Authorial Intrusion: Experiments

Most writers and artists share a common goal —they want the audience to connect with their work. Some also want to push the envelope.

I’m not talking about pushing personal boundaries. That deserves a whole post in itself. I’m talking about doing something new that expands the genre (steampunk, anyone?) or breaks new ground in form.

It’s important for writers to take these risks. It can broaden our scope and offer us more ways to achieve our common goal. I can imagine a small group of writers around the turn of the last century who decided to break from the omniscient pack to write their novels in third person limited or (gasp!) first person. The critics might have called them hacks and used the pages to line bird cages.

Between you and me, because we’re friends, I’ll tell you that I’ve realized there is a line between pushing the boundaries and being self-indulgent. Writers pretend to be magnanimous and call their stories “experimental,” but sometimes they’re just throwing things at the wall to see what sticks. The prose calls attention to itself.

I recently encountered a three-part essay about the phenomena of lightning strikes. It was formatted into angular bolts that swept across four pages. The essay might have been as interesting as the form, but I don’t know. I gave up after trying to move back and forth across the pages to track the continuation of a single sentence. At the end of the day, just let me connect with the story. Story is king.

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As Linda in Berlin would say, “Nein!”

And so I come to my recent read—Fates and Furies, by Lauren Groff. This novel received a lot (I mean a lot) of buzz. Critics were gushing. Even President Obama named it his favorite book of 2015. At its essence, Fates and Furies is about how a marriage evolves. He becomes the much admired playwright and she is the secret of his success. The novel is told in two parts: first from his perspective and then from hers. That, in itself is interesting. Sign me up. But then things cross that line.

There are omniscient sections and excerpts of plays within the novel and paragraphs that recap an entire decade, but the language was the biggest barrier in keeping me from connecting with the characters. I felt distanced from them. So distanced I didn’t care about them, nor did I like them much. It was a demanding read.

Fates and Furies

I always ask myself why. Why didn’t I connect? What elements were missing? In this case, it was the form. The narration is often fed to us in fractured, incomplete sentences. The staccato nature of the beats kept me at arm’s length. (Many critics loved this calling it “lyrical” and “an almost wizardly command of language” so I’m in the minority, I know.)

On a related note, heavy allusions covered everything from Sophocles to Shakespeare to King Arthur to Nabokov (who knows what else I missed) and sent me running to reference material. It left me exhausted. Instead of feeling like I was in on a cool secret, I felt like a nitwit.

Sometimes all of these “experiments” cause the plot to take a backseat. For me, the story alone would have held my attention, but it felt buried under piles of flashy bling.

Do you enjoy experimental fiction? Can experiments in form go too far?

Have a great weekend, everyone!  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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32 comments

  1. Great question, Jackie. I think sometimes writers and their writing are self-indulgent. In other words, they are more focused on bling and dazzle and care more about lyrical wizardry than connecting with the reader. In those situations, I often lose interest. It seems to me (perhaps naively) that it’s all about the story. It’s not about the writer. There! That’s my literary philosophy in a nutshell. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. We have a similar philosophy, Patti. I hope I didn’t sound too stodgy in my post. I think it’s good to push the envelope a bit and try new things, but not at the expense of the story. Is the writer incorporating this new element to give the reader a new way to connect with the characters? If not, I have to wonder if it’s worth keeping the “experiment.”

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      1. No, you didn’t sound stodgy. In some cases the experiment works, and in other cases, it doesn’t. I do give people credit for pushing the envelope, but they still can’t leave the story (and the reader) in the dust…so to speak. Have a great weekend. Enjoy your next book.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I give you mucho kudos for attempting experimental fiction; I’m in it for the story and can’t be bothered by all the work.

    When I hear tons of praise being heaped on avant garde prose or works of art by the intelligentsia, I can’t help vacillating between two very different reactions: “Boy, am I stupid.” and “Emperor’s new clothes.”

