Tuesday, 16 April 2013

How Do You Write a Novel Without Using Words? by Dan Holloway

I've often said that the main influence both on my writing and on why I wanted to be a writer comes from art, specifically from the conceptual art of the likes of Tracey Emin. But whilst it's a lofty (or pathetic, depending on your viewpoint) aim to want to bring serious literature to the watercooler, to shock people into questioning the very fabric of language and to seek to wrest people's experiences from the hands of a linguistic system inherently patriarchal and colonial so that each infinitely valuable voice can be heard on its own terms, it tends to remain almost wholly an aim. After all, on the one hand there *is* nothing new, as we're always being told, and on the other - how do you go about unravelling the fundamentals of language whilst using language?



For the past three years I've had the feeling that the answer (well, not the answer, but the possibility of taking a tiny step) lay in writing a novel that sidestepped language altogether. But not, as film, television or music do, for some kind of sensory alternative. Rather, I thought I should write a book that just used numbers. At first I called the project #twentyfoursevendigitalwonderland and the aim was to take - Ulysses style - a day in one person's life and tell it through the numbers they encountered - from IP addresses to speed limit signs. It would be a comment on our digital age and all sorts of things like that. But I just couldn't make it work. Specifically, I couldn't make an emotional connection. And strange as it sounds for something whose aims are so theoretical-sounding, emotion is at the centre of my art - back, of course, to Tracey Emin and my other love, the abstract expressionists. The theoretical project of unravelling and reinventing language matters to me only because I see a fundamental need for individuals to be able to share their felt experiences in their own joyous, tragic, frightened, hopeful, jealous, proud, tearful, ecstatic terms - to share them both with others and, indeed, with themselves by thinking of themselves and expressing themselves in terms of those unfiltered feelings and not using a set of dulled-down vocabulary passed on by generations of repressive structures. It is not experiment for experiment's sake I value, but experiment because without it no human spirit can be free.

And then, thinking about Lacan and the fall from jouissance - a prelinguistic form of orgasmic joy - into the sticky web of language (as of course we are all prone to doing), it struck me - not one person but two, and a relationship told not from their time together but from the most solitary act. And so I set about listing every act of masturbation in the lives of my two protagonists, creating something that was both utterly devoid of my authorly presence - free from the steers we usually give our readers, free from the dangers of selecting from this or that example of a behaviour or using this or that tone of voice and so trapping both character and reader inside the bubble of language, leaving the reader absolutely free to live the protagonists's lives afresh with each reading.

That's enough of the dry theory but hopefully plenty to give a taste of why. Writing a book like this leads to a certain number of practical problems. The first of those is linked to the above, and is how on earth do you get anyone to take you seriously. It's the same thing that plagues artists - from banal comments about how any 5 year-old could paint a Picasso to comments about Tracey Emin's My Bed that range from the frankly shameful  to the just plain stupid. I can already sense a number of my "serious writer" friends (it's funny how if you want to earn a living through the keyboard you're a serious writer - if you want to unravel patriarchy and liberate the expressive spirit of millions of readers you're just messing about) glancing askance - the looks on their virtual faces ranging from "nice practical joke" to "there there that's sweet, deary, now if you'd like to keep quiet while the grown-ups talk to our guests about real book issues so you don't embarrass everyone but most of all yourself that'd be grand." Of course, it's inevitable very few will "get" the book (though some definitely have - Cally wrote a wonderful thoughtful review). But it still bothers me that there is a general mistrust of theoretically based art, and an even wider suspicion of something that "looks wrong" or worse still "looks like it's been knocked up on the quick" and it bothers me most of all that commentators will almost always prefer to believe that an artist is "putting one over on them" rather than trying to get their heads around what the artist was tryng to do, or even trusting that they were trying to do something. Not understanding what an artist is doing is absolutely fine. Assuming that the artist wasn't trying to do anything of any import is not just lazy but is how prejudice and oppression are passively perpetuated.

Anyway, less as an apologia to this criticsm and more as an insight into just how much I'd bitten off without realising it, a few notes about the actual process of writing a book like this - and just how time consuming it was.

The first thing I realised was that I couldn't just rattle off dates and then assign actions to them. Not only would that undermine the seriousness of the project, if I wanted readers to start building up the foundations of their characters' lives I didn't want them to get to page 20 and go "hang on a minute, he can't be doing that then, it's lesson time on a Monday" - or rather, if Guy was having a quickie in class, I wanted it to be by design not accident. So my first port of call was the wonderful VPCalendars website whence I compiled what became a very well thumbed and annotated virtual calendar. Add to that a list of the dates of Easter and I had a fairly good idea of when was term time and when was holidays.

