Here’s a question that’s been on my mind: When is a variation on traditional form a gimmick and when is it a true innovation, a necessary element to the work?
A couple of weeks ago, I was skipping around in the latest edition of The Best American Short Stories and happened to come across two stories that eschewed quotation marks. I’ve seen this before, of course, and it’s not as though it’s a big deal to drop quotation marks. I could (mostly) follow the dialogue. And yet…why? I suppose there are valid reasons to drop those oh-so-intrusive tiny marks: to express a feeling that characters are speaking out of bounds, perhaps, or to evoke the sense of a vast landscape where nothing is hemmed in. But—it seems to me—that there really should be a purposeful reason to drop something that’s such standard usage, and I wasn’t convinced that was the case in these particular stories. And sometimes writers use dashes instead of quotation marks. How are a bunch of dashes less intrusive? Either way, the dashes or lack of standard quotation marks draws attention, and is that where the writer wants the reader’s attention going, to pondering punctuation?
I’ve also been working on a story with footnotes. I suppose everyone imagines that footnotes in fiction started with David Foster Wallace, but Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine is an excellent example of footnotes gone wild in fiction, published in 1986, and I seem to remember a footnoted short story in Harper’s magazine by Jennifer Egan that may have been published before DFW came to prominence. In any event, now that our computers make producing footnotes SO easy, it’s a tempting form to try, and I admit that I greatly enjoyed my foray into footnotes. Yet—being naturally suspicious of anything that feels good—I kept wondering if my footnotes were “necessary” or if they were “gimmicky.” I’m not sure I can answer definitively, but the tension inherent in using the form helped inform the story (I hope) and made me think about writing in a different way. That is, I mentally had to keep proving to myself that the footnotes—and therefore the story—were necessary; I had to ensure that the story could not be told another way, and I think (hope) that rigor was to the story’s benefit.
Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney is one of my favorite books, for a variety of reason (not all are artistic reasons…who doesn’t enjoy good New Yorker insider gossip?). Of course one of the artistic reasons is that the book successfully uses the second person point of view (“you”). McInerney makes it look easy as pie, but it’s not. I’ve played around with the second person—I seem to be very drawn to it—and what I’ve noticed is that, again, this device has to be used very purposefully or it turns immediately into a gimmick. Why must the story be told this way; why can’t the writer replace “I” for every “you”? If it’s possible to do that, then do. I’m drawn to the dissociation of the second person, and my second person stories play off that theme, as does Bright Lights, Big City. Still, I can’t imagine pulling off an entire book. (Here’s one of my second person stories, published in The Sun magazine.)
Ultimately, one of the problems with trying these little tricks is that you run the risk of looking merely derivative of those who have gone before:
Second person = McInerney
Footnotes = DFW
Spanglish = Junot Diaz
Power Point presentation = Jennifer Egan
(It shouldn’t have to be said that the work of these writers is much more expansive than these easy equations imply. But the reality is that if you use any of these forms, you’re up against these [perceived] originators.)
How can you make your story or book move beyond what those writers have accomplished? And, more importantly, what innovative technique can you try—in a purposeful way—that no one else has tried yet? That, it seems to me, is the real question to ask when experimenting with form.