|About This Newsletter:
This newsletter concerns Reviewing Unconventional Works. Stargopher will be your guest editor.
“To Break or Not to Break: A Moral Question”
When I think of unconventional works, the first novel that pops into my head is Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes. If you’ve ever come across an item like that on Writing.Com, and are upset by misspellings or a lack of formal narrative, you probably should think twice about the item’s caliber before you start dispensing advice.
In his book about the education of a mentally retarded man, Keyes writes an entire novel through a series of progress reports. At first the letters contain poor grammar and mechanics, but they gradually develop into very good English as the novel moves on. Had it struck his fancy, Keyes could have written a straight narrative about how the character’s teachers studied his words, and realized their efforts were working. But that unconventional, intriguing style he chose let readers discover the main character’s growth for themselves. Without, it may not be the book it is today.
Flowers for Algernon “worked”, and is called a classic. But, is breaking convention always a good thing?
I ask myself one question before I review a unique story. That is, “Does this item have a point?” A purpose? A reason? This question crosses my mind with each item I choose to review, but it has special significance if an author is including misspelled words, unpunctuated sentences, super-short vignettes, or is, for example, writing in binary computer code.
Clearly, there is nothing wrong with a carefree piece that exists for no other reason than to please its author. For the sake of argument, however, let’s assume the item in question is designed to be either “important”, or that the author is looking for suggestions to improve. The reviewer approaching an unconventional piece may have their hands full.
I for one am a fan of reason. I mean, as a reader I am flexible--the “reason” in your story could be to tell me life has no rhyme or reason! But what if you happen on a story that really confuses you? That makes you ask questions, but not the sort of questions the author intended? If your question is, “What just happened in this story?” then there may be a problem.
Let’s assume a fictional story. Simple, yet complicated. The author has asked you for an honest review. The catch is it happens to be written in another language. You look at the story, and think to yourself, “I’ve got to talk to my German pen pal about this one.” Only, Jurgen says, “Nein. It’s not written in German. Try your friend, Isabel.” Isabel kindly informs you, “Lo siento. It’s no kind of Spanish I’ve heard of. Better check with Luc. “Sorry, cher,” he tells you, “that’s not French either.”
You’re out of friends, and you fear that your reviewee may be out of luck. You go to them. Maybe they can help sort out your dilemma. They tell you, “I’ve invented my own language, of course! Isn’t that great? The story’s about peace on earth, and goodwill toward men. No, I don’t mean Santa Claus. It’s a commentary about how the races of the planet don’t understand each other.”
“…I don’t understand.”
When I began to write and receive criticism, it was hard for me to admit to myself that people may not understand. A common reaction was to think, “People just don’t grasp my complicated meaning.” And, in the word ‘complicated’ lies part of the problem. For reviewers have been forced to tell me the story would be better, only if it weren’t so complicated.
Crafting that in a review can be tricky. I don’t like to do it because, whenever I’m in a position to do so, I like to encourage experimental writing. After all, where would any of us be if we wrote in the same style as whomever the bestselling author of the day is? Somewhere, that’s where. But nowhere I’d like to be.
So, I try to keep the following things in mind:
Let the reviewer know how important clarity can be. The work in question may well be the next Earth-shatterer, but if no one can understand it, chances are very few people will have the chance to read it.
Point out that a story should have both style and substance. Style for style’s sake may lead to a few laughs, which is just fine. But let’s remember the approach of Flowers for Algernon. A style that leads to substance, that makes the story even more animated can be quite a thrill to read.
Keep an open mind as you review. Just because you heard somewhere that a sentence mustn’t begin with ’And’, or that consistent point-of-view is preferable to multiple narrators, does not mean something different can’t work. Remember, the English language is something that was invented one day by some people who thought it would be cool. This notion is the basis of all we think of as reality. Don‘t stifle creativity. Or you may become your generation's dreamkiller, killah.
The last, I feel, is most important. Because here are the heavy hitters. Stories by convention-breaking authors that are considered classics:
Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes. Progris riports. Period.
Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut. Wrought with a load of invented words, this contains some of the shortest chapters you’ve ever laid eyes on.
Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner. Have you ever read anything like,
(DITTO Use it! The mental process involved is exactly analogous to the bandwidth-saving technique employed by your phone. If you’ve seen the scene you’ve seen the scene and there’s too much new information for you to waste time looking it over more than once. Use “ditto”.Use it!
--The Hipcrime Vocab by Chad C. Mulligan)?
The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester. There’s characters named @kins, S&erson and Wyg&. And they’re just as effective as some people named Atkins, Sanderson and Wygand. You know what? Maybe even more so.