tangle it up

I haven’t read Scarlett Thomas yet but I know it’s just a matter of time. Enjoyed an interview with her in Bookslut and some of what she said truly resonated with me:

…[what I’m attempting in my fiction is] to tangle things up in such a way that something else untangles. In some ways it’s about catching your brain unawares. If you want to write a novel, don’t think to yourself “What novel can I write?” because you’ll just think of a novel that already exists. The storytelling part of your mind has been trained to repeat, repeat, repeat, ad nauseam (with no rinsing) the stories from ancient myths which are now reworked as soap opera, advertisements, movies and so on. Read Joseph Campbell. Read Aristotle… You know what I mean, I’m sure. There’s this amazing part in Aristophanes’s The Frogs, where Dionysus has gone to the underworld to stage a competition between Aeschylus and Euripides to see who is the better tragedian (and who should go back to Earth to save Athens). They take it in turns to criticise one another’s work. Anyway, there’s this one bit where Aeschylus proves that any of Euripides’s tragedies could be about someone losing a bottle of oil. Every formulaic story starts with a conflict that’s later resolved — like losing a bottle of oil and then finding it again — but less formulaic stories, or stories that use formula to more interesting effect, while they may have similar levels of narrative drive, are about something more interesting than losing a bottle of oil. What I guess I’m saying is that when you sit down to think up your novel, what your mind will do, because it’s spent your whole life absorbing formula-stories like a novelty bath sponge, is give you one of these stories about a lost bottle of oil. So what you do is you trick it. It’s quite a simple technique: you write a list of everything you are remotely interested in at the moment and then the challenge is to work out a plot that connects all these things. And then another one. And again, until you get it right. It can take months, or even years, during which time you become interested in other things and you have to add those because otherwise you’d be cheating.

This isn’t a meaningless game, however, designed so that everyone can be a novelist. Far from it. People who find they don’t have a list… Stop writing. If your list is boring… Stop writing. If your list doesn’t add up to something meaningful… I think you know where this is going….

A lot of this has happened because I started my career writing formulaic fiction, where my editor even went so far as to remind me of the “rules” I should be following. I was writing this inauthentic claptrap that was superficially about pain but was really the furthest thing from real pain and confusion…

Aristotle says that fiction should do one of two things: reflect the world as it is, or make it better. While this is a little too cheerful for where I am at the moment, there’s a lot of truth in it nevertheless. People sometimes forget that real women, even ones covered in nappies and shit and bleach etc., do not spend all their time thinking about dresses and princesses and kisses — it’s women in stories that do that. And these are stories that make things worse. So my stories seem different because they’re not like other stories, perhaps. I don’t know. Most women out there are geeky in some way, and you’re right that not much fiction reflects this. I guess the more common experience is for women to be somehow restricted by domestic life or to live under the threat of this restriction, and of course there’s a lot of fiction that reflects this beautifully — like The Bell Jar, which is probably my favorite novel, in which Esther Greenwood pretty much has to stop being a geek or else. Oranges are Not The Only Fruit does something similar, too, where the character Jeanette has to try to find a new way of inhabiting all the fairy stories and religious myths she’s grown up with.

All good stories work according to one of two models: tragedy or comedy, as we all know. In a tragedy everyone ends up dead, and in a comedy everyone ends up married. In both you have a central love story. You can mess about with these: combine them to form quests or epics, invert them, subvert them, lighten or darken them — but they are still there. People don’t seem to like to read novels where everyone ends up dead, for some reason, so what you usually find are novels that conform to the comedy structure, like chick lit and lad lit; novels that are actually short stories (they have no conclusive ending, no central love story and usually one concealed but relatively simple theme); and novels that work within the rules (sort of) but try to screw around with things a bit, like mine do. Of course not everyone notices when you screw around with things….


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