Saw a post on Tumblr the other day which expressed a pretty common sentiment, which is that writers should grasp the fundamentals of story, plot, sentences, etc–you know, the basics–before they try to do anything fancy. The idea is that you need to know the rules before you can break them. And that you can’t run before you can walk. And that Picasso knew how to paint a representation figure, he just chose not to, because he was dissatisfied with the form. Basically, you need to write some regular old Freytag’s triangle, beginning-middle-end, main-character-changing-over-time stories before you’re allowed to write a story that consists of a hundred jumbled-up sense-impressions gleaned from the trial transcripts of women who were hung for theft in 1540s England.
But I don’t really agree with any of that, because I think it buys into a false notion of mastery. There’s this idea that at some point you master how to tell basic stories, and then you can tell masterful stories. But that’s not true. You never master how to tell a basic story. In fact, you never master any part of writing. Mastering something implies that you can do it again and again, without flaws.
But that has nothing to do with writing interesting stories. If you’re doing something again and again, then you’re doing something that is, at its core, pretty uninteresting. It’s imitative (even if the person you’re imitating is yourself). Stories aren’t widgets. They’re not even musical performances. Each one is radically different from the last. And each one poses its own challenges.
Oftentimes, those challenges arise from the gaps in our own skill-set. I think the most innovative fiction comes from a sense of despair with the possibilities of fiction. For instance, Nathalie Sarraute never wrote a ‘standard’ novel with regular rising tension and beginnings and ends and all of that regular stuff, and I don’t believe there’s any evidence that she was capable of that. I don’t think that a person improves as an artist by producing work that they don’t care about “just for practice.” I believe that you always, from the beginning, have to be aiming at doing something that interests you. And some people just aren’t ever going to be able to interest themselves in the standard forms and models for fiction.
Now…do I believe that you should read all kinds of fiction? Obviously. But it’s silly to think that you need to write all kinds of fiction.
The thing I wonder about most with regards to this kind of advice is where it comes form? Does anyone have the sense that the problem with the American literary scene is too much experimentation and too much innovation and too much work with a difficult-to-grasp form or prose style?
No. To me that seems absurd. What’s the most difficult novel that’s become popular within the last twenty years? Maybe Infinite Jest? House of Leaves? 2666? I mean, more experimental things have certainly been written, but they haven’t proven particularly popular, and, as a result, they haven’t had a strong influence on the current generation of artists. To a large extent, people don’t even utilize the standard modernist tricks anymore. It’s not even that common nowadays to read an omniscient or a stream-of-consciousness novel, much less something that’s really weird. This is not exactly an age when writers are jumping over themselves to break new ground in terms of form or prose style. So what kind of misbehavior is being discouraged by the advice to walk before you can run?
It is a mystery!