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Webchat 2: The 21st Century Novel?

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There is much discussion about form in literature with all the new publishing
media available. But these mainly concern themselves with production and


I want to broaden the debate to form on and within the page, as part of our

artist’s palette as writers. To revive and carry on the experiments of modernists

such as Joyce and Faulkner which seem to have ground to a halt after William

Burroughs’ & Terry Southern’s cut‐up techniques. My call is to drag the novel

into the 21st century artistically, as well as in its distribution and production.

So what do I mean by experiments in form? There are plenty of 20th century

novels that play around with either or both space and time, Faulkner being a

wonderfully rich exemplar. These are experiments in narrative structure. I am

interested in the possibility of going more quantum, down to language itself.

Sentences are linear, yet human thought and even our speech is far from linear.
Can you tackle the flurry of simultaneous bombarding thoughts and still remain

legible to a reader? Personally, I write ‘Voice’ rather than ‘characters’. Straight

away the level of reality that the words are describing is plastic and unfixed. The

words may not describe any material reality whatsoever, but purely sculpt using

language and human thought. I favour words that have more than one meaning,

or at least have a secondary echo (maybe in their original root) that works

against the main, established meaning. Sound is a very important feature for me

as a writer. What is the precise relationship of us writers, petitioning the private,

intimate space inside a reader’s head as their minds process our words ‘silently’

inside their mind. This is where drawing on some of the features of poetry’s

lyricism can be of use.

some examples:

“The idea of brewing the kettle



to pour over a sleeping exlover)briefly flittered behind
my eyes. But I simply wasn’t favoured with the element of time.”

has two tracks, the second echoing the notion of kettle.

Here, element“I patted the soil into the configurations I required, before gently threading each
decapitated rose stalk into some strategic salient, thorns primed to press the flesh. Dug

in, and out of sight. Cameo-flagged, in order to carve my relief on his body.”

word camouflage, with cameo and relief sparking off one another and relief having a

further meaning in relation to emotional relief from the act of revenge.

Play on“That’s sex for sale so cheap, they’re giving it away. The bottom’s dropped out the
market. A perfect knicker-elasticity of supply and demand.”

reality being expressed here, yet the knicker-elasticity of supply & demand, I believe

conjures up something very clearly in the reader’s mind. Simply through the power of

new word associations, rather than a visual sense from description.

There is no material“Binge drinking is just bulimia for those too squeamish to put their own fingers down
their throats. What with their demure paunches and their chary beer-bellies. Watch

them wobble past. That flesh jiggle corona, in the no-man’s land between abdomen

and hips. ‘Love handles’ being just so wide load of the mark. The ensemble rounded

off by the peeping thong. An inverted arrowhead, directional rather than warning.”

I’m just going to describe this as riffing words and meanings off one another.
As writers, what is the relationship of the spoken word and verbally constructed
thought, to those words ordered and set down on a page? We acquire language

verbally through imitation as infants and only retrospectively are the symbolic

approximations of alphabets and spelling applied to the spoken language we

already confidently possess. As writers we can do all sorts of visual things with

these alphabets. Spatially we could render words non‐linearly. The book cover

for “Everything Is illuminated” hints at the possibilities, but leaves it at the cover

rather than continuing inside. Alasdair Gray performs spatial things with his

words and he is also a visual artist. Of course, some of what I am proposing

appears to be very hard to reproduce in online representations, where software

options are far more restrictive. Yet it is not just to be thought of an exercise in

graphics and typography. There must be reasons for breaking up the uniformity

of the written word.

How many books do you read where the metaphors seem tired and second

hand? Most metaphors have probably been constructed in some novel or other.

Time for us to forge some new ones. Language being to the fore in this

endeavour. Again, without wishing to being seen wedded to science, but I would

point at so much of modern scientific theory in astrophysics, theory of mind and

microbiology, themselves being wonderful metaphors, where the actual hard

science is less easy for them to express (particles that have no proven existence

other than they ‘should’ exist etc). How come it is the scientists who are forming

these rather wonderful metaphors and not us writers? Using our imaginations,

we should be informing them and giving them the tools to further their own

expression. Seems we have the language, but scientists have the creative

imagination. Time for us to step up. Scientists tend to specialise within just one

scale, be it quantum, microbiological or cosmic. We writers can skip across any

within a single paragraph if we are so minded.

Where I do deviate partly from the modernist tradition, was their tendency to try

and reconfigure new meanings by ripping established understanding from the

moorings of its context and to cast them into new guises. (maybe a reason for

Modernism running out of steam was that they took this as far as they could go

with it). While I’m not against that as a path of inquiry for writers, I am

interested in the linguistic roots behind those original contextualisations. They

are not random. They are not neutral. They embody hidden relationships, often

to do with power; for example the split of Anglo‐Saxon and French Norman

words in our language, often reveals the dominant power wielding Normans to

have much of our vocabulary in religion, law, cookery, property and the like,

whereas the AS words tend to be more humble and down to earth. Here it seems

to me is a very rich source for stripping away ‘meaning’, the very nominalism

that organises our world around us. Striking at the very root of ‘realism’, rather

than flailing around fettered by it. Think of the word ‘table’ and all the different

contexts of it; from a glass coffee table with “Ideal Homes magazine resting on it”,

the same table used in a sex act, a dinner table, a soldier eating his rations off an

upturned ammo case, a table created by an artist out of an animal’s ribcage, an

unopened Ikea flatpack table ‐ all a table according to Plato’s ideal forms

nominalism, but all with very, very different contexts and in the case of the Ikea

one, a potentia of table only…

The modernist project has had a sabbatical for some 40 years. Time to put it back

to work and reinvestigate the written word and its subunits, sound, rhythm and


We will not approve comments from new users until the day so as to save debate for the day itself, and to give the hosts time to formulate initial responses.


