abandon literary convention at your own risk

I’ve noticed something that concerns me. There seems to be a small band of writers, mostly inexperienced, who flaunt their unconventional approach to fiction. They’ve seen literature, they say, and find it lacking. With their new release, they’re going to change the scope of fiction. They’ve invented a new punctuation mark. They have no plot–on purpose. English, nay, the world, will never be the same!

I’m not naive enough to think that this is an artifact of the democratization of publishing. I know writers of all stripes have existed even before self-publishing exploded, and while it’s easier to notice them now, this is not a new phenomenon. What concerns me, though, is the fact that many of these writers are woefully unaware of the world of fiction they are condemning. They have never written before. They refuse to read. They condemn all fiction, published or no.

Part of being an author, and especially an unconventional one, is masterful understanding and performance of the conventions of literary fiction. When you look at the artists that we revere as geniuses, whatever their field, they were certainly unconventional. But their behavior and their expression wasn’t merely different from those around them–it transcended the art of the craft at the time.

Vonnegut jettisoned narrative chronology, but he understood storytelling and narration in such a way that he could do one better. Van Gogh abandoned pretty much every conventional artistic approach there was at the time–and his contemporaries hated him for it–but his work still feels fresh and inspired hundreds of years after its conception. And Beethoven tore asunder the regimented traditions of classical music to critical acclaim and great audience appreciation.

What you’ll notice about each of these masters, though, is that they did not throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater. In context of their field, each of these exemplars were more similar to their peers than they were different. The key with unconventional creation and paradigm-shifting expression is to know exactly what to change. And that can only be achieved by understanding the crucial form and function of every last word in your book. And every last word in a hundred books. It can be done–but there is a reason we refer to these genre-defining artists as masters. It is a mark of excellence.

I see a lot of people who say “I want my book to be unconventional, so I read no other books.” Or, “I don’t want my book to have a main character.” Or, “I’ve decided not to write a single word about the setting of the book so the reader can believe it happens wherever they want it to.” Each author has some long-winded idea about how their book is going to change the face of narrative fiction. But when you flaunt 100% of publishing and fiction-writing convention for the sake of being unconventional, you’re casting out the parts of fiction that make people read your work in the first place.

Look, I will be the first one to admit that there are a lot of books on the market that could stand to be more inspired. We’ve been publishing tripe (and complaining about it) since the large-scale adoption of the printing press. I’ve read a few books that I know could be replicated by a team of monkeys. They wouldn’t even need a hundred years. But the solution to this tripe and this uninspired mediocrity is not to punt the entire package of literary fiction. 

Eliminating parts of a book without understanding their form and function, their purpose for the reader, and the reason they are there in the first place is a problem, not an achievement. If someone shows up with a design for a “new and unconventional table” and the only thing they’ve done is remove the legs…it’s not a table. It’s a very sad and pretty useless plank of wood. Sure, you can get around the essential qualities of a table–legs and a flat surface–if you know what you’re doing. But without that understanding, your chances of successfully catalyzing a paradigm-shift with your woodworking are vastly diminished.

When you put hundreds of hours into the penning of your creative work, you owe it to yourself to be educated about your craft. You are already putting in so much work. Go the extra mile and work to understand the books around you. Don’t copy them. Don’t become the next J.K. Rowling or Stephen King or J.R.R. Tolkien. (Please.) But if you’re struggling with something, do something about it. Read books and examine how the author does what you’d like do to do. Pick apart the narrative and the conflict and the characters.

If you still struggle, reach out to someone who can help guide you. If you’re unsure about how to design a central conflict, email me. Or email your writing professor or your friend who reads a lot or join a writing group. Talk to someone. Don’t allow your intimidation to convince you to go rogue.

And if the person you reach out to doesn’t understand your work, revise it. Revise it until they do understand it. In the hierarchy of things that are important about books, understanding the story has always, always got to come first. Once you write a story that everyone understands, you can allow yourself to play with convention until you’re blue in the face (or orange in the face, if you’d prefer).

But, please, develop your craft before you start redesigning the world of literary fiction. There’s a reason that books have plots and settings and characters and conflicts. It’s the same reason that tables have legs. They’re a lot more useful that way. And when something isn’t useful, people don’t buy it. They don’t read it, and you don’t have a chance to change the world.

And that’s a shame because I want people to read what you have to say.


  1. You should look up yellowism. Kind of a similar thing happening with art.

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