I recently interviewed the Irish author, Peter Murphy, who’s just published his second novel Shall We Gather at the River with Faber & Faber. The novel – while being a rollicking good yarn – is also a rather experimental book. The plot is oftentimes surreal; it has a main protagonist, but a lot of the book focuses on other minor or incidental characters; the narrative is non-linear – it jumps back and forth through time and place and person.
When I asked him how this came about, he said:
“[The book] did make itself apparent that it wasn’t going to be what we’d call “traditional narrative” with one protagonist all the way through going in a sequential, chronological fashion. I’d love to write a book like that because there’s beauty and elegance in simplicity but it just became apparent to me that the only way that this was going to work was in that fashion. And, you know, the novel is an extremely wide universe … it can accommodate many, many different types of books. And I do get a bit annoyed when I see schools of criticism that seem to be stuck in the 18th century that say the novel has to be written the way that Henry James or the Bronte sisters did it. The methods are as disparate as the subject matter.”
When I asked him if it was difficult to sell this kind of an experimental novel to an agent/publisher, he said:
“It depends on how good the publisher is. I mean, I got an amazing response from Faber when I submitted the manuscript … they were pretty gung-ho, they were pretty evangelical from the start about it. Which I was relieved and surprised by. But, at the risk of sounding glib, to me you just write the best possible book you can and if it’s good, it sells itself.”
Bearing all this in mind, let’s look at some of the responses that authors often receive from agents/publishers when submitting their novels:
- Too many characters; needs to have one specific protagonist
- Too many flashbacks pull the reader out of the main story
- Anything under 80-90,000 words is too short
- Needs to be one definable genre
Now, I think we all know that even a briefest perusal of the “New Fiction” shelves at your local bookstore will show that some novels break many – if not all – of the commandments laid out above.
So, what’s my point? Well, my point is simple. Had Peter Murphy listened to all of this advice, he never would have published his novel (a novel which, having read, I believe will go on to win awards). Now this is not to say that a writer shouldn’t listen to feedback, criticism or advice – we most certainly should. Every writer – whether established or beginner – is always learning, and feedback and advice from our peers is essential. However, I think sometimes we can listen a little too much and get led up a blind alley.
Perhaps, it’s time to stop listening to the “Don’t”s – don’t have more than one protagonist; don’t use flashbacks; don’t fall short of the suggested word count – and, instead, focus on “doing”. Write the story you want to write in the way you want to write it and, as Peter says, “If it’s good, it sells itself.”
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