Written by danholloway

November 24, 2009 at 6:09 pm

Posted in webchat

70 Responses

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  1. Marc, I love the emphasis on sound and rhythm – when we read, after all, we HEAR the words in our head. I wonder if rhythm is limited to lyricality for the novel (one thinks of Ondaatje and Murakami as sonorous writers) these days? Is modernism’s attempt at playing with the sound of words solely focused on dissonance and dischord (as modernist music, modernist art), or is there a place for the lyrical? Is the novel able to take relentless dissonance as a form, given the length of time it takes to read one? Or would the experience be just too much for the reader?


    December 1, 2009 at 10:18 am

    • These are all good questions.

      Reading is a curious process as words are not sounded vocally, yet the grooved fluency of reading means it is being sounded at some level inside our heads. Deciphering is almost instantaneous. So sound can definitely break up that fluency, through dissonance and dischord. Equally a more harmonious rhythm and sound will wreak its own effect – I wonder here if the mellifluous sound and texture of the words actually sweeps the reader past its meaning somewhat? Probably have to ask a passing cognitive scientist with a portable brain scanner on that one.

      As to whether the novel can take relentless dissonance without the reader reeling away part way through with concussion? Firstly I hope so since there is definitely an element of that in my novel. Further, I am interested in the possibility of creating a novel in which the words spark meaning off one another, but without necessarily creating associated visual images within the reader’s mind. ie words qua words and layers of meaning, but the metaphor arises out of language itself, rather than comparison with similar visual images. Can a whole novel sustain this? It would be very disorienting for a reader but one worth pursuing I feel.

      Finally, there have been experiments with alphabets and the like – acrostics, every sentence starting with the next letter in the alphabet, a novel written without utilising a single letter ‘E’. But with the new technologies and computer programming, you should be able to create texts with a huge visual component that feeds into the meaning. ie no longer just monolithic blocks of black type on white background. You could have text in the shape of Moebius Strips or something much simpler such as our scorched texts ‘inside’ or a Tree Of Life with word veins running through its leaves etc. The possibilities are endless. This is what I mean by the new media, not debates about e-readers and vooks which seem to me to be about lifestyle delivery systems – ie not from the artist, but the distributor.


      December 1, 2009 at 11:59 am

  2. Interestingly enough, much research suggests that words ARE sounded vocally until reading reaches a speed of 2000 words per minute – even if we think we are reading by gestalt


    December 1, 2009 at 12:03 pm

    • But a different way of sounding them to speaking aloud? What qualitative differences may this have?

      Again that’s why I posit the notion of imageless words. It may allow for a different type of communication to go on. For example and this is completely off the top of my head, but say you have a reading in public. Approach the mic as if a roadie and do the old “1-2, 1-2” sound test. Exit stage. Return with boxer’s robe and hood covering your face and throw some 1-2 combinations into space. Then bring hood down to reveal you as the author and loose off 1-2 pairs of unrelated words, but yet their being yoked together and how they sound throws out all sorts of associations. The whole exercise would be a litearlisation of 1-2.

      Isn’t mathematical harmony at the root of musical harmonies and aesthetic balance and proportionality? That’s why I’m drawn to the plays of Robert Wilson which are basically choreographies of words and movement.


      December 1, 2009 at 12:59 pm

      • There are some very interesting theories that the structure of the language itself affects how you think, not just how but weather certain thought forms can exist at all in certain languages – how much this would cross over with culture though is the big question.

        I believe a few scifi writers have used the notion – can’t remember the dudes name the theory belongs to though 😦


        December 1, 2009 at 3:22 pm

        • For me language structure all reality. All our paradigms and templates in the mind. Quantum mechanics suggests we cannot accurately measure anything, and yet our measurement systems are good enough to get us in space and build skyscrapers etc etc. Language helps us organise and structure the world by naming everything, grouping the similar together. But like measurement, it fails at the margins. These are the failures that interest me. And also the power relationships that inform language – no words are purely neutral and without influence in their origins.



          December 1, 2009 at 4:22 pm

      • This is a wild idea, but my guess is it would only fly w/ readers/lovers of poetry not prose.

        My understanding about most prose readers today is that they want a “fast read” (i.e., an easy to “get” narrative). Subtlety, subtext, intentional disruption… these are important if in service of a big-picture point, but I think they have to be pulled off within the context of FLOW. Without a surface-level flow, you’re going to lose the reader (confusion? too much “thinking” involved?).

        My guess, though, is that we can still tweak language to evoke a specific kind of experience or to show the limits of language to convey meaning by simply multilayering our narratives: (1) FLOW (straight forward, easy to read/hear/understand) + (2) other layer(s) of meaning via disruptive elements, though with clearly defined structures that don’t entirely detract from the flow = 1 2 1 2 2 1 etc. PUNCH.

        Does this make any sense at all???


        December 1, 2009 at 4:05 pm

        • Yes and I like it. A lot. I would however still preserve the right of an author to take his/her time with their narrative if that is what they choose. Never underestimate the reader – if they deem there is a reward to taking their time, they will put in the investment. I’m setting aside my Xmas break to joust with Bolano’s 950 page book. I believe it will be worth it!


