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.
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.
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!