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  3. Sounds like you did better with this one than I did, Jackie! Gave up partway through. Fascinating the buzz some books get vs. books with beautiful prose and meaningful messages that go nowhere — why some get the hype and others lost in the shuffle. I could list many I’ve read that fit the latter, which is what motivated me to start my blog. It must be so frustrating for writers who have crafted beauties not to get the attention they deserve. Sometimes it boils down to big marketing bucks, but this novel got awards an, as you said, the attention of the President. Thanks for this post, as this is one novel I couldn’t figure out why all the praise.

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    1. I’m glad I wasn’t alone in feeling like this one was over-hyped. I really tried to connect with the characters and the story, but there were too many barriers for me. When I started researching the story of Tristan and Isolde, I knew I’d gone over the deep end.

      I’m glad your blog reviews lesser known books to give them a wider audience. I’ve found many a good read through your posts that I wouldn’t have discovered otherwise. Thank you for that!

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      1. I’m sure you’ll enjoy A WINDOW OPENS much more!

        I’ve just slogged through a 500 page book by a hugely bestselling author, due out soon, her second. I don’t want to malign it before it even comes out. All I can say is it was such a disappointment because the debut was charming and the author writes beautifully. It’s about 200 pages too long. Hard decision not to blog about it because the writing is exquisite but loaded with so many unnecessary, boring details one wonders about the editing. Can’t recommend something I think many people will find so so slow. Interestingly, some people on Goodreads agreed with me but many others loved it. Go figure! Have a great weekend, Lorraine

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      2. I understand what you mean. I think all the positive reviews for FATES AND FURIES are what kept me going. So many people loved the book. I figured that I would turn the corner soon. But i just couldn’t get past the barriers. Here’s to our next great reads! 🙂

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  4. The President may have liked it, but there are plenty of negative reviews out there too. It’s a little harder for me to enjoy a book with unlikable characters, unless the story is stellar. If the writing is affected, I’m outta there.

    The lightning book would have driven me insane! You’re to be commended for even picking it up. 🙂

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    1. I’m glad you had the same impression about the lightning essay. I was starting to go cross-eyed! Maybe this format would have worked with a poem, but for prose it was a challenge. Life is too short. 🙂

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    1. Agreed. I usually want the words to wash over me in such a way that I’m immersed in the world of the story. In those cases, the writer makes it seen effortless rather than difficult.

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  5. I haven’t read this one, Jackie. It’s kind of been hovering in the lower range of my awareness. Your assessment is as interesting as it is honest. Sometimes when a writer/reader I respect has beef with a novel I almost want to read it more, just to see what created the dislike. If for nothing else than to know what ‘not’ to do in my own writing.
    I know what you mean about experimental going too far. There’s a novel, I think its title is Leaves of Grass? Anyway, when I looked at the physical book it was printed all cattiwumpus like your article, and since I’d heard great things about the story I was so put off and disappointed. I mean, unless it’s going to reveal the Secret of Life, I just don’t have the time.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You know what was disappointed me most about Fates and Furies? The premise in itself is so interesting — the story of how a marriage evolves told from both perspectives. All of the “extras” were so unnecessary.

      But you’re right about it being a good learning moment. (I think it was Stephen King who said that you can learn as much from the novels you don’t like as from the novels you do like.) If you decide to read it, I’d love to know your thoughts. Maybe you’ll have a different take on it.

      And cattiwumpus is my favorite word of the day. 🙂

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  6. Sometimes “experimental” fiction works for me, and other times it doesn’t. I suppose the key is whether the extra effort is “worth it.” The first time I read The Sound and the Fury I found much of it maddening and almost incomprehensible. But I’ve since read it a couple of more times and greatly enjoy it. The effort was worth it. Last year I read Ulysses and found myself marveling at Joyce’s brilliant allusions and sidetracks, even though I could hardly follow the story at times. Later I read that much of what seemed to be “brilliance” were instead just things he made up–like a joke being played on the reader. I doubt I’ll ever return to that one.