          December 1, 2009 at 4:20 pm

          • It’s always going to be personal preference, I guess. I don’t care so much for fast or slow read (I come from poetry background, so I often take my time, reading every word out loud in my head, usually, b/c I want to really HEAR the sound of the language) but I don’t do massive tomes. I have read a couple — Richard Powers’ “Time of Our Singing” and Danielewski’s “House of Leaves” come to mind — but I just don’t have the time and I think I choose multi voices over… long-winded ones!

            I posted on Twitter recently an interview w/ Cormac McCarthy who believes the day of the 1000-page novel is done. I agree. Attention spans of most readers won’t accommodate such a thing. Also, maybe again given my poetry background, I think it’s the writer’s responsibility to say what needs to be said in as few words as possible.

            Of course, I’m not dissing Bolano’s large-scale work… b/c I haven’t read it, but I remember bailing on Dostoevsky’s weightier efforts in the past b/c they just go on and on. And I LOVE the Russians, but prefer the shorter prose.

            That’s just me, of course.


            December 1, 2009 at 4:32 pm

  3. Hi. I haven’t thought about this a great deal pedantically, but it is an interesting topic for readers and writers alike. I represent the audience here rather than the creator of stories.

    I like to look at it in the context of story telling and it’s evolution, more than just the Novel. Before widespread literacy & of course, mass printing came into the picture, how were stories told? It was a visual medium, it was an spoken art, stories were told through drama and songs, through mages. eveolving from stick art inside caves to the scultures at Ajanta Ellora to the Dramas of Shakespeare to dance drams in Kathakali. All are the different ways that a story is told.

    I don’t believe the old forms of storytelling died when the printed book came along. They just evolved and thrived alongside one another.

    So why is there so much resistance to new forms of story telling? Is there really a resistance or is it lack of awareness? Is it difficulty for authors in getting outside their comfort zone? Is it because as authors are not allowed to be artists? Does society keep us in boxes so that dramatists are only dramatists & writers are never movie makers or song writers? Or is it just that naysayers like listen to their own voices saying “no, it can’t be done?”


    December 1, 2009 at 1:20 pm

    • What is the function of extended story telling in a digital age and an age of skim reading? I am a trained historian, but the problem is the conditions are never quite the same as they were in history and even if they were, you never know which bit of history is going to repeat itself to give you a salutary lesson…

      I must admit I lean towards cobnveying a human voice more than a story. The experience of that voice, be it cracked, haughty, pleading or whatever, will or should leach out of the writing of that voice. the voice will relate/narrate some of its stories, but the gaps will be filled in by the human quality of the voice, the thought, the elisions, the omissions etc.

      You raise so many other vital issues in your post. I think market and production processes mitigate against risk by authors. I also think authors still persist in a dream of what their profession is – writing in isolation, just them wrestling the tabula rasa of a blank screen. I don’t expect to ever earn a living wage from my writing. It frees me up to write what I want. But you are absolutely right, the writer has to include and bring the reader along with him/her, otherwise there is no communication, no sharing and no story to relate.


      December 1, 2009 at 2:56 pm

  4. Doesn’t it depend on how widely read we are?

    The mainstream isn’t gonna be experimental, but what about fringe stuff?

    The problem is the internet and the number of writers out there. There could be a lot of new styles of writing or ideas out there right now, but unless it gets publicised then how are we gonna find it?

    As for what the 21stC novel should look like…i think it should be less about thoughts/actions and more about the process of thought…i don’t mean stream of consciousness exactly, i mean a kind of confusion in the narrator that is expressed on page…

    I don’t know if i explain it very well…and maybe it’s been done before by someone else…but i’ve never read the kind of thing i intend to write.


    Ordinary Joe

    December 1, 2009 at 1:50 pm

    • Without being too dry about it, all the new theories of mind, of language acquisition, of the new scientific idioms and metaphors, provide a wealth of themes and ways into approaching narrative.

      Monolithinc print on a page is linear. There is potential for breaking away from such linearity, not only through presentation of text, but in the very writing itself.

      David Peace for example is a master of the different voices contending to be heard within any one character, dreads, desires, and several differing levels of reality all intercut within the same paragrpah – delineated by one being in italics, one in block capitals etc. The obsessive thoughts whirl around the character’s head, swooping, veering and retyurning time and again.

      It’s a good starting point to ask who is my narrator, why are they narrating this and in what way are they choosing to do it? Fractured and fragmentary has been done before. But is there a way of embedding it in new perspectives? Sorry to say this again, but potentially within language itself. Language doesn’t actually nail down meaning terribly well. it is good for impressionistic and approximations of reality, but reality is quantum. At what scale of lingusitic subunit, do we enter the equivalent realm of those subatomic particles that OUGHT to exist, but have yet to be proven in material fact (Hadron Collider notwithstanding).

      I remain unconvinced that there is all that much fringe stuff out there. It still proceeds from the notion of playing with narrative


      December 1, 2009 at 2:49 pm

      • I think alot of the problem here may stem from writing groups and the like – you spend you whole time being told – what structure things should have.

        What is good and what is bad. But alot of it is stylistic in the first place and even the language – the grammar, the words we use are not set in stone. Languages are an evolving system and as such there should always be fringe stuff – I think it is there and the internet means that those who know that the traditional pubs wont even look at them, can if they want at least share their ideas.

