Thursday, May 05, 2005

The Known World by Edward Jones

I floundered at the start of this novel, but it grew on me –or more like spread within me—to the point where I had a huge admiration for it in the end. Now huge admiration is not love, but it’s still hard to come by. The structure is unlike any I would normally suggest to a writer—it reminds me of those paintings where a gazillion things are happening all over the canvas and Jones walks the reader from one corner of the painting to the next, moving regularly between characters and occasionally backwards and forwards in time. It’s the kind of structure that doesn’t appear to be working until you reach the end and it has worked, creating a depth by its width. Most editors or workshop leaders would probably be discouraging of a partial draft in this style, so perhaps there is something to be said for Jones’ approach, which was to “plan the novel for ten years and write it in four months.”

I went to a panel on workshopping the novel at this year’s AWP conference in Vancouver, and to my dismay many of the panelists simply identified the difficulties of workshopping novels and suggested that it was an unsolveable problem. Certainly most of us accept that it’s best to respond to a whole draft and that no writing should be done by committee, but if, as again most of us accept, writing is a process, aren’t there ways that I, as a workshop leader, can help with the novel process without shoehorning drafts into predetermined structures? Jones does not follow a conventional one-event- leads-to-the-next structure, yet in the end, it is clear that one event has led to the next. That Robbins’s mentorship of Henry Townsend has consequences that splay out to many characters, and most directly to Henry’s ownership of Moses. Henry’s death then leads to the relationship of Moses and Caldonia and ultimately to the lovely, lyric ending focused on the display of Alice’s quilts—which much like those paintings where a gazillion things are happening map the world and people of the Townsend plantation. Jones leaves it to the reader to make the cause-effect links, a strategy that makes the novel seem slow at first, but ultimately is rewarding. So perhaps the answer to workshopping a draft that seems unconventional is to ask the writer to identify their strategy? To acknowledge that when you resist convention you have to find a way to compensate for it and satisfy the reader in some other way?


Su said...

So many of the novels/novel chapters I see in workshop are following a conventional chronological narration with point-to-point plots, which is indeed an issue when a few chapters of a much larger work are presented because the writer is relying on readers' knowledge of precedent to advance the plot, rather than really developing that plot into something that would retain readers' interests throughout with refreshing their characters. A lot of writers rely upon their initial characterizations to define their key players and don't think they need to keep developing those characters throughout the novel, which reduces them to pawns of a plot-driven story idea.

You mention, "Jones leaves it to the reader to make the cause-effect links," and maybe this is why his approach would be one that seems to suit the workshop process because it sounds like he is simply creating a new story linked by simple coincidence to the others in each chapter. I haven't read The Known World (yet), so I'm ignorant of its strategies, but I am also ignorant of workshopping only novels, which (of course) leads me to this question: is there a certain truism to the notion of each chapter being able to "stand on its own" as a short story?

A. Papatya Bucak said...

Su -- I love your point that character development should continue throughout a novel.

To clarify, I think Jones's novel would have been difficult to workshop when in-progress precisely because the plot points and characters are so intertwined that a reader can't see the cause-effect of event (which is definitely there) until the end. And in workshop, one never seems to see the end.

I don't think novel chapters should stand alone as stories do. I think then you are writing stories. To me novel chapters should have a cumulative effect, which is why they are hard to cover in workshop, because readers see only part of a whole.