Adventurous wanderings: the meaty matter of the contemporary novel

Writers on stageA literary map with a glossary would have been handy – that was how much ground was covered in the official opening session of the New Zealand Post Writers and Readers Week. I took more than 1000 words of keyboard shorthand notes while listening to Neil Cross, Gil Adamson, Kamila Shamsie and Audrey Niffenegger. Words like tropes and encultured flowed through my ears. None of the notes are much use, because as Neil Cross said: “It’s difficult to articulate without sounding like an arsehole”.

No-one fell into that category – quite the opposite. Kate de Goldi was super prepared and the conversation flowed easily. So what does the modern novel offer writers?

Gil Adamson said fun and the enjoyment of writing.  The Outlander, her first novel, was originally a poem spurred by an image of a young woman in black running as fast as she can. It became a ten-year process. “So it was a journey?,” chair Kate de Goldi asked. “No, it was a trial.” The fun came in writing the book sequentially, the discovery of the story along the way.

Neil Cross, who writes scripts and suspense thrillers, said the form changed depending on “who yelled at me on the phone last night”.

Scripts are constrained by the fact that you are spending other people’s money, he said, and the logistics of whether something can be filmed or not.

“In novel land, you can do whatever you like. I like to write so that reading becomes invisible. So people never have to get to the end of a sentence and go back and re-read.” He was still lost in Henry James, 25 years on.

Audrey Niffenegger said the novel was a “super practical” choice for what she was doing. The highest value was in originality – the form followed her creative need. Novels were also low cost and do-it-yourself. For Niffenegger novel school or writing classes were no use. Some of the audience winced.

Kamila Shamsie said the novel as a colonial form was not an issue, but the fact that she grew up reading novels in English about everywhere except where she grew up – Karachi – was. For her language was at the heart of the novel.

“I love plasticine words, anagrams, the sounds of words backwards. It’s a weirdness. You can extend it to your novels and pretend that there’s a reason for it.”

But genre was the casualty of the night – especially literary fiction. Audrey Niffenegger fired the first shot:

“Literary fiction is a genre called miscellaneous,” she said.

Neil Cross joined the attack:

“Literary fiction is fiction where if you don’t enjoy it, the author can say it’s your fault.”

Niffenegger again: “Wouldn’t it be neat if there was a bookstore arranged by grooviness? What if categories disappeared and you had to look at a different part of the bookstore? You might like it.”

Cross started nailing the lid on the coffin when he shared how he had tried to get publishers to visit real bookstores. They “almost detonated with terror”. Adamson didn’t like the literary label either, but wasn’t as harsh, saying that form was “a bit of a mosh pit”.

The discussion turned to place, and settings authors use. Cross wants readers to have a physical reaction to his books – just one more chapter before bed. To him all landscapes were psychological.

Nifennegger did “total immersion” cemetery research to help her graveyard setting be authentic and counterbalance the fantastical aspects of her novel. Shamsie got a sense of wild west freedom writing about the “extraordinary symphony” of Karachi in Cartography.

This was an unusual opening in that there were no readings – usually a staple at this kind of event. Yet somehow this made me more intrigued – I think I’ll read these authors with different eyes now I can see further through the forest of labels.

Overall it was an enthralling start, a brainful of adventurous wanderings. It was technical at times, but there was a singular clarity too: write the book you want to write.