        This does however mean they are limited to expansion by word of mouth but seeing as in business at least this is the main way of growth anyway – is that really so bad?


        December 1, 2009 at 3:15 pm

        • Absolutely. I have never attended a writing course in my life. I feel this is one of the main differences between US and Uk writing that in America virtually every University offers creative writing, whereas in the UK there’s a handful of flagship courses.

          I think popular books just under the mega-star threshold of a Dan Brown, are all about word of mouth and personal recommendation. The problem is there are more books and more outlets for them than ever. That dilutes the word of mouth.



          December 1, 2009 at 4:25 pm

          • But it also means that the word of mouth once achieved can spread quicker and further.

            But getting to the threshold point is hard in the first place and those who have already made where ‘before’ the curve and so can not be taken as the standards of how to succeed in this.


            December 1, 2009 at 7:07 pm

  5. I haven’t read the other comments yet but will.

    Firstly the scientists are often writers themselves – they all have to convey the information that they are dealing with and often to people who have no background knowledge – hence you can now do Masters in Science and Communication.

    The origin and development of linguistics is very much an information science, tied up with all sorts of yummy extras. Coming from a science background and having struggled with my own language development this is a subject I tend to touch on a lot with my poetry.

    And this leads me onto your idea of word play and splicing – it is something I associated very heavily with my poetry and often with some of my prose work but the more you do this, the more accessibility of the piece becomes an issue.

    For example I write a piece and get stared at in beweilderment by the people at my writers group – I read it to a bunch of people from uni and they are in gails of laughter or looking solum etc… Now this has lead me to start working on layers of meaning.

    So depending on what you know the poem has multiple meanings – they are all meanings but few see them all. I love word play like this can you tell?

    But I agree that something has gotten very stuck – I see people thinking they are breaking all the rules and being on the Edge when they are reproducing techniques from Scifi and horror writers of decades past. What they are using doesn’t appear in there normal reading material and they are loathed to go outside it.

    Ok I’m going to stop now but leave two links to some of my poems I think are relivent – hope that is ok and apologies in advance if it is not.

    Thought and Thinking/language

    A Picture of Words (again structure of language etc…)

    The Programmers Lament (apologies for spelling etc in this one)

    Oh and one last thing – the structure and ability to play visually with the written word and how we digest it mentally has never had so much potential but people do not yet have a general understanding of exactly what they have at their finger tips!

    It is one of the reasons I ended up learning how to make websites and I am still only statching the surface. Sentences are linear but links makes them 3-4 dimensional 🙂

    Ok I will go and stop waffling now!


    December 1, 2009 at 2:00 pm

    • I don’t think a reader necessarily has to get ‘all’ the layers or all the meaning that a writer loads into their work. To use a crass example, Shakespeare’s plays were loved in the cockpits where the crowd stamped their feet and yelled abuse, yet also provide enough meat for analysis by University Professors.

      Whatever wordplay a writer commits to paper, he/she must bring the reader along with them otherwise it is purely self-indulgent writing for themselves. I think poetry is an excellent discipline for honing precise word use and compression of meaning. There is no reason not toemploy such techniques in prose – Don Delilo sometimes has explosive detonations of two words that he brings together you simply never would have thought of yourself. They work as a word pairing, sparking a new set of mental associations, and yet somehow they are so extreme a juxtaposition, they are beyond visual imaging. They break the conmfortable template patterns of recognition that our mind is set up and programmed for.

      I ought to say that in a pomo way, these replies are from me Sulci Collective/Marc Nash, whatever the little avatar picture is telling you!


      December 1, 2009 at 2:36 pm

      • yeah – I’m having fun re-reading stuff from when I was younger and discovering a whole new angle to them 🙂

        I love putting the layers in – I think its why I really love novel writing. I have alot of scope to work with. I think the layering is needed to make work accessible though.

        Now what would be intreging is writing a novel specifically with the hyper aspect of the internet involved – this leads to some interesting possibilities that wouldn’t *just* be a rehash of those adventure novels where you got to decided the outcome and turn to a specific point in the story. I haven’t really seen anything like it done yet which suprises me.


        December 1, 2009 at 3:03 pm

      • The Shakespeare example is a good one. It’s what I tried to do with 3xbad: hit multi levels, provide many ways into the narrative, from surface-level “post-pulp” trashy kinda plot to complex exploration of morality, identity, and intimacy. Time will tell if I pulled this off or not.


        December 1, 2009 at 5:12 pm

        • I’m sort of hoping that’s what I’m doing with the Punk series too but fear I just waffled as it was nanowrimo 😉


          December 1, 2009 at 7:08 pm

          • ha ha ha that’s what edits and rewrites are for! nanowrimo may have focused the mind for you, now comes the sweat work. I hate it too!



            December 1, 2009 at 7:51 pm

        • I’m sort of hoping that’s what I’m doing with the Punk series too but fear I just waffled as it was nanowrimo 😉


          December 1, 2009 at 7:08 pm

        • I look forward to reading/listening to it. Anything with a soundtrack has to be okay by me. Though I find I can’t read with music on.



          December 1, 2009 at 7:52 pm

  6. (from Alex Milton on Authonomy)
    I say the novel is experiencing a renaissance, as writers and publishers ditch self-consciously difficult, experimental forms in favour of storytelling.