The next step was also calendar-based - to compile a life history from puberty to menopause of Evie's monthly cycle, allowing for times spent on and off the pill. I'm not sure how many writers have to do that for their novels?

The next thing, which followed directly from that, was the more delicate subject of researching Evie's, er, libido, and the various associated subjects of her physical and psychological responses to taboo and sexuality in general, to her body's changes during her menstrual cycle, to her changing physical health, and as an underlying level (and whether such a thing as an underlying libido over time exists). Again, I wanted to get these things right. In a way this desire for accuracy is problematic - the point of the project is to extract me as the author and my redaction of people's lives - wouldn't randomness be better? In the end I decided no - after all the most basic purpose of the experiment was to serve a feminist agenda, and I felt I owed it to Evie, and to others' responses to reading Evie (and conceptualising themselves through her as much as they were bringing her to life afresh), to let her live, be fully embodied, in my figures. I wanted to listen to *her body*, and to do that it had to be a real body. Not based on my ideas or on generalisations. So starting but by no means finishing with my old undergraduate copy of The Hite Report, I researched female sexuality in this area, and I hope created an Evie who is more than a collection of assumptions and stereotypes.

By this point, I was both engulfed by my protagonists' lives (remember, this is not an exercise in selecting an incident - there is no front story and back story - this is cradle to grave all in the same focus) and beginning to be enmired in self doubt about the point of it. I was fully prepared that even though this is a short novel (128 pages in paperback), almost everyone would go "ooh, another page of numbers" and skim over it. Maybe a couple would notice that some of Evie's times and dates were the same as some of Guy's - some might even think "ooh, that's interesting" but would anyone really bother "reading" it? Would they notice the subtle differences between the seeming coincidence of timings in 1967 as compared to 1968? Would they notice that Guy goes through a spell when he gets with it every Tuesday morning in what can only be assumed to be lesson time?

In the end my answer was a twofold "yes, it is worth it." First, it's worth it even if only one reader decides to examine every detail. If I can make one person reconsider the nature of narrative, it would be more than I can hope for. Not only that, if a reader were to do me the immense service of taking me seriously, only to find that I had not taken them seriously, that would destroy the validity of every point I have spent years making about the importance of according respect to the artistic intentions of self-publishers.

Second, and most important, I increasingly felt I owed it to Evie and Guy, especially to Evie. It crept up on me that here, if I was going to stand by my ambition and take the scope of my own project seriously, I had a genuine chance to create an iconic feminist protagonist and I'd better not disappoint. But above and beyond that, these characters and their hopes and disappointments were living inside me and I owed it to them. Even if nothing of the lives that played out through my keyboard ever came to light in others' readings, I would not sell them short.

The final decision was the hardest of all - how to present the book. Did I present each year side by side - Guy on the left, Evie on the right of the double page (or vice versa) - or did I tell one story and then the other? How would my decision affect the way the stories were read? If I presented them side by side, then comparison would be so much easier - but in an exercise of removing myself from the process, could I justify "telling" the reader they should be comparing the narratives in this way? Furthermore, by emphasising the comparison, wouldn't I diminish the individual stories - which had as many intricate rhythms as the relationship? So in the end I laid the stories one after the other. I hope readers will want to head for the paperback and dog ear the corners, marking years for comparison as they read the book in many ways. But I didn't want to tell them to do so.

15 comments:

CallyPhillips said...

Dan - thanks for that. The more I read about this the more I realise what a substantial contribution this is to narrative! I applaud your standing up for the intentionality of the author while at the same time allowing each reader the freedom to be an author. That's a remarkable feat. Talking about it and getting people talking about it is important as it can show people the depths to which a writer may go in order to express their beliefs, emotions and theories. I'm one who sniffs out Emperor's New Clothes for a living and I CHEER that you are striking a blow for 'seriousness' and standing up for what you believe in about narrative itself. It strikes me that this is the Emperor's New Clothes turned on its head actually - because if the reader finds it trivial or insubstantial in any way it is their OWN nakedness they reveal!

Dan Holloway said...

