Tuesday, February 22, 2011

7 Things I Want From Novels

Recently T.S. Bazelli put together a list of the things she’d like to read in a novel. Some of her points were appealing (“Magic with serious consequences.”), but I was left wondering just what mine would be. We should keep such inventories as readers so we can acknowledge the writers who take such risks, and as writers so that we can attempt to fulfill them if no one else will. So here's my current tally. I focused on things I don't see often enough. The tally is incomplete. I guess it will remain incomplete until I die. Somebody remind me to do a draft on my deathbed.

1. Humor at its own expense. Not sarcastic, not wry or counter-cultural, not essentially “meta” or any other postmodernism that allows people to avoid direct feeling. Preposterous humor that exposes and cherishes quirks. This culture has an excess of humor that can only make me nod in concession that the writer was somehow clever. It's so plentiful I now read it as dead inside. I want you to actually make me laugh. Douglas Adams, Gail Simone, Stephen Fry, Jeff Smith and Mary Roach have all pulled this off, so I know it's possible.

2. Main characters that form a strong artificial family. They've elected to care for each other, tease and torment, stick up for each other, even support to irrational degrees. Think Lupin, Jigen and Goemon. Think Aragon, Legolas and Gimli. Hell, “A priest, a rabbi and a minister walk into a…” is one of the most boldly diverse casts in literature. Whether we watch them meet and develop together like the ka-tet of The Dark Tower, or they simply seem to have always co-existed like the surgery team from M*A*S*H, I will follow you anywhere for those clusters of people that just go together.

Poster art from Lupin the 3rd: Castle of Cagliostro. How we got an anime franchise out of a series of dimestore French novels, I don't know.

3. People possessing supposedly deviant characteristics who are not defined by those characteristics. I'd be much more interested in a gay character that was defined by his love of collecting Russian nesting dolls than by his sexuality.

4. Sex other than fucking. Fucking is not only tasteless, bland, and more base than sentimentality while managing to lack the soul – it’s also played out to the point of eye-rolling cliché. It doesn't even essentially bond characters anymore. It's both masturbatory and only good for masturbation. If you're going to write sex, have characters getting it wrong, being vulnerable, confused or cracking up laughing. Give me something distinct, something personal rather than prurient. I’m thinking of James Clavell’s hilarious all-dialogue sex, or Stephen King’s teens who don’t understand why it’s nothing like media led them to expect, or Ethan Coen comparing it to having your genitalia stuck in a paint mixer (“for the full quarter hour”). Or you could not have it at all. When it doubt, don't have it at all.

5. Absurd characters who relish in their own absurdity. One of my favorite character traits is that of Marvel’s Bullseye, a supervillain who wears a ridiculous costume because he actually loves the garish fashion. While few of us are that way (or have the guts to buy the wardrobe), most of us have our own absurdities. The state of satire has left many of us thinking the height of creativity is pointing out someone else's flaws, sheltering and reinforcing our own habits of being. The dubiously mature take on this in literature is to reveal the deep desire in some Gatsby-esque tragedy. Well folks, Jay Gatsby is dead. Give me characters who live their personal absurdities.

"It's perfect," he says, not comforting his tailor at all. Art by Steve Dillon, an interior from Bullseye: Greatest Hits.

6. Characters who survive and have to deal with circumstances. Death is often a cop-out from consequence. One of the best books I've read in recent years is Shirley Jackson's We Have Always Lived in the Castle, which is all about living through the damages of tragedy. The survivors come out of it monumentally messed up, leaving it far more interesting than if they'd all simply died in tragedy. I cut slack for works that truly earned the punch, like Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, but these are the exceptions. The best fiction can offer us ways out of deep depression and hardship. Mediocre fiction can at least be more interesting than “He was sad, and sadder, and even sadder, and then he died."

7. Take me into another view. I don’t need to agree with their morals, religion or actions. In fact, it’s better if I don’t. Humbert Humbert and Hannibal Lecter are not people I'd want to be around. They are fascinating on the page. Characters can exceed being mouthpieces or pawns for an agenda. If I even suspect you're trying to convert me you've already lost. I'll turn against you and rip apart your novel with a critical acumen I've been building for years. Most readers can do the same. I'm not asking for propaganda. What I love are those characters so broad in scope that they are twisted within things I'd never accept personally, and which I can sympathize with on some level. Plenty of the best Horror operates using such literary sympathy. I have a sense of smell, was raised by both of my parents and have never come close to an obsession that would lead me to kill, but I am left feeling deeply for Grenouille in Patrick Suskind's Perfume. That's success.


  1. Regarding #4; actually, that seems to be true of reality, too.

    Your post was timely. I was actually trying to figure out what I needed to do to be a "good" writer again. Thanks!

  2. Your first point, humour, is bang on. So few things actually make me laugh out loud anymore. (Some of your stories do, by the way.) Movies almost never make me laugh - especially the ones labelled as comedies. They're usually the worst - so much so I almost never rent them. Stories/books, on the other hand, are more likely to elicit a laugh; probably because my own imagination plays some part in the process; and probably because the author can somehow sneak up on me for a big laugh a little easier than movies can. All your points are excellent. I love the way you think about such things.