    I also predict we will be having ‘is the novel dead?’ conversations a hundred years hence, as we have done since the modernists.


    December 1, 2009 at 2:29 pm

    • Aha – how many stories are there? Haven’t they all been done, whatever tweaks are applied by the inventive author? So now we have vampires in High School that come out by day, a million miles removed from Stoker’s and folk originals. Yet the themse remain the same, dark, transgressive desire…

      I am merely inquiring why we don’t also go back to the very rockface itself, that of language in which we all quarry our stories. It doesn’t have to be self-conscious, difficult or even experimental. The words ultimately tell the story. Let’s just get back to the essence of words themselves.

      On a very simple basis, few words have a singularity of meaning, but offer shades which can be employed like an artist who mixes his/her own palette…



      December 1, 2009 at 2:40 pm

      • Words though are only one way of telling a story of depicting the essence – a fluid lovely way but in the end only one way – weather spoken or written.

        Actions, pictures and sounds (as in musical ie drums etc…) can also tell stories.

        I think with the way tech is going some nice media cross over will play a huge roll in story telling feeding from the old and new alike.


        December 1, 2009 at 3:09 pm

        • Sarah I know you’re a pioneer with the visual aspect of story and these work startingly well. I have also mentioned my wish for decent software programming to imbue words with an aesthetic quality on the page/screen and not just baldly stand as a monolith of type.

          But I would also make a plea for the written word ‘silently’ seducing, working over, or whatever effect on the reader through their own force alone. How intimate is that?



          December 1, 2009 at 4:29 pm

          • I like using words to form the picture as much as I like using the picture to tell the story 🙂

            Depends on mood and what I want to do – there is always going to be room for the word rapping itself in and around the story.

            This is one of the reasons I created this poem


            You don’t have to use all skills all tools/techniques in one piece of work but knowing of their existence can help form something new in old forms.

            Am I making any sense?


            December 1, 2009 at 7:16 pm

    • For me, the issue is always combo platter: straight storytelling + lyricism or language or inventive structural focus. If the language isn’t happening, I don’t care about the story.

      Like I mentioned on here somewhere else, I read every word. So every word has to sing.

      I also don’t care for self-consciously/overly experimental if there’s not something more to move me along.

      In TV terms, I think of Battlestar Galactica or Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Laugh if you want, but at their best, those “genre” shows worked on multi “literary” levels.

      I don’t read genre fiction, so I can’t combine genre w/ “Lit” in my writing, but I can (hopefully) tell a compelling story. So if I can do fun stuff w/ language/structure as well — always in service of the story — then I’ll feel like I got the job done.


      December 1, 2009 at 5:19 pm

      • Sarah I read the Turquoise Monster piece and it absolutely sets down the origin of the word and of art. “In the beginning was the word (logos) and the word was good/god…” What the Greeks called poesis, the creative origin of poetry, emerging from the human soul.

        The thing that bugs me about modern art, pace Rene Magritte painting a picture of a pipe but captioning the canvas with “This isn’t a pipe” is that visual art now seems entirely to rely on the word to contextualise what otherwise is likely to be beyond an audience’s conception. Damien Hirst’s dead shark does not despite his title, evoke in me “The Physical Impossibility Of Death In The Mind Of Someone Living” even though that concept is what most motivates my own writing. The image doesn’t work for me in isolation, nor with a tacked on title. What I love about your visuals is that they bear clear organic relationship, one from the other, visual to the text, with minimal hierarchy of meaning.

        I don’t want to sidetrack this down modern visual art, but the relationship of the visual, the illustration in some cases, to the text seems a tightrope made of razor wire and very easy to slice off one’s own extremities. I am in favour of a visual aesthetic, but I lean more to the fundaments of alphabets, typography and typesetting. I believe much can be done here.



        December 1, 2009 at 8:09 pm

        • Wow somehow I missed this post earlier!

          Thanks – I think is all I can manage to that one

          I like mixing things up but that doesn’t mean they should always be mixed up


          December 1, 2009 at 11:14 pm

  7. (from Dai Lowe on Authonomy)
    It’s dead.

    At least in English.

    All it can do now is tell stories. Which films and telly do better anyway.

    It dies after modernism but modernism didn’t kill it. It’s time had come. Like Cantatas and paintings of mythical scenes.

    And we still have all the good ones to read anyway. who’s gonna live long enough to read all of them? Why produce more when we should be doing something newer?


    December 1, 2009 at 3:17 pm

    • Hey you left out my ‘you’re a miserable bastard, Dai’ reply…

      Ordinary Joe

      December 1, 2009 at 3:32 pm

    • Film and telly tell stories differently though – the form of the image is already produced for you, that is different to forming it yourself and falling through the page.

      Reading a story you get to be inside watching films etc… you are still you and you are just sucked into the action retaining who you are – when you read you become the character/experiences.

      And there are many new concepts out there – tech and theories that have not existed within at least our recorded history – these things deserve to be explored.


      December 1, 2009 at 3:35 pm

  8. discussion of concrete examples from Authonomy seems to focus (unsurprisingly but unoriginally) on Cormac McCarthy

    “Martel’s crap?

    Come on, it’s one of the few books I have ever laughed out loud at and it contains the best and simplest argument I have ever come across (and that includes the entirety of western philsophy) as to the value of religious belief – a classic example of an argument show rather than told.

    Cloud Atlast is structurally brilliant, but it isn’t a book I’d want to read again.

