Writing a literary novel in the age of privacy.
By Craig Simpson
We’re all trying to increase our level of privacy, aren’t we? We live in a prying world, filled with listening ears. Any of our devices can be tapped into. Encryption makes us feel slightly safer. With each passing year, we lose a little bit more privacy. We’re fighting it. We want to keep our private lives hidden.
That goal changes when you set out to write a book of fiction. Many writers write about the lives they live, and what they observe. In that case, you can’t guard your privacy. You mine it. And you ask strangers to read the results.
Writers are introspective, even guarded. Writing can be uncomfortable when personal disclosure is a key definition of writing. Even when your material is shaded and indirect, as it should be, you’ve put yourself out there, on that page.
It’s strange to realize that a novel is more private than an email, but we guard our emails while we try to publish our novels.
… we guard our emails while we try to publish our novels.
Seems a bit loopy, doesn’t it.
To describe the feeling of finishing a novel, a reckless example—you bug your own home-office, transcribe what you hear, and upload it to Google. Uh, yeah.
A long tradition
Just to be clear, I’m talking about a novel that’s entirely made-up. I write fiction, not memoir or roman á clef. Still, a novel is full of observations. The words in your book are said by characters, but they’re all yours. It’s a lot of fodder. Consider that a single tweet of 140 characters can get you fired from your job. Imagine what 130,000 words can do to you these days?
In our surveilled times, should anyone share their messy and thoroughly-human thoughts in a novel? Why decrypt your life?
Why decrypt your life?
For literary writers and readers, honest disclosure is the way it is. Literature is a contract, a bargain, even a trust. A writer explores a story but also a truth.
The literary reader picks up a novel to try out this truth, to engage it, and react. Fans of literature agree: regular characters are far more interesting than action heroes. Reading for its own sake is a true pleasure. Unfortunately, this romantic, even noble view of writing is being lost for a new generation.
In the 21st century, the debut novelist sees what’s going on out there. Many readers don’t want the Great American (or Great World) Novel. They just want to have fun. So new writers feel they need to write fast-paced commercial fiction; romance, vampires, legal thrillers, murder, espionage, wizards.
“Commercial fiction is the only fiction left,” the experts say. “If you don’t write a page-turner, you’re invisible. You’ll be writing for yourself.”
‘Commercial fiction is the only fiction left,’ the experts say.
Anyone who’s paying attention can admit, the experts are right. The practice of reading a book for its own sake (literary fiction) has diminished. Nonfiction books sell because they give information. With traditional fiction (no pictures, just words), it’s the commercial stuff that’s sold at supermarkets and made into movies. Add in the Young Adult genre and you’re talking real money.
On a personal level, a writer may choose commercial fiction to look smart and legitimate. It shows friends and family that you’re not clueless, a dreamer. “I know people don’t read as much,” you say. “But what I’m writing will sell.”
For many of us, the draw of commercial fiction is the draw of money. Any adult who spends nights and weekends writing fiction hopes to be paid for it. It’s not wrong to write for your muse, write for yourself. But it is expensive.
Long form writing is a feast or famine pursuit. Commercial fiction is more likely to lead to a meal. So, why isn’t everyone writing commercial fiction?
… why isn’t everyone writing commercial fiction?
My debut novel is literary fiction (by determined choice!). Are some of us writers too dense to get with the times? Are we allergic to success?
This answer sounds self-congratulatory. Literary novelists are rebels.
Breaking the contract
There’s every reason for a writer to go commercial. Literary novels are a tough sell. There’s a promise of poverty. Even so, the literary writer holds fast.
It isn’t about elitism (for everyone). This literary novelist isn’t too good for commercial fiction. The commercial novelist serves a reader like a bartender has his regulars. It’s just, literary novelists don’t want to be bartenders.
… literary novelists don’t want to be bartenders.
People buy commercial fiction to escape from their lives for a while. They want to forget their troubles. A commercial novel can be big, bold, but it can’t be very deep. The reader wants pace, excitement. Also, the commercial book must end in a comfortable way, with a sense of justice. The ending should end how we’d like it to end.
Literature breaks this contract. It goes for better than wish fulfillment, aims for what is true over what is hoped for. A literary novel doesn’t strain to be memorable. It makes something memorable out of what is (already) true.
Literary stories explore many kinds of truths, truths that we all live by. There’s the story that’s a warning, as in a cautionary tale. There’s an education of a character, a coming of age. An inspiring turnaround, a road to redemption. (The main story in my novel, Marble on a Table, touches on on all of these.)
A literary novelist doesn’t want to be your bartender, but your friend. Friends encourage, empathize. Friends tell the truth.
