Non-Traditional Narratives

I am working on a novel with a very traditional narrative structure, which has been an appropriate, necessary, and enjoyable challenge for me at this stage in my writing. It has been my experience that MFA programs and literary fiction education focus highly on narrative voice and character development, and so sometimes a writer just needs to learn how to tell a darn good story with an intriguing plot! Ironically, a friend recently told me about a novel she was working on and sent an article in the New Yorker about French filmmaker Céline Sciamma by Elif Batuman. What inspired her from the article was the idea of building tension in non-traditional ways in the narrative. This got me thinking about movies and books that have non-traditional narratives, and what I have observed in them. 

Writer Antonya Nelson has mentioned in workshop that she doesn’t always use a traditional narrative, choosing instead to build tension through contrasts and opposites. This is one way in which a writer might think about creating the necessary conflict in a work of fiction. Fragments are another device used in literature and film, or perhaps this is better described as vignettes. Susan Minot’s “Lust” comes to mind as an example of this, a story in which a young woman narrates her love life through boarding school through episodes of the boys she has dated. Naturally, a fragmented type of narrative would work well for literature that deals with trauma and any kind of memory fragmentation. That is, the form reflects the content. However, this is something that takes a great deal of skill, because too many (new?) writers attempt this and the reader has nothing to follow or latch onto, no thread to connect the fragments. As a tangent, I would also say that this is also a problem with a lot of modern atonal music in particular: the listener has no continuity to grab onto.

Novels-in-stories, in a sense, I could argue are not traditional narratives. We may not get the through line of one character through the whole novel, certain scenes may be omitted, and there may not necessarily be connections between the stories. Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop is an example of this (see my earlier post about this novel at https://wordpress.com/post/thewomenofletters.com/404). Cather has accomplished this successfully, as has Elizabeth Strout in Olive Kitteridge. Both works succeed because there is enough connection through title characters, setting, community, and themes.

With film, there is much more leeway for non-traditional narratives because the visual element can connect many things cognitively for the viewer. A lot of independent films eschew traditional Hollywood formulaic plots for nontraditional narratives. Recently I saw a Swiss film called “My Wonderful Wanda” (“Wanda, Mein Wunder”) of Polish caregiver and the Swiss family she works for, which is tripartite in structure, with each part addressing a different issue, but it is still a fairly traditional narrative based on a key conflict and the setting of the house on the lake. My favorite example is the stunning, visual poetry of Wim Wenders’s “Wings of Desire” (“Der Himmel über Berlin) which features different characters in swirling around in different situations in Berlin, with a loose narrative about an angel who wants to become mortal. There is an occasional voiceover from that angel, which leads me to another point: a narrator can also help tie disparate elements together. We see this in film, theater (think about ancient Greek plays and the choruses) and even occasionally in literature. And a common setting or place also allows for more freedom in the narrative.

One final point that is very important to touch on (though it requires a whole post) is that many BIPOC and non-Western/non-canonical writers embrace non-traditional narrative forms, things that have been often erroneously criticized by Western readers and critics. This often reflects a lack of understanding of literatures from different countries/cultures, and a lack of knowledge about linguistics and different languages. It can, however, be a difficult line to tread when a writer’s work is simply unclear, but the reader needs to be aware of the cultural context. This issue is one of the current topics for debate in modern fiction, and one for which there are multiple responses and perspectives.

This post is by no means comprehensive and only scratches the surface of a topic that is so rich and diverse. However, it is meant to get readers thinking a little bit about the question of the narrative, and if it always has to be predictable.

Novels versus Stories: A Personal Reflection

Last July, I completed the first draft of my first novel ever. It was my third attempt at a novel, the first being when I was a senior in high school, writing 120 some handwritten pages. The second was a decade or so later, and that novel became unwieldy, at 400 some pages, and not even one third of the way through. It was at that point I realized that I needed to back up and understand how to write shorter forms to simply accomplish the goal of completion. I always knew I wanted to be a longform writer, I was always interested in novels rather than stories, but I had to be able to see the arc of a work of fiction and put it on paper. It was indeed a struggle. How does one create the architecture for a work of fiction? I had a lot of impulses, but what I lacked was technique. I had very little understanding of craft and how there were certain “tricks” to understand the underpinnings of fiction.

