Books

Put the book back on the shelf

Everyone has a novel in them, they say. That particular idiom doesn’t make any judgement on whether it’s a good novel people contain. If you have ever dabbled in fiction writing, you’ll know how much harder it is than you could have ever expected. Great writers make it seem so natural and effortless. How could we anticipate the hard slog, lack of inspiration and ease with which we slip into cliché and banality? Think about how a good idea suddenly seems thin and flimsy the moment you try and write a chapter on it.

It’s not surprising that many people’s early (and later) efforts at writing are terrible in one way or another. “How Not To Write A Novel”, a new book by Howard Mittelmark and Sandra Newman, is something of a prescription for bad writers, setting out “200 Classic Mistakes and How to Avoid Them”. From the Guardian’s review, it sounds clever and insightful:

It will have a ludicrous plot, of course, or none. It will have characters who are unbelievable or extremely tiresome, or both. It will be studded with clichés and riddled with the author's prejudices. Newman and Mittelmark make up typical examples of dreadful prose, often so accurately that even the vainest are likely to recognise their own howlers and lapses of taste.

Naturally, this is going to be hard medicine for most of us to take. Such a brutal assessment is pretty confidence-destroying at the outset. Should this book have really been titled How To Not Write A Novel? Is there any point writing at all?

If you have any pride in your writing, you might get a little defensive. Aren’t your efforts at least as good as the appalling dog turds that adorn bookstore shelves everywhere? Think of all the risibly bad books that make it past the publishers for a variety of reasons -- celebrity authorship, easy categorisation, general trendiness. Let’s face it, though. You and I are not celebrities and no self-respecting publisher is going to take a chance on a self-indulgent, badly-constructed debut novel. You need to write something good.

There is a point, however, when it all becomes a matter of personal taste. What Newman and Mittelmark consider inessential digression may be another reader’s climactic scene. We’ve witnessed this before, in countless works on what novels are supposed to be like.

James Wood, acerbic critic par excellence, recently published “How Fiction Works”. It’s full of Wood’s own unique prose style and fuelled with his intense literary passion. It’s also heavily biased towards Wood’s own preferences and tastes -- in particular a love of description and characterisation over plot and story. As Louis Bayard in Salon points out, characterisation and description alone do not great novels make. Even the most sublime writer needs a plot or story to give the words purpose and shape. In the end, we’re free to regard or disregard Wood’s (or any other critic’s) opinion at will.

There’s undoubtedly a lot to be learnt by reading about novel construction and learning some basic dos and don’ts. But in the end, you’ve just got to chance it that someone else is going to like what you do.

Music


Books


Film


Television


Recent
Music

The 10 Best Experimental Albums of 2015

Music of all kinds are tending toward a consciously experimental direction. Maybe we’re finally getting through to them.

Books

John Lewis, C.T. Vivian, and Their Fellow Freedom Riders Are Celebrated in 'Breach of Peace'

John Lewis and C.T. Vivian were titans of the Civil Rights struggle, but they are far from alone in fighting for change. Eric Etheridge's masterful then-and-now project, Breach of Peace, tells the stories of many of the Freedom Riders.

Music

Unwed Sailor's Johnathon Ford Discusses Their New Album and 20 Years of Music

Johnathon Ford has overseen Unwed Sailor for more than 20 years. The veteran musician shows no sign of letting up with the latest opus, Look Alive.

Jedd Beaudoin
Music

Jazz Trombonist Nick Finzer Creates a 'Cast of Characters'

Jazz trombonist Nick Finzer shines with his compositions on this mainstream jazz sextet release, Cast of Characters.

Music

Datura4 Travel Blues-Rock Roads on 'West Coast Highway Cosmic'

Australian rockers Datura4 take inspiration from the never-ending coastal landscape of their home country to deliver a well-grounded album between blues, hard rock, and psychedelia.

Books

Murder Is Most Factorial in 'Eighth Detective'

Mathematician Alex Pavesi's debut novel, The Eighth Detective, posits mathematical rules defining 'detective fiction'.

Music

Eyedress Sets Emotions Against Shoegaze Backdrops on 'Let's Skip to the Wedding'

Eyedress' Let's Skip to the Wedding is a jaggedly dreamy assemblage of sounds that's both temporally compact and imaginatively expansive, all wrapped in vintage shoegaze ephemera.

Film

Of Purges and Prescience: On David France's LGBTQ Documentary, 'Welcome to Chechnya'

The ongoing persecution of LGBTQ individuals in Chechnya, or anywhere in the world, should come as no surprise, or "amazement". It's a motif undergirding the history of civil society that certain people will always be identified for extermination.

Television

Padma Lakshmi's 'Taste the Nation' Questions What, Exactly, Is American Food

Can food alone undo centuries of anti-immigrant policies that are ingrained in the fabric of the American nation? Padma Lakshmi's Taste the Nation certainly tries.

Film

Performing Race in James Whale's 'Show Boat'

There's a song performed in James Whale's musical, Show Boat, wherein race is revealed as a set of variegated and contradictory performances, signals to others, a manner of being seen and a manner of remaining hidden, and it isn't "Old Man River".

Music

The Greyboy Allstars Rise Up to Help America Come Together with 'Como De Allstars'

If America could come together as one nation under a groove, Karl Denson & the Greyboy Allstars would be leading candidates of musical unity with their funky new album, Como De Allstars.

Music

The Beatles' 'Help!' Redefined How Personal Popular Music Could Be 55 Years Ago

Help! is the record on which the Beatles really started to investigate just how much they could get away with. The album was released 55 years ago this week, and it's the kick-off to our new "All Things Reconsidered" series.

Music

Porridge Radio's Mercury Prize-Nominated 'Every Bad' Is a Wonderful Epistemological Nightmare

With Every Bad, Porridge Radio seduce us with the vulnerability and existential confusion of Dana Margolin's deathly beautiful lyricism interweaved with alluring pop melodies.

Music

​​Beyoncé's 'Black Is King' Builds Identity From Afrofuturism

Beyoncé's Black Is King's reliance on Afrofuturism recuperates the film from Disney's clutches while reclaiming Black excellence.

Reading Pandemics

Colonial Pandemics and Indigenous Futurism in Louise Erdrich and Gerald Vizenor

From a non-Native perspective, COVID-19 may be experienced as an unexpected and unprecedented catastrophe. Yet from a Native perspective, this current catastrophe links to a longer history that is synonymous with European colonization.

Music

John Fullbright Salutes Leon Russell with "If the Shoe Fits" (premiere + interview)

John Fullbright and other Tulsa musicians decamped to Leon Russell's defunct studio for a four-day session that's a tribute to Dwight Twilley, Hoyt Axton, the Gap Band and more. Hear Fullbright's take on Russell's "If The Shoe Fits".

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.