Truth is often uninvited, a surprise. Uncovering one is dramatic. We naturally own up to a compelling truth. We didn’t quite know it existed in that way. A literary book dares to validate the familiar, but unexpected truth.
A literary book dares to validate the familiar, but unexpected truth.
For the novelist, this handling of sharp knives is exhilarating. The great novels of history were change agents. They upset a balance. It’s what made them notable. It’s the possibility every time a new one is written.
For the general interest reader, literary fiction brings a cold reality to what could be a fun party. It’s true. Literary fiction refuses simply to make a reader feel good above all else. It tries to make readers feel valued, special, even loved. It’s a higher goal, but one that a reader needs to believe is worth it.
The right to know
A downer, a lot of work, it’s the stereotype you hear of literary fiction. And yet, this complaint suggests that fun is always found in a big show. There are other kinds of entertainment. A rollercoaster vs. a dinner party.
If a commercial novel is bigger-than-life, then a literary novel is a “day-in-the-life.” Literary fiction is about the smaller moments we live. An aspect of the literary style is a belief that you’re following a “real” person’s life. Why is privacy so guarded? Because it’s darn interesting to us.
Why is privacy so guarded? Because it’s darn interesting ….
We’re drawn to inner lives. There’s celebrity gossip at the checkout. Where you live, there’s a local grapevine that you follow. Knowing the doings of friends and strangers is a habit that we almost believe is our right, as fellow humans!
How can we enjoy the peeling back of a fictional life it it doesn’t feel real? A writer with literary ambition invests the time in making a world that your instincts say is true. The writer avoids the big show for credibility.
The power of a secret
At the heart of a literary novel is a compelling secret. All stories have secrets to reveal, of course. In commercial fiction, the secret is a plot secret. You find out the mole in a spy organization. You discover the murderer’s name.
In literary fiction, the secrets are people secrets.
In literary fiction, the secrets are people secrets. You learn how a fictional person navigates a life issue, and at what great cost. Literary characters, like real people, have limited capabilities. They put their pants on one leg at a time. They must solve their problems ingeniously. They’re fabulously normal. We watch them struggle. Action reveals character.
Literary fiction has a plot. Literary novels aren’t really about nothing. Only, their plots help to make the characters richer as a result. In commercial fiction, when you discover the mole in the organization, it tickles your curiosity, but the moment is exterior. The main character is unaffected.
A literary novel’s secrets always affect, even implicate, the characters. When you learn these secrets, it changes the people in the novel. Their traits, their fictional humanity is impacted by the revelation of story secrets. It’s why literary fiction can resonate with readers long afterward. Good literary fiction hits close to home for us, hits us where we live.
Good literary fiction hits close to home for us, hits us where we live.
We may rather be detectives, spies, or fated romantic parters in commercial fiction. Only, we’re regular people. Most of us are stuck being flawed and limited. A literary novel meets us in our real lives. It talks to us and that is interesting. We’re attracted to fantasy, but we’re interested in ourselves.
A search for identity
The main character in my novel, Marble on a Table, has a secret. He’s the lone failure in a city of winners. Twenty-eight-year-old Rasmus Smith is thrust into an identity crisis in New York City. There, the loss of personal certainty is a fatal weakness, leading to a loss of everything, from job, to apartment, to love.
Wearing the title of New Yorker had been Rasmus’s identity. It meant being tough, shrewd, successful. Rasmus Smith had worked his way to this status.
Then overnight, it’s gone. Worse, it’s his fault. Rasmus Smith let down the people he worked for. He wasn’t tough, shrewd, or successful. For Rasmus, it’s a failure complete and visible. It follows him everywhere.
New York City is a city of honor.
New York City is a city of honor. People in all walks of life, rich and poor, can hold a sense of honor in the city. In a matter of months, Rasmus Smith loses his honor with the people who matter. He doesn’t know what to do.
Broaching the s word
An emotion that’s hardly spoken about is, well, shame. We all know it exists, at least by deduction. For example, we’re told that feeling shame is what separates us from sociopaths. We also see evidence of shame in the mug shots on the news, in the desperate acts of strangers. We’re aware that shame is a driver of irrational behavior. It’s an epidemic that rarely shows itself.
We may be too ashamed to discuss shame publicly.
We may be too ashamed to discuss shame publicly. You might overhear a humorous reference to it. “I’m ashamed to admit I ate the whole thing.” Is real shame a poison, or is it tough teacher? Is it too dangerous to reveal?
To come back from the brink of a serious personal crisis, Rasmus Smith realizes he must do what seems impossible: live with shame, and learn.
