G, and I thought his games with structure had a purpose (see but I thought Pond by Claire-Louise Bennett was a pitiful swamp. OTOH I know that I get bored by neat and tidy and totally predictable chronological plot-driven or emote-with-the-characters commercial fiction narrative. So I don’t know if I am merely being inconsistent or arbitrary, or if there is some bigger picture which would give coherence to my opinions.

    1. I sometimes wonder too why certain ones appeal and others don’t. I think it’s the purpose behind it, as you so rightly say: if I sense there is a reason for the experimentation (and not just in the writer’s head post-factum, when they have to justify their work at festivals), then I am more convinced. I too was rather taken by G.

  10. Really interesting post Marina Sofia. I’m open to an experimental style but it has to have substance underpinning it & lend something to the story. I’ve heard that English speaking publishers are more resistant to this type of narrative so maybe the trend will mean more opportunities for translated fiction that previously would have been resisted – here’s hoping!

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