  3. #6 is one I think is important. I've read a lot of books (and seen movies) where the hero's go through hell and never seem to be mentally transformed by the horrors they've seen. Then there's the stories where the heroes are so scarred that they die/sacrifice themselves because they could never live with what they've done.

    I prefer reading about broken people trying to make sense out of their lives, despite how monumental the task may be.

    Oh, but I'd also really want to read a story about an obsessed collector of Russian nesting dolls. :D

  4. Love your list, John. I recently read a novel with original humor in it, The Cowboy and the Vampire, and was refreshed at how nice it was to laugh while reading again!

    You've included some helpful opinions here, thanks.

  5. an idiosyncratic list to be sure, though I was drawn to number 3. The point about bumping off your characters I view from a slightly different angle - if they don't die, I don't want them being redeemed at the last moment either. This seems to be fiction's ultimate hubris. We don't really change all that much, we don't learn emotionally all that much either, character arcs are completely artificial superimpositions. I like stuck characters, characters going around in the same grooves, with a tweak here, a tweak there, a possibly lunge for a breakthrough/out, but not thwarted. Kafka is a master of this.

  6. Particularly appreciate these detailed responses. If I provoked, then you've been good enough to be provoked thoughtfully. If I may respond to some of the points:

    About #4, it is a little scary how much the "Sex Vs. Fucking" problem exists beyond fiction. Can't argue that. Negativevacuum, are you working on your own wishlist to fulfill in fiction now?

    Cathy hits me with the high flattery of suggesting I actually get her to laugh. Comedy that's too busy with something else to be funny is a big gripe of mine, though like everything it can be done well. I think there must be at least seven novels out there that break individually break all seven of my demandments here, and do it well. It's funny your point about film humor, because in the last two years it does seem like television and film have made me laugh more frequently than prose. It may be some of my literary reading predilections, but many writers seem to be at odds with humor, or see it as a tool in some sort of service to greater things that aren't really greater at all.

    To Erin, I'm at least relieved that a novel about cowboys and vampires is funny.

    TS and Mr. Nash approach #6. I don't believe that redemption is fiction's ultimate hubris. A character seeking redemption, even if it's achieved in a moment, has more meaningful impact on average than dying. Dying is the end, the termination. We have romantic archetypes for the individual seeking redemption, or the Christ-like redemption in death. The person who is redeemed and must lead the life afterwards is most appealing, out of context. Particularly killing the character rather than giving them the redemption they sought feels both lazy for composition and cruel to the fictional world over which you're the deity.

  7. I didn't mean to say it's an either or. Death is a cop out to. But redemption is an outmoded concept in both fiction & real life IMhO. Do we still need beginnings, middle & ends. Do we still need stories as we've understood them up till now? But these are questions for other forums.

    I meant to say i agree with you about the sex stuff. In UK we have annual award for bad sex writing in literature and some pretty heavyweight authors end up winning.

    Are you saying all novels should be comedic?

  8. Humor is important to me, too, the kind that makes you laugh, not the kind that makes you cringe.

    Strong main characters, yes. Odd character traits which contribute to, but which don't solely define a character, yes. Good sex, yes.

    Absurd characters who relish in their own absurdity? Hmmm. Not sure I've ever written an absurd character. They all take themselves way, way too seriously for that.

    "Characters who survive and have to deal with circumstances." Heh, my 13-C from Simple Geometry is like that. He might even qualify for your #7 criteria, come to think of it.

    All in all, an excellent list, John. Well stated.

  9. I hope I didn't give the impression that all books had to conform to all things on the list. Suskind's Perfume, which I mention at the end, is a heck of a book and has pretty much no humor, no family or artificial family dynamic, and Grenouille is both defined to a degree by his deviant characteristics and dies in the end. All books do not need to be comedic - but I do desire more books that have vibrant humor.

    I don't necessarily think beginnings, middles and ends are outmoded at this point - but I also don't think all stories need to be as they are up until now, and that many Genre-Genre writers are making decent attempts to deviate from conventions of Genre while maintaining the trappings they love.

    The beginning-middle-end convention can be used poorly. However, each physical book begins and ends. Structurally disregarding that there are constraints and that the human mind shapes events is the sort of thing I could only support for an individual's experiment, not a wave of literature. Postmodernism has tried to break these molds, but most of the products have been simply substandard stories that suffer for the deviation. The Genre-Genre writing that takes the trappings of a genre but doesn't follow its mold is healthier, though these writers still tend to have the essential sense of progression.

    Similarly, I don't think redemption is necessarily outmoded. It can be a very compelling motivation, and in real life plenty of people transgress and ought to seek to make amends or improve. Imagine George W. Bush trying to redeem himself for the evils of his presidency. That'd be not only a daunting task, but a maddeningly interesting archetype to follow for a novel. I agree that redemption can be rubbish, just like bumping off a character. I'd be much more inclined to the story of the character who gets redemption, and then has to live on upholding what earned it. To go to film, Gone Baby Gone has a harsh ending about the consequences of winning, doing right and potentially redeeming oneself, with long term implications beyond the credits.