Aches and pains
In Marble on a Table, Rasmus Smith catches an odd feeling one city afternoon. Like catching a cold, he doesn’t know where he got it. Only, he sees now that he has it. And he wants to get rid of it.
Like catching a cold, he doesn’t know where he got it.
A typical way to get over shame is simply to forget. Something keeps Rasmus from forgetting. The feeling won’t fade into the background. Rasmus sees that he’s in a place where shame is challenging something in his life that he dislikes even more. Shame is a symptom … but of what?
Miserable, broke, and with nothing more to lose, Rasmus decides to play along. In a gamble, he’ll see where shame goes if it’s left to run its course.
The identity antidote
In real life, a strong identity is a personal protector against uncertainty. An identity tells us, we’re OK. We know who we are. Any shame we might feel is just nerves, or being too hard on ourselves. A strong identity helps us to live.
Years ago, it was believed that identity was formed as we grew into adulthood. By the time we reached our early twenties, we knew who we were. Our identities were set. Ours was accepted and taken as a fact.
Identity is not considered fixed, but evolving.
Today, everything’s changed. Identity is not considered fixed, but evolving. People are changing their views, their orientations, even their sexes, well into their fifties, sixties, and beyond. Recently, after his wife of 50 years died, the newfound widower married a man. The widower was ninety years old.
Rasmus Smith discovers that his identity isn’t fixed. He’s not who he thought he was. The loss of a stable self-image opens up Rasmus Smith to all kinds of questions, problems, and fears. It opens him up to shame.
Choosing a new self
Marble on a Table follows a young man as he claims a new, inspirational identity. Rasmus decides what his problem is: he isn’t a good person. He sets out to be, with all the energy and effort that a New Yorker can bring.
Rasmus decides what his problem is: he isn’t a good person.
It’s a difficult transition. Rasmus Smith realizes he’s not naturally positive, helpful, or mindful of others. Instead, he’s the opposite: cynical and selfish. Rasmus wonders how he’ll pull this off. He’ll have to find a way. It’s the identity that’ll make his life worthwhile. It’s the identity that’ll save him.
One benefit of living a selfless life, Rasmus supposes, is a new harmony with others. Rasmus goes out of his way to be agreeable and other-centered. Only, his new-leaf approach is not taken well by his fellow New Yorkers. It’s as if his raising the bar on himself raises it on others, as well. Soon, he’s alone, a pariah.
… his new-leaf approach is not taken well by his fellow New Yorkers.
When you’ve tried everything, and nothing works, and nothing changes, it’s a dark place to be. For Rasmus Smith, the old self doesn’t fit, and the new self won’t take. The only alternative is ending the self altogether.
Rasmus Smith makes plans to end it all. Then, he meets a mysterious stranger. If he can win this one person over, he believes, he’ll be cured.
Marble on a Table is an opposites-attract love story. At his lowest point, Rasmus Smith meets a newcomer to New York City, Alli.
Rasmus can’t help but idolize her.
Rasmus meets Alli in the most random of city encounters. He doesn’t just like her. Rasmus can’t help but idolize her. She’s everything he’s looking to be. Even with his cynical eye, he believes she’s a good person.
Alli does not see Rasmus as romantic material. It’s just his luck. The thing he likes about her is the thing that’s in the way. Alli is friendly, to a fault. And yet, she lives a very different principled life.
They both know Alli’s big difference: a devout belief in God.
They both know Alli’s big difference: a devout belief in God.
What would it take for Alli to drop God for him? How can Rasmus convince her?
Rasmus makes himself useful, shows Alli the ropes in the city. Alli tries to convince Rasmus to change his approach to life. Selflessness isn’t a game, but a sacrifice. What is he willing to sacrifice?
They don’t get along. They have a unique power to upset each other’s lives. And yet, they each have something the other wants, so they hold an uneasy alliance. They try not to love each other. If they do, they both sense they will have to sacrifice everything to survive it.
Marble on a Table is a novel set in 1995-era New York City. It’s a city in comparative isolation. The internet is not yet in mass use. Mobile phones are expensive. For average people, the answering machine is a lifeline.
In the novel, the year 2000 is a milestone fast-approaching.
In the novel, the year 2000 is a milestone fast-approaching. This pre-millennial time is one of transition, when ambitious city people look to make a mark on history. Theirs is a collective identity of progress, of having the power to affect change, to see results happen on a big scale.
Rasmus Smith hangs on to his part in this world with his new positive identity. His career inovlves manipulating culture through the media. It keeps Rasmus in the city. Suddenly, he’s asked to service a barbaric and violent new style of advertising. His new identity comes under attack.