    The Road is, I think, the best novel of the last 40 years. Up there with the Honourary Consel for me, and the God of Small Things.

    The latter gets hated for being twee. As Indian literature, I think it is way way better than Midnight’s Children – which I also loved.” (Toscka)
    “I’m saying ~ very positively ~ the novel is a tired out old form but that writing can move on from there. At least in these lands it’s too much under the sway of filmic thought and ‘culture’, keeping itself limping along in Hollywood’s shadow by recycling ideas with an eye on cinema adaptation. There are still plenty of writers like McCarthy who love words and see them as adding something above, beyond and behind the story but, on the whole, it’s as if painters had responded to the invention of the camera by painting more of the same and trying to make it look more like a photo.” (Dai)


    December 1, 2009 at 3:19 pm

    • What a wonderful cacophony of voices culled from Authonomy!

      I love films as a punter. I am making YouTube readings from my novel (as a promo tool, like a video is to a pop song). BUT, literature has very little to do with film and other visual forms of art. There has to be a suspension of disbelief when you are sat in a darkened auditorium with others shuffling their sweet wrappers. You know they are actors on stage or up on screen. You have this option of suspending disbelief in a novel, but equally you can go the other way and a hyper-real confrontation of your reader. Also the silent voice of the written word is more intimate, more insinuating into the head of its audience of just 1 reader.

      I quite liked “the Road” -it’s bleak post-apocalyptic vision was definitely superior to say MadMax which played it for more laughs. But revolutionary or different? Not to my mind.

      Apologies for saying this again, but how interesting to plump for words that work to deliver payloads of meaning, but without any filmic quality at all…

      “Cloud Atlas” was good, daring in its ambition, but all said and done, was a fairly conventional sweep through different times and milieus, done in date order. Messing with it might have been more interesting. Martel is a lovely, whimsical piece. Is it life changing, does it open your eyes to see differently, probably not.


      December 1, 2009 at 4:37 pm

      • Most incredible part of “The Road,” for me: how the spareness of the language matched the bleakness of the story and setting. It was pitch perfect from the first word to the last. That, to my ear, was an astonishing achievement and a model going forward.


        December 1, 2009 at 5:22 pm

    • Possibly OT, but I am asking anyway. Why did you like “God of Small Things?”


      December 1, 2009 at 5:28 pm

      • Um I haven’t read it. It must have been a contributor.



        December 1, 2009 at 7:54 pm

  9. I’d like to add in Elfriede Jelinek, whose extraordinary interweaving of voices is the most original work I’ve read in a long time (The Piano Teacher); Marie Darrieussecq for her sustained prose poem Mal de Mer; and I’d like to see at least some acknowledgement of House of Leaves – it’s important even if no one really likes it.


    December 1, 2009 at 3:20 pm

    • I LOVE “House of Leaves.” One of my favorite reads and top recommendations. As I commented above, it’s also one of the few doorstoppers I’ve ever read.

      Why did I like this book so much? In short, the way the narrative moved back and forth between the visceral and the intellectual. I thought it also was a masterful interweaving of high/low art sensibilities, multiple narrative voices and devices, and ultimately a gripping story w/ a tight, clearly defined yet experimental structure that sucked me in deeply and made me care about the concepts, the story, the writing, and the characters. That’s saying something. And it’s what I need to want to keep reading.

      Now, his follow-up… I thought that was a mess on nearly every level. A huge disappointment, though worthy of respect, of course, in the sheer audacity of the effort.


      December 1, 2009 at 4:41 pm

    • I’ve got stuck with “The Piano Teacher” at about halfway. Something about the tone of complete self-abasement has ground me down. I will return to it when I feel more doughty. Haven’t read either of the other two.

      I also like books that take on big ideas. I like Houellebeq in this respect even though he gets up people’s noses. The French have perennially been unafraid to tackle the human condition with reference to philosophy, whereas the British shy away from doing so. Orwell resorted to political themes in his writing in a clear, lucid fashion. But for me he will forever be a journalistic type of novelist, rather than someone capable of literary pyrotechnics or daring narrative forms.

      Like Oli said, I’m writing the type of books I’d like to read.



      December 1, 2009 at 4:42 pm

  10. I have to go out now but will be back between 9-11pm for a live chat. Please feel free to keep the discussion going or you can post some questions here.

    Authonomy are raging on the debate about modernism, to Joyce or not to Joyce. Here’s a sample from Toska “You don’t think Ulysees is all surface? The epitome of modernism in that way, in love with the Plato’s reflections on the cave wall; Joyce was a master of language, he pleased himself, but can he move you beyond the beauty of the surface? Does he understand what moves others? Does he understand the nature of human curiosity and longing and loss – I’m not so sure.

    In today’s world he would never have been published of course. I see no loss in that. ”

    I don’t necessarily want to get into a for and against argument on what has already past. Suffice to say, why did it drizzle out of energy in the late 60’s to almost a point of total exclusion in today’s literary world? And what variants and new directions can we take the work of these 20thC pioneers?

    See you later



    December 1, 2009 at 5:03 pm

  11. Okay, just by way of preamble, I’d like to sum up some of the excellent debate we’ve had up to now.

    We’ve talked about the sound of the written word and tried to work out how reading is sounded inside the reader’s head. There were comparisons between the lyricism and power of the word in poetry and lyricism in prose.

    We’ve also talked about visual aspects of printed texts. Both illustrative visual art and the presentation of text itself, to break up the linearity of blocks of print.

