There is an old saying in the software world. “It’s not a bug, it’s a feature.” The customer uses the program, finds it does not work as they expect, and reports it as a bug to the developer. To the developer though, that way of working was intentional, part of the original design, part of the overall vision of the program. “That’s not a bug, that’s a feature,” the developer replies indignantly. The customer returns the software and buys Microsoft instead. The developer goes on to found Google and becomes a billionaire. (Okay, that second part happens less often than the first.)
This is what happened during the editing process of my novel, The Rules of Trade, (the struggles of which I have documented previously). The publisher, Chrism Press, reported a bug, expecting that I would fix it. That’s not a bug, I responded indignantly, that’s a feature. We could not agree, so we have parted ways. They are lovely and talented people and I wish them every success. The work they have set out to do is important, and I will follow their progress with interest.
I’m a congenital contrarian, it seems. I’m not sure if this is a bug or a feature, but I am always the one who is picking holes in the current consensus. I spent the whole of my career in technical communication and content strategy questioning the consensus of those trades. It seems that habit continues into my literary career.
Being a contrarian is not a virtue. There is nothing romantic about it either. Contrarians tend to be annoying and they are always one step away from turning into cranks. But I think nature produces them as a necessary part of the human ecosystem. Most of the time, cranks and contrarians are just an annoyance, like ants at a picnic. Every so often they change the world. In any case, if you were born that way, there is no point in trying to be anything different. It is bred in the bone, for good or ill. Usually for ill.
One thing that contrarians like to do is write books. C.S. Lewis, a far more gracious and able contrarian than I, said that no one was writing the sort of books that he wanted to read so he had to write them himself. That is precisely my motive for writing. There is a perfect avalanche of books being published today, but I have a very hard time finding any I like. I am not writing in the mainstream of my genre, but against it. I’m writing what I want to read because no one else is. And I won’t edit it into something I would no longer want to read myself.
There are fashions in literature, as there are in all the arts. If you were born to be a folk singer in, let’s say, 1935, like the late great Liam Clancy, you would have come of age just in time for the folk revival of the 1950s, and the way would have been open for you to become an international superstar. A Liam Clancy born in, say, 1995, on the other hand, would have had to settle for a relatively modest career making YouTube videos and playing pubs and folk festivals.
The fashion in literature today is for what I would call the literature of the self. The classical hero, as enshrined in the hero’s journey model, is a servant of the community. He conforms to the expectations of the community, he fights and, if necessary, sacrifices himself for the good of the community. The modern hero, on the other hand, throws off the bonds of convention and obligation and pursues her own ends. Independence and self-fulfillment are her highest calling.
This emphasis on what we might call the self-actualization of the hero, is accompanied by a new approach to narrative and storytelling. Traditional literature had always featured the voice of the storyteller. But the self-actualization of the protagonist, their freedom from all obligation or judgement, requires the stilling of that voice. The protagonist must speak for themselves and the storyteller must exit the scene.
This in turn leads to an obsession with what is called “point of view”. Every part of a story must now be seen from the point of view of one character or another. Any attempt at introducing a narrative voice is assigned to the essentially pejorative category of “omniscient point of view.” Point of view has become the thing around which all modern literary and editorial theory is based. I think it is bunk, and I shall have much more to say on that subject. With diagrams. Because I am a contrarian. Possibly even a crank. But that is for another day.
For today, my point is simply this: I find the literature of the self, and the point-of-view obsessed narrative style that goes with it, tedious. I am trying to write something else. Something in touch with an older tradition, but not something old or nostalgic. I want to write the thing that comes after the literature of the self. I reject current point of view doctrine as unsuitable for the kind of thing I want to write about. It’s not a bug, it’s a feature.
The literature of the self supposes that we know ourselves best and that other people misunderstand us to one degree or another. The desire to be understood, or the pain of being misunderstood, is often a theme in the literature of the self. But I believe that if anyone misunderstands us, it is ourselves. The picture we have of ourselves and of how the world perceives us, or should perceive us, is warped by conceit, insecurity, and an inherently self-centered view of the world. As Burns said:
“O, wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as others see us!
