In this brave new world of reading and writing, I’ve seen some writers complaining that everything’s been “done.” Southern Gothic? Done. Robot fiction? Done. Transsexual coming-of-age Cthulhu erotica? Done, done, done. Everyone is writing about everything now, man, and it’s, like, really hard to figure out how to be cool and different.
Some writers have turned to various literary devices to make sure that they seem like they’re on the cutting edge of new literature. If you’re not familiar with literary devices, they range from the basic (foreshadowing) to the subtle (dramatic irony–not hipster irony) to the smack-you-in-the-face-with-it (repetition of the same phrase so many times in a novel that you never want to see those words in that combination ever again); a device, basically, is anything the author uses “on purpose” to get their point across. Literary devices can, when used properly, be great tools in a writer’s arsenal. When used improperly, the writer will come off looking like a tool.
Take repetition, for example. Various rhetorical devices employ the repetition of a word or phrase because repetition can be powerful–the entire basis of branding is repetition of logos and slogans, worming into a consumer’s brain and making sure that they’re more likely to buy your product when they’re out shopping. Chuck Palahniuk used repetition very effectively when he wrote the book Fight Club. “I am Jack’s ________.” The rules of fight club. Phrases like, “On a long enough time line, the survival rate for everyone drops to zero.” Repetition works well in this book because it serves a function in the story; Tyler Durden uses propaganda techniques to build an army, and one of the cornerstones of propaganda is repetition.
It worked so well for Palahniuk, in fact, that he used it in just about every book that he ever wrote. I fell less in love with this technique over time, especially as it began to seep into books by other writers who wanted to seem edgy and cool like Chuck. Even Stephen King uses it, especially in his latest book, 11/22/63. (He also used it in the Dark Tower series, but more effectively there, and with greater necessity since it’s a long series.) Overuse of rhetorical device can lead to reader burnout, also known as “hey, if I hear that fucking phrase one more time, I’m going to take this book and bludgeon you to death with it.”
It doesn’t stop with repetition, though. Some writers are doing anything possible to stand out from the crowd. I can only imagine what those brainstorming sessions are like: “What if . . . the story is about a boy. No, a girl. No, a boy who thinks he’s a girl. Only he’s not either one, he’s . . . an alien! A zombie alien. Who falls in love with . . . Elvis. No, an Elvis commemorative plate. And he only talks in Elvis lyrics because he loves Elvis so much. And he will go to the underworld to see the real Elvis, only Elvis isn’t really dead and he has to go find him. This will be great because nobody has ever written anything like this before.” Pro tip: if someone has never written anything before, there might be a good reason.
(Although, there’s a decent chance that I would actually read that book. I’m kind of a sucker for Elvis.)
When did writing become a game in which the writers try to be more clever than the other writers? I have rarely come away from a book thinking, “Well, that was just the best book; the writer was really clever in his execution.” No, I come away from a book laughing, or crying, or thinking really hard, and those are the best books. A comment a few weeks ago on this very blog lamented that “The problem with the current group of writers is that we–I are–am so focused on being different from the old style of writing that the new styles of writing are becoming cliche. I struggle almost daily to come up with ideas that aren’t labeled stereotypical but every angle’s been beaten to death with a stick, raised from the dead, zombified then been hacked to death all over again.” I wanted to cry when I read this. As a reader, I don’t want an “angle,” I want a good story. A good story is something that everyone has, because everyone has a unique set of experiences; it’s a matter of being able to tell the story–which, granted, is difficult. I won’t say that it’s not, I know it is. It’s harder to tell a good story than to use crackerjack writing devices, which is probably why we get fewer good stories and more hocus-pocus.
I also don’t buy this business of having to write something new and different. One of the great things about literature is its continuity; literature builds on top of past works, creating a dialogue and a sense of timelessness. This isn’t to say that regurgitating a lot of cliches and work by other authors is going to earn someone a Nobel–at least, I hope not–but it’s not always necessary to reinvent the wheel. You’ll have visionaries that can reinvent the wheel. Mark Danielewski. Chuck Palahniuk (well, Fight Club). Anthony Burgess. Markus Zusak. Mostly, though, you take the concept of the wheel and then you build on it; you can do any kind of book you want if you start with a solid foundation.
I would really like to see writers move away from the usage of these oh-so-ingenious writing devices and crazy obtuse angles that detract from the story. How about you guys? What books and authors do you find a smidgen too clever? What clever books work? Let me know in the comments!