    The debate on Literary Modernism itself interestingly seems to have come down to an either/or in regard to telling a story or not telling a story but being more concerned with technique and language.

    While I don’t particularly want to get bogged down on what Joyce et al were trying to do, I do want to throw out a provocative lead off question based on this:

    What do we mean by telling stories in novels?
    What is narrative?

    On the basis of what we feel narrative is, I would then ask whether the 21st Century demands new approaches to telling stories, or whether stories are quite so relevant in this modern age.

    Please dive in…



    December 1, 2009 at 9:01 pm

  12. The story is the thread that pulls you through – now it maybe tangled and loop back on itself but if it is not there then it is just a dead assembly of words on screen or page.

    Stories are a way humans break down the complex into something they can understand – it may build itself back up in complexicity but it is a fundimental part of our thinking process.

    This is why the scientist has to be careful. If they are not careful the desire for a narrative story can result in model lead research.

    Poems and songs also tend to have this thread in them, though beat and rhythm don’t have to have it, though some would argue that the rhythm itself is the thread. This would probably be becuase the thread and the rhythm are patterns and humans are pattern seeking creatures – it was a survial thing in days of yore.

    Today the world is very very complex to understand it and how it came to be with telling stories therefore I believe if anything they are more important – the fact that we now *know* they are stories does not alter this.


    December 1, 2009 at 9:12 pm

  13. I think you are bang on the mark about how narrative organises our experiences and allows us to wrench meaning from them.

    So, how about the notion that such organisational principles by which we structure the world are illusionary/delusionary? What then? Is there merit in unpicking these narrative threads?



    December 1, 2009 at 9:16 pm

  14. I think this depends on what you mean by illusionary – most of the universe is empty space and probabilty fields – that there is anything ‘concrete’ could be seen as the delusion of all life.

    I would say they are part of the model we choose to live in, each story – each pattern we add complexes things and brings it closer to the real – we’re adding more boundary conditions as it were.

    (sorry extending metaphors badly again)

    But there maybe mistakes or diffences of opinion as we are looking at things from different angles. Unpicking the narritive to compare and contrast is one this – as the original will still be there – picking it too pieces to destroy it, is something else again.

    And I think understanding were these things lie can help you twist the narrative to say something new.


    December 1, 2009 at 9:34 pm

    • I don’t want to be restrictive in this. People can unpick it how they like. The original modernists addressed the world around them, obliquely dabbling in politics and cultural trends amongst all their experiments in form and language – “The Wasteland” et al. Modern literature seems to wholly have gone away from this and doesn’t engage with the wider culture.

      For my own part, my interests are in unpicking the myths and the language in which we establish these myths and these patterns. It is unashamedly political, not party political or even Left or Right. It is based on an unwillingness to accept anything at face value, but to delve and upheave it and see what spills out. It is political in seeking to unravel the power relationships not only between people and institutions that stand in relationship to one another, but also to the language employed. Nothing is neutral, everything had a source and origin and a reason for emerging from that source.

      Human thought and human speech are not linear. That is why I want to move away from the linearity of syntax and sentence structure, to better approximate the human psyche. Again that’s why I veer towards writing ‘voice’ rather than character. that then has implications on my narrative, because people are notoriously unreliable narrators of their own stories in everyday life. Whether it be the intimacy of a one to one, or in a group setting, all sorts of distortions enter.



      December 1, 2009 at 9:46 pm

  15. I loved ‘The God of Small Things’ for the way Roy plays with language and comes at it from a refreshing angle, something an expert second-language speaker can probably do better than a native;) She also created a variety of moods skilfully and told us a story, in some parts, without telling it, and (by messing around with the flow of time) even managed a happy ending for a desperately sad tale. Give it another go 🙂

    Tony Malone

    December 1, 2009 at 10:00 pm

    • I’m interested why you think a second-language speaker approaches language from a fresh angle. I only speak one language though wish I spoke German, since my WIP is looking at the joint Saxon/Norman French bedrock of our language and the differences between the two sets of words each provide.



      December 1, 2009 at 10:06 pm

  16. I would say that is picking apart to analyse personally.

    I have to confess that I know little of ‘literature’ I like books and stories and like looking at systems – how the system emerges, evolves and how we model those systems.

    Language I realised early on was one of they systems. I’m resisting the urge to go into convoluted stuff about how it is similar to claddistics and genetics.

    Information conveyance is something I am very interested in. Language and how it shapes thought too. Different people learn language especially written in different ways.

    The meaning of a sentence, or even a gesture can be completely different for different people.

    I’m currently reading The Atrocity Archives by Stross which is First person present tense and it is so absorbing compared to my recent reads – I can feel the narrators brain, feel what he’s feeling – this is good strong writing. It also breaks most of the rules I’ve been told you have to follow.

    I used to think in images pictures, not words but that has changed which I think is interesting and the stories I read definatly affect the voice I now think with. Thought for me is in spoken word and imagination landscape but I know many people think in the written word – or so they tell me.

    I find myself wondering if that’s the next stage – my husband thinks in symbols he says – for a five word phrase or a concept he has a symbol and not neccasserily 2D either. We like really similar fiction though which I find interesting.

    I think (As I think I’ve said somewhere earlier today) that it might be interesting writing a novel using the concept of hyper-links – this would add a depth and non-linearity to the work. It also sounds like the sort of thing I agonize over and end up with a head ache 🙂

    I’m sorry I really am rambling tonight!