Certain things I grasped intuitively through writing; there are other things about stories that I still am trying to understand, years later. What a story needs is very different than what a novel needs: the structure and plot need to be tighter, everything has to be accomplished with an economy of words and space, there can be very little that is extraneous and we need to feel the arc very palpably, see the transformation of the character. It is interesting to study short stories and their writers (something which I have done quite a lot over the past decade, in my MFA program and in a short story discussion group), for the short story is not a monolithic entity. I, very oddly, I’m not a fan of the much-lauded Alice Munro, for I find her jumps in time to be rather jarring and disturbing. However, George Saunders’s omissions work, because they leave out information that is implied and that we can piece together. I feel that Jhumpa Lahiri’s shorter short stories are generally much stronger than her longer short stories, as the latter feel a bit meandering and padded. Anthony Doerr does wonderful work with showing the passage of time, writing clearly structured stories that still hold a lot of emotion. And finally, one of my absolute favorite stories is Sherman Alexie’s “What You Pawn, I Will Redeem” which practically uses standup comedy to address serious issues that Native Americans face.

And what of novels? Why do I prefer them to stories?

To me, a novel is something soothing and complete. It is its own entity in a book, something you hold in your hand, a complete oeuvre from cover to cover. We talk about the accomplishment of “writing a book,” meaning a novel. A novel has the legroom, so to speak, the extra space to develop all the themes and thoughts and ideas we have as writers. I liken it to a Boeing 767 or Airbus 380 that needs a long runway to take off: it is a large aircraft and it needs it space to launch and to carry the passengers to a far off destination, covering a wide swath of time and distance. A short story is like a small Embraer jet that can maneuver small runways and take you where you need to go quickly and efficiently. I like the expansive nature of a novel, the way it can take us on a character’s journey (or multiple characters’ journeys). We can savor the prose, follow the various threads introduced by the writer, study the plots and subplots. We might even marvel at a slightly atypical structure–perhaps the novel is not written in traditional chapters, or the chapters are irregular, or it is fashioned into different sections.

19th-century writers such as Dickens and Tolstoy wrote their novels in serial fashion, with regular “episodes” that accomplished weekly or periodic entertainment for the reader. Therefore, their novels tend to be more conventionally structured, chapters more even in length. As novels became more and more available as their own printed form, the form naturally expanded and took on new shapes. Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop was a novel in stories (see the earlier post https://thewomenofletters.com/2019/12/16/in-defense-of-the-novel-in-stories-cathers-death-comes-for-the-archbishop/). The nature of prose also expanded, and over the decades in the 20th century we got writers as diverse as Hemingway, Kerouac, and Morrison. The phenomenon of metafiction arose, although one could argue that Laurence Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey was proto-metafiction, and also magical realism.

Today, we have a multitude of forms, styles, writers, backgrounds, and this makes the entity of the novel all the richer and more fascinating. And still, the pleasure of sitting down with a book that takes us on a literary journey from start to finish is incomparable. We have a human need to connect with a character, a family, a story line. Satisfying this need is a great challenge as a writer, for figuring out the architecture, so to speak, the structure and plot and sustaining it over hundreds of pages, is quite a task. I had the great fortune to ask Joyce Carol Oates after a Zoom interview how she managed the challenge of structure over an 800-page novel, and her answer was simply that the story had to be told, the characters’ stories needed that much space. Easier said than done for mortals like me compared to a literary titan! 

There is also the question of when to pause and shift gears from one character to another, one plot line to another, etc. This affects where we put in breaks either in the form of chapters or sections. Another challenge while writing a novel is not being redundant. We need to fill space, we need to expand the histories and backstories and details, but how much is too much? Have we repeated ourselves? Are the details we are presenting the reader necessary, or boring? And what about the themes and the basic idea of the story: is it interesting enough to engage a reader over multiple pages? Agents will often tell writers that the key to a successful query is to make the agent want to read past the first page.

Have things been resolved by the end of the novel? Have the loose threads come together, or are there aspects that leave the reader hanging? Is the novel put together in a way that feels cohesive? I recently read a novel by a Nobel laureate that felt like a draft: it completely lacked backstory, skimmed the surface of the story by focusing heavily on dialogue, and felt too long, like it should have been a novella. The novel clearly needed to be edited. This is proof that even the best writers struggle with the challenge of the novel, and that their output will vary from book to book. In a back-of-the-magazine interview in Vanity Fair, the interviewer said to Roth that surely, he must know he can write a novel by now. Roth’s answer was an emphatic no, that he couldn’t write all novels, only this one, the current novel he was working on at the time. 