It wad frae monie a blunder free us,
An' foolish notion.”
But it is more than this. We are social creatures. The selves that we present to the world change with the company we keep. We are very much what others see us to be. Our selves are defined not by ourselves but by the people we meet. To see ourselves as others see us is to see us as we are. Not only do they perceive us better, their opinion, their vision, their treatment of us forms us.
The literature of the self, then, is presenting a distorted image of an independent and self-formed self. In showing us characters only as they see themselves, it misses the thing that really forms and defines us: how other see us.
My preference, therefore, is to define characters not as they see themselves, but as others see them. Or sometimes to contrast how they see themselves with how others see them. This is not what the iron law of point of view says you are supposed to do. But the iron law of point of view is a creature and servant of the literature of the self. I am trying to do something different, something deliberately contrary.
My novel, The Rules of Trade, is a simple enough story. A young woman must make a choice between two things she loves. Each of those things is represented by a young man, but it is not simply about the young men, but about the kind of life each represents (not merely offers, but represents). Still, a simple romance plot it might seem, except that, because of the times and circumstances that she lives in, her choices have terrible consequences for the people she loves and the people who depend on her.
In a contemporary novel of the self, my heroine would arrive at the point of choosing fully aware of the consequences of her choices and of everything going on around her and would make the choice that enhanced her self-actualization regardless of the consequences for others. (She might encourage all those who feel they are harmed by her choice to focus on their own self-actualization and thus somehow escape the consequences of her actions, just to keep things tidy and her self-absorption untroubled.)
But real life is not remotely like that. My heroine stumbles in large part because she does not see herself as others see her. Though good-hearted, she is full of foolish notions. And thus she blunders. She makes her choices without fully realizing what she is doing, and then dithers over them with further disastrous consequences. The novel, though, is very much concerned with seeing her as others see her. It examines her and her actions from every angle, including that of the narrator. But it is not just about how they see her. It is about how they feel about her, how she is embedded in their lives and the joy and pain they feel at everything she does and says.
So many novels today advertise themselves as being about the hero breaking free of family expectation and social obligations. The Rules of Trade is about the great bloody gashes that people leave behind when they do that. It is not about pulling out a single thread of personality, but about how the entire fabric of a family or a community can unravel when you do so. The narrative structure is designed to reflect this purpose and support it. I don’t mean to suggest that every contemporary novel is a paean to the self. But the narrative form that supports that type of novel has become the contemporary norm. My departure from it is not a bug. It is a feature.
It is not an easy sell of course. But I have noticed something in the responses of the various editors and beta readers who have read my books. Those who are trained in contemporary editorial theory always pick up on the fact that I am at odds with it. They always tell me that readers will reject it or be confused by it. Those who are not so trained, on the other hand, never notice that I am doing anything different, and never say they are confused by it.
Now, this group of readers is far too small, and too far from a random sample, to base any conclusions or any defense of my project on. Beta readers are often much more polite than they should be. But it may indicate that the public is not so monolithic in its taste as current theory would have it be.
And indeed, the very fact that fashions change in the arts is indication that the rules of any one school or movement are narrower than the tastes of the public. Each has their turn upon the stage and then is thrust from the limelight as a new fashion takes over. One of the virtues of the modern age is that while a Liam Clancy born in 1995 may not become an international superstar, they can at least make a living on YouTube and the festival circuit. Unless their name is Nathan Evans. Because everything comes round again eventually. There may be hope for me yet.
Some might say that what I am trying to do here does not sound particularly new or out of the ordinary. I certainly didn’t think it was when I began. I did not begin with a theory or an analytical framework or an intent to challenge the dominant narrative form of the day. I set out to write what I thought was a perfectly ordinary novel on a perfectly ordinary subject in a perfectly ordinary style. But my encounters with the publishing establishment to date tell me that it is not so ordinary today. And so here I am.
If my novels are in fact any good as examples of their now rather eccentric type, there is probably a market out there for them. I go on with my quest to find it. Any hints and pointers to that end will be received with gratitude.