    December 1, 2009 at 10:08 pm

    • okay I’m going to have to look up claddistics!

      Please don’t feel beholden to any ‘rules’ about writing. It drives me potty within writing communities to be spun the homily “You have to know what the rules are before you break them”. I’m not saying novels have no internal structure deserving of serious ratiocination by the writer, but I like to write from instinct and then in subsequent drafts do the necessary editing to render it more than subjective in order to communicate to persons unknown.

      I am after a narrative voice that absolutely gets inside the reader’s head. Susurrating, insinuating, whispering like the serpent in Eve’s ear, as well as goading, chiding and concussing.



      December 1, 2009 at 10:14 pm

  17. Fractured narrative, fractured writing, fractured sentences have all been done before. David Peace is a wonderful contemporary exemplar of this. I think – though am prepared to be dissuaded, any new modernist approaches, it is insufficient just to fracture your narrative. It has almost become the new mainstream…



    December 1, 2009 at 10:30 pm

  18. They kept telling me I never get published and then I found out I was more published (in the traditional) than the woman running the group and most of the people in it.

    I found they thought they were writing ‘High Literature’ and then got offended when I suggested scifi and horror imprints.

    Also those who did have a voice – a distinctive style of their own have since gone and done the creative writing degree and now all their stuff sounds the same – its all interchangable which I find sad.

    The other group I tried was a sets of six week tutorials and the person running it believed that you should only write to heal and not leave people feeling nervous or upset – I found this highly restrictive especially for some of my darker grittier stuff.

    I would love to be able to spell and be intrinsic about grammar but even the stiff I do know I forget whilst I’m writing :/

    Any luck with Claddistics?

    I have several big fat books on it here 🙂


    December 1, 2009 at 10:35 pm

  19. hmmm I think I’ve fractured this conversation narrative in taking to long to reply!


    December 1, 2009 at 10:37 pm

    • Not at all! ~Fracture and fissure away. Oooh yes, that reminds me; nouns used as verbs, nouns used as adjectives, adjectives converted into nouns. Bring them all on I say



      December 1, 2009 at 10:38 pm

  20. cla⋅dis⋅tics  [kluh-dis-tiks] Show IPA
    –noun Biology. (used with a plural verb)
    classification of organisms based on the branchings of descendant lineages from a common ancestor.

    Yeah, my kind of metaphor. I’ve written a novel with the human genome as one of the MC’s.



    December 1, 2009 at 10:41 pm

    • Ah cool – I’ve got the primordial ocean as a main character in one of my short stories 🙂


      December 1, 2009 at 10:51 pm

  21. What about running parrallel permetations (sorry spellings getting worse as the night draws on!) – as in the maybes – splitting at each major decission?

    Not done like the Butterfly Effect and Sliding Doors though.

    I would construct the page with the difference branching

    Jan went outside
    stayed put

    It would be interesting to see if you could blend and twist them all back together again – collapse some back down to a single thread.

    Has that been done?

    Would it be interesting?


    December 1, 2009 at 10:48 pm

    • Not sure if it’s been done, but yes it does sound interesting.

      Have you read any Nicholson Baker early novels (only tangentially related to this) – I think you might have to keep the scale of the decisions fairly small.

      An interesting take on it might be to reproduce different theories of mind mapping to accompany the decisions – eg brain activity scans, psychological tests etc etc



      December 1, 2009 at 10:54 pm

      • that’s an interesting idea – I think being able to collapse things down again would be important definatly. Maybe just a day in the life off…

        I don’t think I read any though weather we have them here is another thing – I have a house full of books :/ People comment on it – normally ‘why do you need so many books?’ and then they always come and borrow a book :/

        been thinking about alternative ways of setting it out, there’s actually quiet a few ways – wonder which one would be the clearest?

        I wish I had more time – this sounds like a cool idea but also like quiet abit of research and faffing around.


        December 1, 2009 at 11:04 pm

        • research yeah, I very rarely go there…



          December 1, 2009 at 11:07 pm

  22. Can I thank everyone who dropped by during the day for sharing their views. I hope we can make this our time and leave an impression on the literature of the early decades of the 21st Century.

    Just wanted to close with someone’s comment on Authonomy that the likes of James Joyce will probably not be read within 50 years.

    I think that’s partly what stands in our way.

    Thanks again. Let’s do it again some time.

    marc nash/ sulci collective


    December 1, 2009 at 11:20 pm

  23. thanks for putting up with me


    December 1, 2009 at 11:26 pm

    • It is you who has put up with my witterings



      December 1, 2009 at 11:41 pm

  24. As mentioned above, I think that coming at a language as a Non-Native Speaker gives you greater objectivity and an ability to question norms that native speakers may take for granted (I realise that writers, especially poets, are supposed to do this anyway…). I’ve been impressed with what I’ve read by Indian authors recently, and there are also the examples of Conrad (Polish), Nabokov (Russian) and (of course) Joyce himself.

    I’d go further and say that learning other languages is a pre-requisite for being able to step outside your usual way of thinking. But then, I’m a linguist, so I would say that…

    Tony Malone

    December 2, 2009 at 12:16 am

    • Surely though the effect would be more pronounce the further from your own language the second language is?

      And I would have thought something similar could be achived with maths or anything that forces you to think differently – including other art forms – ie music.


      December 2, 2009 at 1:52 am

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