I am still learning much about technique and craft when it comes to the novel, and I hope it will inform me in my revisions and subsequent works. Despite all the challenges, I still feel like it is a worthy and absolutely gripping pursuit to be a novelist. There are few greater thrills!

Celebrating 8 Years!!

Celebrating 8 Years!!

When I started this blog eight years ago, I had no idea what it could become and how much it would nurture and support me. It’s been a wonderful journey through literature, art, politics, social issues, interviews, and anything and everything to do with creativity. During this time, I have grown as an opera singer and developed a writing career, finished two book manuscripts, and completed an MFA. This blog has been there for me during some very very difficult times, which is a testament to the healing power of art. 

In my first post on September 30, 2012, I paid tribute to my favorite American author, Willa Cather, the Grande Dame of American letters. It only seems fitting to pay tribute to her through a quote from The Song of the Lark, in which she describes the heroine’s artistic awakening in her soul after seeing the Chicago Symphony perform. The heroine, Thea, realizes this inner light is so powerful and yet so fragile, and she is afraid that it could be taken from heron her crowded journey home. Cather writes, 

“They might trample her to death, but they should never have it. As long as she lived that ecstasy was going to be hers. She would live for it, work for it, die for it; but she was going to have it, time after time, height after height. She could hear the crash of the orchestra again, and she rose on the brasses. she would have it, what the trumpets were singing! She would have it, have it–it!

This breathlessly passionate scene in the novel was what propelled me forward and led me to where I am today. I can only recommend that everyone find what magnificently inspires them, that ecstasy that drives you forward and can’t be taken away. 

Thank you, Willa, Lev, William, Oscar, Wolfgang, Giuseppe, Antonín, Jan, Niccolò, and all the countless artists of all media, dead or alive, who have magnificently inspired me!

In Defense of the Novel in Stories: Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop

An agent recently turned down my manuscript as she wasn’t a fan of the novel in stories. My manuscript is not really a novel in stories, but a collection of long stories and novellas that are linked through place, à la Olive Kitteridge. And frankly, I am not really a fan of the novel in stories, nor do I read so many story collections either; I prefer through-composed novels and have always wanted to be a novelist. However, her comment really got me thinking about this form. I recently read Willa Cather’s brilliant Death Comes for the Archbishop, a book I have always wanted to read as Cather is one of my favorite authors. I also really happened to like Olive Kitteridge, which to me created its own unique world, à la Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon, a close-knit community with quirky characters and their own histories. So is the novel in stories worth a second look?

I had expected Death Comes for the Archbishop to be a true novel, as that is what it is generally billed as. Cather is renowned as a novelist, though she has written quite a few stories such as the famous “Paul’s Case” that many youngsters read in high school. And indeed, there are some features of the book that are indicative of it being a novel: we can see the character arcs, especially that of Father Jean Marie Latour, whose lifespan is covered through the book up until his death. There is also skillfully placed back story about Latour’s life, and also the history of his friendship with his fellow missionary, Father Joseph Vaillant. The lives of the two men constantly come together and intertwine and then separate as they travel throughout the Southwest and elsewhere in order to minister to their flock, so to speak. The book takes place in New Mexico, which is not yet a state but a territory, and it is still largely out of contact with the American government. It is still the land of the Mexicans and Native Americans, and we see these cultures and their histories and tensions woven throughout the novel. But why is it a novel in stories?

Death Comes for the Archbishop is broken into nine sections, preceded by a prologue each of the sections contains several chapters. Each section could, arguably, be read on its own, it stands on its own. New characters are introduced in each section, and some of them do not reappear elsewhere. There is a very frequent use of the story within a story technique, which allows us to get a deeper portrait of the people and cultures in the region that existed before Father Latour arrived. One could say the book is really a series of vignettes that are connected through the fathers. In order to present the diversity of the different areas and regions to which Father Latour ministers, Cather has provided us snapshots of these places. We get to know the key characters of each area, who is most important, the key stories and histories of place, and Father Latour’s impressions. Given that the novel is based on/modeled after the story of two priests, Father Jean-Baptiste Lamy and Father Joseph Projectus Machebeuf and their time spent as clergy in the Southwest, we can see that Cather wants to give the reader glimpses into the different places and events in their lives. It is almost as though she is fleshing out a diary and transforming it into fiction.