Ha! I always wonder what people mean by randomly shouting "Emperor's New Clothes" in a conversation. It's either 1. I don't think you executed you attempt to attain your goal very well (a very valid and very useful criticism), 2. Your goal isn't a very valid or important one (OK, let's have an interesting chat about this), very often in relation to modern art 3. You don't actually have a goal (Oh, I'm sorry to hear that, I didn't realise you'd been afflicted by totaldickitis) or 4. Look at me, aren't I the witty critic (um, how do I put this without deflating you so much we melt the ice caps with the escaping hot air)

Blowing the trumpet for seriousness always makes me feel like an old fart (I call our poetry group The New Liertines "the prog rockers of poetry" because we're the dour ones sitting there adding extra layers of meaning "because it matters" even if no one wants to listen) but it's lovely to know I'm not the only one. The thing is, as you showed so well with Fair Trade, we don't do it to say "look at me, I'm being deep", we do it because actually these things do matter - people having the freedom to have their story told in their own terms not their "betters'" or people being given dignity and the possibility of hope through receiving a fair wage for meeting our decadent whims, whichever it is the impact on real people's lives is huge, and when someone doesn't see that it's either a sign that "they're OK" in which case they need a serious empathy implant, or it's because they are a willig part of the problem on the wrong side of the oppressor/oppressed divide, and either way we need people to speak up and tell it how it is, even if only one person listens

julia jones said...

Dates, however, are not numbers but are shorthand for words. Did you consider writing them out?

Dan Holloway said...

Interesting point. To an extent all numbers are simply an alternative script for words because all can be vocalised (very interesting with many imaginary numbers that stand for something very concrete the same way dates do, liek a mathematical constant or some such, but are nonetheless written alphabetically). What's important to me is the fact of the extra level of processing that goes on with numbers - we can't just "read" a date off the page in quite the same way as we would if it were in words and the extra level of complication is one small step in interrupting the habit-led process the brain gets into with language

Susan Price said...

16 4 13 12 ! (&) ++=///<"*"93@

Dan Holloway said...

yes, exactly :p

Lydia Bennet said...

as the inventor of Quantum Sheep, I know all about the 'E's new clothes' type retorts, always used as if they are madly original witticisms rather than exhausted cliches.(The same sort of people who lament the 'loss' of the word 'gay' to mean happy, usually uttered by people who would never have used the word in this sense anyway!) So congratulations Dan on trying something daring and new, and pushing the boundaries of writing to breaking point and beyond. Though it's strange to think of a writer trying to escape language in the form of words, our usual tool and drug of choice. Quantum theory maintains that there is no such thing as the impersonal, detached observer, so arguably, even if words are either erased or replaced by numbers (as in dates as Julia astutely points out)you are still very much 'in there' and the reader too adds their perspective and interpretation. I've not had the chance to tackle your book yet, so I'm glad to read this major clue as to the masturbation 'key' to the numbers! Mathematics is a language of course, in itself, though not always usefully expressible in words, and many numbers standing for words have little mathematical meaning (eg room numbers in hotels may be helpfully sequential but have no innate mathematical meaning especially in the 'hundreds' digit which normally stands for a floor).

Dan Holloway said...

Valerie, it was your recent experience with Quantum Sheep that was in large part responsible for me being so cagey about this before I released the book. I am pretty confident no one's done anything similar and it seemed like something that should have been done, so I didn't want anyone beating me to it before I'd finished - particularly not someone who was going to rush it out with some random numbers ratehr than doing it with care and precision and attentiveness, taking the sting out of the idea.

interestingpoint about quantum - I guess what I'd like is to see the subjectivity located more consciously in the reader rather than the writer and it feels as though making them aware of the act of reading is a way to avoid the complacency that comes with language (the same way as I find the novels of Kundera, say, who is constantly interrupting with comments about how he's invented the characters, more engaging than many where disbelief is suspended throughout - somehow that act of focusing on the unreality cuts through the crap and lets you get on with engaging (that's not very well put - Lee Rourke put it much more succinctly when I heard him talking about his novel The Canal).

And yes - I used to teach symbolic logic so the interconnectedness of maths and language and Bertrand Russell's endless attempts to prove they are different avatars of the same formal structure is an idea I rather like and maybe why theidea of telling a story in numbers didn't feel inherently strange.




lochlanbloom.com said...

An intriguing idea. For me it comes across almost as a translation. As I read its was very obvious that there is something 'behind' the text. Having made me think this however my next thought was that this is exactly the feeling that good writing in natural language engenders, that it is driven by some meta-idea, that the writer is 'explaining' a primordial story.

