The Future of the Novel: story is here to stay

By Vikki VanSickle

Saturday’s round table discussion, Zombies, Witches, Killers and Cowboys: Visions of the Future of the Novel, featured a group of authors from various genres with a wonderful natural chemistry. The scope of the discussion was large, touching on themes such as genre, love, the imagination and the writing process. The audience was very welcoming—and obviously full of Jo Nesbø fans.

Moderator Andrew Pyper kept the tone of the discussion light and fun. At one point Nesbø described storytelling as inviting people to your house; if they like it, they will come again. The event very much felt like we had been invited into a cozy collective living room. The discussion included a number of personal anecdotes and I’m sure if given the opportunity the audience would have stayed all afternoon to hear these mix of authors talk.

Andrew Pyper, Deborah Harkness, Alen Mattich, Jo Nesbø and Corey Redekop at IFOA 2012 © readings.org

The question of genre and categorization was one of the more interesting and heated discussions. Genre writers often feel sidelined or undermined by the literati. According to Nesbø, crime fiction is respected and prestigious in Scandinavia, but this is not the case in North America or England, causing Pyper to surmise what a M.G. Vassanji or Anne Michaels crime novel would look like, to much laughter from the audience.

Redekop brought up the case of Margaret Atwood, who made her mark as a literary writer and poet before diving into genre fictions such as The Handmaid’s Tale, Oryx and Crake, and The Year of the Flood. Redekop wondered if she had written these novels first, would she be considered “merely” a science fiction writer? Atwood herself refers to these novels as “speculative fiction,” which many sci-fi writers find evasive and suggest that in using this term Atwood herself is aware of (and avoiding) the stigma of genre writing.

Deborah Harkness and Alen Mattich talked about the constraints of genre. Harkness referred to genre as a weapon, used by critics and literary award committees to demean so-called genre writers and exclude them from the literary elite. She also talked about genre policing, in which readers and critics are quick to exclude titles based on an arbitrary set of rules or perceived notions about genres.

Harkness is a historian and a professor and talked about the snobbery of her own colleagues, who assumed she would write her fiction (which features witches and vampires) under a pseudonym. Mattich agreed that in North American and British literary circles there is some derision of genre fiction, but he felt that the constraints of genre fiction benefit the writer. With no constraints, Mattich believes it would be harder to succeed. The framework provided by these categories, as arbitrary as they may be, allows the author a framework to push against or an opportunity to test the boundaries and perhaps come up with something fresh and new.

There was some discussion as to why we categorize. Harkness believes the categorizations exist only for the reader, and Redekop confessed that as a librarian, categories are are a useful tool when readers are seeking something to read.

Nesbø pointed out that genre is all about expectation. When a reader picks up a crime novel or a paranormal romance, they expect certain conventions. Like Mattich, he felt that these expectations make it easier to frame a story. So what of the cross-over novel, that holy grail sought by publishers, which seems to defy genre or categorization? The panel agreed that to write for the masses, or seek something as elusive as the cross-over novel, would endanger the story. As Nesbo says, don’t go to the people, invite them to come to you.

As for the future of the novel? The group steered away from discussion of format (re: e-books) and instead focused on content and what readers want. The panelists all agreed that story is here to stay. As Mattich says, people don’t like random events or information. We like a story to explain things.

Redekop took this one step further, suggesting that we are genetically predisposed to create stories in order to understand the world around us. Nesbø suggested that some of the most interesting writing is not in the novel, but in other formats, pointing to cable TV and shows such as Mad Men. He believes that in the future readers will want to be challenged, and that writers of all forms and genres should be ready for a world of intelligent readers.

This event was part of the Edinburgh World Writers’ Conference, in partnership with the Edinburgh International Book Festival and the British Council.

Follow VanSickle on her blog, pipedreaming, or on Twitter @vikkivansickle.

Five questions with… Liam Card

Author and screenwriter Liam Card will share Exit Papers from Paradise at IFOA.

IFOA: What are you reading right now?

Card: I just finished Kurt Vonnegut’s Bluebeard. The novel was exceptional. Yet another example of how unfairly talented the late Kurt Vonnegut was. I’m a few pages into Chuck Palahniuk’s new novel, Pygmy. I love his work as well, but this one is proving to be a little bit difficult to get into. We’ll see how it goes.

IFOA: You used to be a track and field star. What do runners and writers have in common?

Card: To begin with, they both have a tremendous amount of tenacity. When pain and frustration levels are high and the prospect of giving up seems outrageously appealing, runners and writers forge ahead and endure what is required to reach the finish line. Secondly, they both have a heaping tablespoon of focusthe ability to tune out the myriad of distractions, and the ability zero in on specific tasks, and seeing those tasks through. In track and field and in writing, in sport and in the arts, I believe these two factors to be as important as any amount of talent.

IFOA: You have written screenplays and now a novel. What’s one thing you prefer about the experience of writing a novel?

Card: Writing a novel is a dream, compared to writing a screenplay. Hands down…for me, anyway. Screenplays are highly formulaic, and certain events must take place at certain page points in your screenplay in order to follow the “tried and true” Hollywood formula of cinematic storytelling. That is all well and good, but I find it claustrophobic in contrast to writing a novel.  With a novel, the bones of good storytelling still apply. However, you have more runway to tell your tale. Simply put, a novel comes without such rigid guidelines, and there is freedom in that. After writing my screenplay, the novel was therapeutic.

IFOA: And one thing you prefer about the experience of writing a screenplay?

Card: A screenplay is a piece of art that undergoes major influence from several key people, at several points along the filmmaking assembly line. The writer gets notes from the producer. Then, the writer gets notes from the director. Then, the writer gets notes from financiers. Then, the writer gets notes from Distributors. THEN, the writer gets notes from the lead actors. So, a screenplay is a very collaborative process, which can be really interesting. That is, unless your vision for the screenplay differs drastically from one of the key people listed above. Then, it is a nightmare. Yes, I did experience a few of those along the way. But that level of collaboration was exciting…minus the nightmare conversations.

Moreover, with a screenplay there is also the magic in the sense that it will become a film. And I love films. My Dad and I have always watched films together and have bonded over several great works of art in the world of film. So, when writing a screenplay, there is something magical about the fact that someone will sit down with their father or mother or sister or brother or significant other or partner or wife or husband… or even their girlfriend or boyfriend du jour. It doesn’t matter. Just the thought of two people (or a large group of people) enjoying something artistic together at the same time is special and it makes the headaches of writing a screenplay entirely motivating.

IFOA: Finish this sentence: It really doesn’t matter if you…

Card: … are successful with your passions, but it does matter if you are proud of your attempts. NOTE: I didn’t used to believe this. When I was running track at a very high level, I couldn’t understand how or why people would train, practice, and work so insanely hard just to come fifth, or tenth, or twentieth, or last. Why bother? My association with hard work and pain was for nothing more than winning.

However, as my track coach Earl Farrell used to say, “life and the sport of track and field are incredibly humbling if you play them long enough.” As my Achilles became wracked with chronic tendonitis before the trials for the Sydney Olympics, and as my hamstring tore years later, I no longer occupied the top spot (or even the podium for that matter). I was no longer a track star or champion. Then, it clicked. My passion, in an instant, became entirely about the friendships, the process, and the ability to put yourself out there and have fun while doing it.

IFOA: Bonus question: This year’s International Festival of Authors in one word…

Card: Booktastic.  (You didn’t say I couldn’t make up a word).

Card will participate in two IFOA events: a round table October 27 and a reading October 28.