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"House of Leaves" and the rules of writing

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Steerpike, Jan 25, 2012.

  1. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

    I've been reading (and enjoying) House of Leaves, the debut novel by writer Mark Z. Danielewski. The novel is quite unconventional. It is full of footnotes, and while many of them are academic-style footnotes there is actually a story going on in the footnotes that runs in parallel to the main narrative. In some places, an entry in the footnotes will extend over a few pages, and then the main narrative picks up again at the top of the page. The story in the footnotes employs unusual fonts at times, as well as words spaced in such a manner as to create a visual effect, words turned in their oritentation the pages, pages with a lot of white space and only a few words, and so on. Earlier this evening I reached a point where two pages of text were in red font with a strikethrough running through all of it (supposed to be material redacted from the original work that Danielewski put back in; but there is no "original" work, it is just part of how the novel is written). The word "house" appears in a blue font in many places throughout the text.

    I have found the book to be quite good, and 120 pages in it has never failed to hold my interest. It was a bestseller and the NY Book Review said of it: "Funny, moving, sexy, beautifully told, an elaborate engagement with the shape and meaning of narrative."

    And again, this is a debut novel, not something done by an established author who can play on his name.

    Makes one wonder whether one can ever legitimately use the words "you can't" when advising another person on how to write fiction.
  2. Agreed. The more useful rendering of "you can't" would be "that's probably not a good idea, but there's a slim chance you might be able to get away with it" (or, more concisely, "good luck with that"). Things like you describe are tough to pull off without being annoying, self-indulgent, and distracting; and it's likely that there have been many attempted novels that do things like you describe, but weren't good enough to get published (or were self-published and weren't good enough to get any kind of a following).

    One that did (although it sounds quite tame by comparison) is Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke. It's fiction (about competing magicians, sort of), and there are hundreds of footnotes along the way.
  3. Philip Overby

    Philip Overby Staff Article Team

    I would say that like any experimental artist, some hit the mark and some don't. Danielewski hit a mark. Is there any evidence that he had been in "the scene" for a while before his book was picked up? He could have very well impressed some publishers with his short stories so they solicited him to a write novel. Or maybe that didn't happen, I don't know his history.

    The thing is, yes, he "got away with it." He's obviously extremely gifted though. Others have defied convention with mixed results. I've always heard the advice "write what you'd want to read" as there might be a good chance that other people would want to read it. So, yeah.
  4. Sounds cool - I'll have to give it a read. It is possible to break the mould even for a first time author, but you have to be damn good to get away with it.
  5. Graham Irwin

    Graham Irwin Sage

    It was a good read, certainly, but a gimmick, ultimately.

    The reader is supposed to feel themselves spiraling out of control, as the MC is spiraling out of control while researching someone who spiraled out of control. It's designed to confuse, like a ghost house.

    I wouln't read another one like it, though :)
  6. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

    To me, that is what matters. It is also a good illustration about what can go wrong in a critique group, where easy advice about passive voice or show don't tell is tossed around without considering whether the piece as a whole works. Ultimately, whether it works is the only thing that matters.
  7. Amanita

    Amanita Maester

    I agree that we're spending way to much time discussing what the market wants rather than work on the books we want to write. One of the things that has kept me from spending the amount of time here I used to in the past.
    I believe that a writer who decides what to write on the amount of money per word he's going to get out of it (or any reason like that) isn't very likely to produce anything beyond average even though he might be more likely to earn his money of course. ;) But he's probably not going to become one of his countries richest citizens either.
  8. JCFarnham

    JCFarnham Auror

    I've always loved experimentation. To me, it always "works". It may be confusing at first and ultimate take multiple goes to understand (kind of like David Lynch films haha) but ultimately we all love something to get our teeth into don't we? Problems to solve, and so on.

    At the outset I promised myself I would never write what tradition dictates. Now that's not as naive as it sounds I promise. What I mean when I say "never" is if I have a logical chance to do something different I will, but (and this is the golden rule) if it doesn't make sense in the context of the story I'll stick to the road well travelled. A firm favourite of mine is Beloved by Toni Morrison. Soo much symbolism, often plays with format, stylistic choices within the narrative, or the dialogue ... Just read, and I mean really read, the three infamous point of view chapters toward the end of the book and tell me they don't speak to you in some way (okay that's a mighty bad challenge to make I know! Some people just don't like this kind of stuff and that's fine. It's exactly the same as me not reading much mainstream fiction, doesn't mean it's not good, just not of interest to me)

    The people laugh at Trend Setters/Market leaders. Then Trend setters laugh at the People when what they pioneered catches on in the mainstream. Why bother if you're not willing to take risks? The most groundbreakingly successful novels of the century took bloody years to get published. Write the book you want to write. It may take half a century to gain any interest, but since you didn't do it to get on the band wagon, you're the one building the wagon ;)

    Never limited yourself.

    Sounds like such a lofty dreamers ideal to create by, but the mythical They are the ones who'll be eating there words at the end of the day.

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