The use of blank pages works extremely well to give a more emotional impact. The introduction is undoubtedly important (and in that sense I would argue the book isn't entirely wordless) but it was only as I 'turned the page' to reach October 1961 that I got a sense that Guy was actually a character.

An interesting experiment - and can't wait for the film to come out!

Dan Holloway said...

Ha! Now that'd be something wouldn't it - perhaps I should start visiting studio websites and taunting them with teh idea of a truly unfilmable novel :)

Yes, I hummed and hahed a lot about the introduction. What I didn't want to do was patronise the reader by saying too much, nor really to make it an apology, as in "look, it's not a joke, it's serious really" because I don't think art weakens itself if it apologises for being what it is. On the other hand, I really didn't want it just to be about cracking a code - it's not about unlocking a secret, it's about unfolding the characters' lives, and I decided in the end that if I didn't have an introduction, too much would be about "what it meant" and that would turn it into an intellectual exercise rather than the emotional or political one I was after.

I guess the whole introduction thing betrays my obsession with 80s & 90s conceptual art - I remember endless discuussions on Arena and The Late Show about the role of "the text" and whether it had any place in conceptual art, and that has probably left its mark

Albie Pulsenik said...

What you have created is fascinating, Dan.

Most of our acts in every day life - and certainly in creativity - are apparently random, as we are not aware of their impulse. So what you have created will be misconstrued by many as contrived and not creative, as you appear to be in control of your subject matter and subjugated your creativity to form, i.e. there is a suspicion that numbers are not arbitrary and creatively randomised because we normally understand them to inhabit a world that makes concrete sense, each to each. So you are using numbers outside of their expected environment, that's all (rather like your use of the limerick).

You could hardly argue that the tone row in Berg's violin concerto was anything other than brilliantly creative and emotionally intuitive, although it could be described as a contrived response to a musical conundrum, an intellectual trick of the trade. And why would you assume that chess is only contrived by a sort of human binary code, and not randomly creative. A modern computer would have beaten Bobby Fischer, yet it would not have come up with the awesome and intuitive creativity of his moves against Donald Byrne in 1956, which thrill and inspire, and are seemingly random in their origin.

I am very interested to read Evie and Guy, as a book, naturally ;), although I have to confess I expect to be bored after page three.

Incidentally, have you read Harry Matthews' Singular Pleasures? A quirky and ineffective piece of Oulipo writing. I hope that your masturbatory accounts are more fulfilling.

Dan Holloway said...

It's interesting that Oulipo is something you see mentioned on a fairly regular basis these days (for example Mark Grist, the poet and English teacher best known now for the viral video of his rap battle with a schoolkid, has a super performance piece with E as the only vowel)

The question of contrivance looms large over everything we do - what I wanted, rather like Kundera's novels, was to bring that right into the foreground and get it over and done with as it were, the opposite of what most novels do by keeping it hidden or trying to persuade us otherwise. The more important thing I wanted to avoid was the issue of selection, or zoom, that most novels have - focusing on particular elements of teh timeframe of people's lives, telling teh reader where the importance lies. Of course the choice of this act is a selection (and yes, it has bias because it lends itself more obviously than many acts to suggesting life events), but it is made up front so I can then let go.

Albie Pulsenik said...

So you are a literary Pompidou Centre, where all the functionality of the building is upfront and not hidden? Maybe you should colour code your text?

But there is still 'zoom', as you suggest, in choosing what life events you portray - or do you use, for instance, masturbatory habit as a clue to what else might have been going on in their lives? And you won't log their teeth cleaning activity? So you have selected the narrative that you are interested in.

So the sequence of numbers is a narrative device only, you haven't suggested (or aren't interested in suggesting) emotional thought or motive by using numbers?

Dan Holloway said...

yes, the zoom is there but it is qualitative, in selecting a particular life event, rather than a compression of time. And yes, I anticipate readers will reconstruct other life events from it both where timings clearly overlap between teh two characters, and within the rhythms of each (as I mention in the piece, people may want to speculate on why Tuesdays at 11am during term time for Guy experience a period of activity).

I am not interested in telling readers what kind of emotional response to have, but I am hopeful that there will be one, both as they start to reconstruct their versions of the characters' lives, and as they think about their own lives

Dan Holloway said...

And I rather like the Pompidou image. Cereating stories with exoskeletons feels like a fruitful approach