In Marble on a Table, all of the characters are similarly challenged. The city is a glamorous place to live. It’s also a demanding place that asks to be served. Rasmus lives in the top one-percent of culture in world history. It doesn’t seemingly allow for individuals.
Rasmus lives in the top one-percent of culture in world history.
Rasmus, and everyone he meets, must finally choose, to deny one’s identity and be rewarded by the city. Or, to stay firm in who you are and lose it all.
As a historical novel, Marble on a Table documents the biases and virtues of the times. It also reflects on the evolution of enduring cultural topics.
Rasmus and his mysterious stranger, Alli, try to navigate a male-female friendship in New York City. Neither is certain what gender roles they must assume, if any, to keep their friendship platonic and (in their case) away from interpersonal disaster. Who has the responsibility to keep it that way?
Rasmus Smith’s new inspirational identity ends up challenging Rasmus’s boss, a hardened corporate workaholic. For the boss, altruism and social conscience are a manipulation, a guilt trip. Is generosity calculable? Is social conscience really possible, or is it a bias made up by a select few to control others?
Rasmus is an educated urban atheist. He falls in love with a religious woman. Their viewpoints reasonably oppose each other. They have conflicts over responsibility, character, individual rights, ethics, and morality. Each expects the other to give in, for there to be any peace.
Under-under-underground New York
New York City is known for its subcultures that operate outside of the mainstream. In Marble on a Table, Rasmus Smith stumbles onto a group that, for New York, is extremely underground: young Protestant Christians.
Crossing paths with this group is a freak accident.
Crossing paths with this group is a freak accident. In one way, Rasmus has something in common with the urban Christians. He wants to affect positive change. But whereas they seek change within an ancient religious system, Rasmus distrusts groupthink, using his own educated conscience as his guide.
Unfortunately, Rasmus realizes, he now has more in common with these religious eccentrics than he does with his old friends and colleagues. Which leaves him feeling even more alien in the city that was his home.
Rasmus sees, when a person’s life breaks down, there’s little support system in a city. It’s a hard fall. In a city of performance, it’s almost a crime to feel vulnerable.
Where to land
You can only go for so long with what you don’t want. You have to pick a way.
You have to pick a way.
The Christian group offers to help Rasmus recover. These people seem OK with failure. Too OK, Rasmus observes. They work corporate jobs, or wait tables with pipe dreams of Broadway. They have midwestern backgrounds. They aren’t built for New York. They need their religious beliefs to get by.
Rasmus is determined to avoid them. The more distance he puts between himself and this peculiar underground, the harder it seems to get away.
The woman whom Rasmus chases, Alli, is a part of the group. He senses that Alli doesn’t fit there either. The Christians are pariahs in New York. It makes them relatable to Rasmus, that’s all. He senses the same is true for Alli.
Rasmus feels, he’s better than this inviting group. Only, he also knows, he’s not good enough for the city that drove him here. Is there another way out?
The informed heart
Today’s population has near-unlimited access to information. News sources, entertainment options. Friend updates. The heart is not nearly as informed.
To step into a fictional life … is a study in empathy.
To step into a fictional life, one with the limitations of our own lives, is a study in empathy. How does it make us feel? What do we learn from those feelings? Is what’s being revealed enjoyable to us? True for us? Is it worth the time spent?
People find answers reading literary fiction. Commercial fiction earns it keep with action and pleasant surprises, even if the fun feels familiar. There’s no guarantee that a literary novel will speak to us. But there’s a chance that it will, and in a big way. For some, that chance is worth taking the time to explore it.
Someone said, it takes a fictional story to let us see life. A what-if get us closer than reality sometimes allows. A good author takes on all the sides of a novel, is nonpartisan in the moment, however the story plays out. It’s what keeps a novel at a heart level. More people live on a heart level than at a head level.
Fiction seeks to unite people through intuition and instinct. It’s in our unguarded emotions where our humanity is most readily found. It’s where life feels most familiar, where the better parts of living can be appreciated anew.
… a cause that literary novelists find worth the cost.
Un-guarding ourselves is a cause that literary novelists find worth the cost. A literary novel is something you write for its own sake. It’s something you read for its own sake. There’s a special satisfaction found in impractical things. And hopefully, a future reader will embrace a story that opens one life to another.
Camera on wall — Kai Oberhäuser
Craig Simpson is author of Marble on a Table, a debut novel. He also runs The Writing Thing Group, a blogging network, as well as teaches communication at college and to individuals.
Read Marble on a Table at its current home online.