What is most spectacular about the novel is Cather’s descriptions of landscapes and settings. There are lines that are simply breathtaking, such as, “The full moon, hidden by veils of cloud, through a pale phosphorescent luminousness over the heavens, and the towers of the church stood up black against this silvery fleece,” or, “These cloud formations seemed to be always there, however hot and blue the sky flat terraces, ledges of vapour; sometimes they were dome-shaped, or fantastic, like the tops of silvery pagodas…” Notice the juxtapositions of religious imagery with landscape in these two examples, though most often, the descriptions are simply that of nature.

Of course, there is the issue of Cather writing about Native Americans and Mexicans as a white woman. In my opinion, Cather does so with great dignity and respect given the time period. We cannot expect her to conform to 21st-century discourse about race and culture. Remember, this is not a book about Cather’s sensibilities; everything we see in the book is filtered through the lens of the French missionaries, so naturally, that will inherently have a European bias. However, Cather is careful to show the complexities of the social interactions between the French missionaries and the Native Americans and the Mexicans. Father Latour finds much to admire in the various native populations, is good friends with quite a few of the Mexicans. What is more problematic is simply the issue of missionaries and conversion. What we see through the novel as 21st century readers, especially those of us who are colonials by heritage, is how fundamentally disturbing the idea of converting people to Christianity is. This is coupled with politics and power, and it is a deep part of American history that we do not learn much about. There is much discussion, and rightly so, about Blacks and slavery. But we also need to discuss America’s Spanish and French colonial history, as that shaped much of the West and South as well as parts of the Midwest.

Cather is not proselytizing by any means. Rather, she is giving us a portrait of a man who was on a mission, a man of deep Catholic faith, and his struggles and travails as a cleric in a large territory. It is a rather odd choice of subject and protagonist for an author who wrote such strong female characters who were very often the protagonists, and was open to immigrants of many different cultures. In The Song of the Lark (my favorite book of all time), Cather writes with great affection and respect for the Mexicans who affirm and support Thea Kronborg’s musical gifts. One of the strengths of Willa Cather is that she was able to write about so many different kinds of people in so many places and do it so convincingly. Perhaps it was her deep well of empathy allowed her to do so, for in all of her books, we feel that she really cared about her characters and wanted to share their stories with us. Never sentimental (Cather hated sentimentality), she is one who writes from the heart and with great heart.

In any case, Death Comes for the Archbishop is a stunning gem that gives us a glimpse into another place and time. It may take a little while to get into the book. But once in it, the book transports us into another magical world that we may have never known, or have forgotten.

Willa Cather: The Grande Dame of American Letters

My inaugural post is a tribute to my favorite American writer, Willa Cather.  To me, she is the Grande Dame of American letters, highly underrated and much-ignored.  We scarcely find her works read or discussed in academia, her novels have still not claimed her rightful place in the academic canon.  Why not?  She is incredibly intelligent, and, like Tolstoy, very sympathetic, warm, and caring for her characters.  There are some writers in whom the reader can immediately sense an element of misanthropy; this is not the case with Cather, who takes a tender view of the individuals who populate her books.  She knows all the great classics of the Western canon, is highly literary (just look at the numerous cultural references throughout The Song of the Lark), and very cultured.  Despite all her knowledge of European high culture, her writings reflect a uniquely American sensibility, for Cather is careful to distinguish between the Old World and the New, and is able to recognize what the latter can offer—-the strength of America’s people, who are all virtually immigrants.  Her aesthetic eye is strong; she has a keen sense of beauty, an appreciation of the finer things in life.  There is always a tension in Cather’s lead characters, because they seem to embody the Oscar Wilde quote that “All of us are lying in the gutter, but some of us are looking up at the stars”; they are aspiring to something better than what their circumstances can provide.  Cather’s writings frequently use an omniscient narrator, one who is worldly, gracious, and wise.  Like Tolstoy, she is a social critic, for she sees the follies of humanity, the petty sides of human nature, but yet tries to find something beautiful in human nature that is beyond that, something bigger in life.  There is always a touch of humor in her works.  Cather is like a wise, old, kindly aunt, who, after years of experience, is gently recounting her tales for you.  Or, perhaps, she is more like a seasoned, old professor whose vast erudition keeps the listener spellbound at her feet for hours.  Her compassion, wisdom, culture, humanity—-these are the qualities that make Cather such a joy to read.