  10. You have a fantastic list there, John. I would not dare doing one myself, or I'd risk having the longer blog post in history, heh.

    Although I relate to all your list, I found particularly interesting your comment about sex, and the idea of a gay man that is identified not by his sexuality, but by another trait of character.

    I'll have to come back here when I need some writing inspiration. Excellent post!

  11. Dear God do I agree with #3. I've been saying that for ages. Maybe I should finally write something to make it happen... it drives me insane how ham-fisted the inclusion of most unusual characters is treated. I can vividly picture the writer going, "Check out this gay character. God damn, my fiction is modern and diverse. Look how gay he is! All right. High-five, self!" UGH.

  12. Regarding #3, I mentioned gay characters because they do seem to get it the worst. You could argue that transgender, Hindu and other minorities have it the worst based on receiving almost no inclusion, but of the token "deviant" groups this one gets overplayed and insultingly reduced the most often. Fiction always simplifies, but sheesh, anybody is more than just what group they're sexually attracted to.

    Mari, you found #3 and #4 interesting. Was the common sexual denominator what sparked interest between the two, or were they interesting independently?

    Thanks again everyone for the thoughtful replies.

  13. Much to think about here, John. I like this list.
    In Don't Fall Asleep, I have a gay character but his role has nothing to do with that.
    When you mentioned characters personal absurdities I thought of Jayne (Firefly), a cold mercenary, sitting at the dinner table using a dental pick to clean his teeth. That always struck me as funny. :)

  14. I think the sex being a common denominator between the two items that called my attention is a mere coincidence. It probably happened because you used the gay man example for #3?

    Either way, sexuality and the act of doing sex is still a difficult matter to affront, and I like when the writer does so in a skillful manner and doesn't fall into (unnecessary) vulgarities.

    I do like controversy. Maybe that's another reason why the topics called my attention. ;)

  15. #4: When I read 'Women' by Bukowski (sorry, Ant) it seemed to be one account of fucking after another. I lent it to a male friend to see if he would see it differently and he said the same thing.

    #5: I particularly like this one. I just read 'Homer & Langley' by E.L. Doctorow and it takes this to a novel place (no pun intended). I found this true in many of Anne Tyler's early works including Accidental Tourist.

    #1: The first writer that came to mind was Hiaissen's 'Tourist Season' which is filled with humor but also has a theme and good plot line. I think it was his first novel. If not, it was his first successful one.

    Good list. I also know what you mean about gays. We are so attached to stereotypes that the emphasis is so strong on what is perceived as gay characteristics that the character itself has no substance. This has been prevalent in TV shows lately, including Glee which I watched for the first time lasst night.

  16. Amen on this list, and especially on point #4. I have an acquaintance who writes erotica and apparently in that universe, everyone is perfect in the bedroom. There is no heart or emotion, just perfectly detailed animal actions that always leave me feeling cold.

    Another thing I'd like to see in novels, is failure. How many books have I read where a character will try some impossible feat for the first time and do it perfectly? It would be great to see them fail and maybe not even be able to do it, but find another way to accomplish said impossible act.

    I also hate it when authors tie everything up in a neat little bow as if some life-changing experience can just be made perfect by finding romance or something else. That's not how it works and it's boring to repeatedly read in stories.

    OK off my soapbox.

  17. Rachel touched off an important ingredient to drama. I didn't even think to include failure because it's so fundamental. And there are a lot of crap uses of failure, deflating drama or dashing hopes. But essential shortcomings and failures, like having someone get it wrong on the first try to demonstrate difficulty, is crucial. No magical act seems difficult if everybody can do it immediately.

    To Mari, sex is an easy ingredient for controversy. Can't fight that (yet, anyway). There was a time when sex in literature was tough. But post-Mailer, Vidal, etc., it's largely annoying. That's why I credit the very few writers who have any original or worthwhile uses for it. That flows over into Susan's comment about Bukowski, who I think Anthony would straight-up concede had a prurient streak. That's more up Ant's alley than mine.

    Also thank you to Susan for adding a few more books to my potential check-out list. Haven't read any Anne Tyler.

  18. I can understand why you would want humor - however minuscule, but I don't think it's a good idea to approach a work with a list of specific requirements. I suspect, from some of your comments, that you would welcome a novel that delightfully subverted your expectations. I might even say that would be the kind of novel I admired most. I don't need someone to give me what I already know.

    I agree with Marc, the beginning, middle end structure is overrated and done to death. There are more ways to pattern experience than to fall into the old tired illusion of a linear trajectory to events.

    I'd be curious to see your list of "postmodern" novels.

  19. The point about approaching fiction with prescriptive lists is totally fair, Mark. I don't intend to approach (and never have approached) a book with this or another list of qualities it must fork over in order to get me to read on. And you're also correct in assuming I'd read something that went the opposite way. The list represents the things I consciously wish there were more of.


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