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    1. Kudos for reading Ulysses! I’ve never been able to make it through to the end. I’ve signed up for an EdX online class to read The Dubliners. I’m hoping a group will help me stay on track.

      I marvel at how I can come back to a book years later and have a different relationship with it, as you did with The Sound and the Fury. Maybe that will happen for me with Fates and Furies.

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  7. I think there’s a line between art and nonsense, and the essay about lightning strikes where the prose is supposed to resemble lightning bolts falls into the latter category. As you know, I see far more theater and film than I read books. A Thai filmmaker named Apichatpong Weerasethakul (try saying that three times fast; his nickname is Joe) has made some of the most way out films I’ve seen in recent years. His latest, “Cementery of Splendour” (currently playing here in NYC), about soldiers struck with a strange sleeping sickness that we learn through a woman nursing one of the men afflicted is directly linked to some spirits (not the kinds you quaff but members of the spirit world) really intrigued Milton and me when we saw it last year at the New York Film Festival. I have concluded that in the hands of a truly talented artist, think about Picasso, what’s “out there” or experimental can actually be accessible. But I don’t think there are a lot of artists like Joe and Picasso out there. I think there are far more hacks making a hash out of how words are laid on the page.

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    1. I really think you hit the nail on the head. Experiments should still be accessible in order to expand our understanding of what is possible in that medium. Otherwise what purpose does it serve? Years ago I went to an exhibit at a modern art museum where the installation was two blue strings dangling from the ceiling. The information said that the artist was experimenting with form. I think I know how Milton would feel about that.

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  8. I had the same problem with ” Kitchens of the Great Midwest” I’m not a fan of multiple alternating views– I can’t get drawn into the story or characters. Leaves me feeling empty– character development was shallow to me. It wasn’t bad, I actually finished the novel but it left me wanting more and I was disappointed.

    The layout of those essays..Egads. How distracting.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It sounds like Kitchens of the Great Midwest left you wanting more, but not in a good way. I had a similar feeling when reading Fates and Furies.

      I notice a lot of novels have multiple alternating narrators. That seems to be a common trend in recent years. Do you look for novels that have just one narrator?

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      1. I don’t like alternate narrators. I don’t mind multiple characters in alternate chapters– but not too many. It detracts from developing a relationship with the story and characters. I think that’s why I didn’t like Kitchens. I didn’t get to know any of the characters– stories were all on the surface. I hated Gone Girl.

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  9. I’ve read her first novel and her short story collection. The novel was Ok, the stories were awesome. Now I will read Arcadia next. Those who have followed her from the beginning often say Fates and Furies is the weakest. For what it’s worth, I started it three times and put it away again. Often a sing. That said I used to read a lot of modernist writing but what is called experimental nowadays rarely does it for me.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I do feel a bit relieved to know that you had the same impression of Fates and Furies. You have great taste in books and I know that if you had trouble finishing this one, I’m in good company! 🙂
      I’ll give her short stories a try.

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  10. Excellent question, Jackie. I’ve read novels which are “writerly,” but don’t speak to me personally. Story drives the reader to keep flipping pages and ultimately leads to connecting with the characters. Fates and Furies is my book club’s pick this month – maybe I ought to convince them to reconsider.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I know we have similar taste in novels, Rudri. We both enjoy stories where we can connect with the characters.

      Please tell me if the readers in your book club enjoy Fates and Furies. I’ll be interested to know what you all think.

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  11. Interesting points are raised here. I love experimental fiction. Well, I *want* to love experimental fiction.

    There is a fine line between “experimental and amazing” and “experimental and snooze-worthy,” and I think many authors cross that line with gimmicks that don’t further the story or develop the characters in some way. I’ve been trying to carefully toe this line with my own story. [Hopefully I’m succeeding!]

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