On documentary format in novels

camera
This is honestly more description than the interviews in this book received. (photo via)

I am puzzled.

Recently I’ve received a couple books that are in a documentary format, primarily interviews, with a few faux news reports or audio diary transcripts. Specifically audio diaries. It’s weird. There’s something in the air.

Is this an attempt to ape a format from another medium? People talk about the growth of ‘cinematic’ writing (which is yet another meaningless phrase that only confuses people as they disagree on the definition, but WHATEVER) so is this just another layer of extrapolation after that? Trying to translate documentaries into novels?

Friends, we’ve already discovered that format for writing. It’s called non-fiction. There aren’t that many non-fiction books in this specific interview/transcript format for a reason.

This isn’t to say that trying new formats is terrible and no one should ever do it. But trying to imitate documentaries in book format this way feels a bit like using translation software to get text from English to Japanese to Spanish and seeing what you get. You can do it. But without some extra work, it’s not going to be any good to anyone.

Authors that are successful massage the format to make use of novelistic techniques — techniques that make books unique, make them different from movies. They still bring in techniques inspired by movies, but they don’t drop everything that’s powerful about the written word. And when they do bring in movie techniques, ones that rely heavily on visual or aural cues, they figure out a way to translate those cues.

Because here’s the problem: Interviews. Transcripts. With nothing else. No support.

You get two people talking in a white room, no sense of how these people look, act, or sound (unless there are clumsy comments made by either of the people). Interviews happen after action, so we as readers don’t even get to see what happens — we hear about it afterward! No one likes that! I don’t care about how a character feels about things exploding two days after the fact. I don’t care about two characters slowly falling for each other (maybe??? It’s hard to tell!) if they are never on the page together because of the interview format.

If an entire novel is done in dialogue/monologue like this, that author had better be a master stylist who can really nail down character voices. Losing the power of description and narration means dialogue has to carry that weight, and man. Not a lot of people can write dialogue that good.

No actor is going to come in and give the words life through body language, tone, a single minute gesture. That’s what the rest of the novel is there for. That’s why we don’t read movie scripts. We watch movies.

Wait, or is it an attempt to imitate the format of archive files? Like, transcripts from recordings surrounding an “incident”? Reaching for a sort of verisimilitude found in a bunch of musty manila folders in a locked file cabinet deep in the archives of the X-Files? Because, let me tell you, documents in a manila folder do not make engaging reading.

Anyway, hooray, I gave up on this particular book and my life is the better for it. If you have an example of this format done well, PLEASE SHARE and I’ll be your new best friend.

She Who Must Be Obeyed (TWIR)

Oh no my library loan ran out on Waking the Moon how tragic that I don’t get to finish.

Clipping from a Wonder Woman comic, with Wonder Woman saying "Back! All men are banned from this island by Aprodite's Law!"
Just base a graduate class on this image and I’m there.

In addition to the Book About Writing Craft that I’m reading, I started reading She: A History of Adventure by H. Rider Haggard, and while it’s enjoyable in a way, I have this sneaking suspicion that it’s not going to end how I’d like it to.

If anyone wants to start a turn-of-the-century feminist/utopia/adventure book club, I am in. Tentative syllabus: SheHerlandThe Sultana’s Dream, Mizora, New Amazonia, Man’s Rights… Arqtiq sounds fun, being described as “exuberantly incoherent” so how can I resist? As a voice on the other side, The Republic of the Future and Unveiling a Parallel, maybe?

I spent some time on Wikipedia just now and had a lot of fun.

Short things

I’m really into fairy tales this week.

East of the Sun and West of the Moon – A fairy tale from Norway.

She rode a long, long way, until they came to a large steep cliff. The white bear knocked on it. A door opened, and they came into a castle, where there were many rooms all lit up; rooms gleaming with silver and gold. Further, there was a table set there, and it was all as grand as grand could be. Then the white bear gave her a silver bell; and when she wanted anything, she only had to ring it, and she would get it at once.

Our Fairy Tales Ourselves: Storytelling From East to West – Fairy tales and stories beyond the Hero’s Journey. I added quite a few things to my to-read list from this essay.

TWIR: Tomatoes are delicious

I feel like I haven’t read much lately. I’ve been working on a project that I’m terribly excited about, so I let it eat up some time that would have otherwise been spent reading.

Also, I spent some time this week watching movies, which is not typical of me. And listening to music, which is. I had to do a lot of both of those, though. Because David Bowie means a lot to me. I wish I could put it into words, but I haven’t found a way. Others have said a lot, and it’s very good, and true, about discovering a place to be an outsider, and about making art, making it forcefully and daringly, being willing to change, and being kind, especially after you’ve found success. I’m sad and also not. I don’t know. I’m left with a lot of wandering thoughts.

Anyway, reading.

I started to read Waking the Moon by Elizabeth Hand early this week, because I was looking for books about schools of magic that weren’t vaguely medieval, but every character is so unbearable, so insufferably posed and styled and stiff, that I don’t think I can do it. I had such strange hopes for this book, but there’s only so many times I can plod through a description of another mid-nineties college-goth outfit. I’ll give it one more try before the library loan expires.

For some reason I dropped Dune for a while after I got back to Boston. I’m back into it. It’s still good, you guys.

Short things

On Jerks at the Casual Optimist, an excerpt from the book Measure Yourself Against the Earth. My favorite bit: “Regret may be rare and hard to come by, but the general sense that jerkiness is associated with perceived and maybe temporary superiority, rather than with entrenched entitlement, offers at least the chance of asking oneself: Hey, was I being a jerk?”

Spanish Lessons: On Language Loss and Recovery at The Toast. I have a lot of feelings about this. About not knowing the language of your grandparents, and feeling not [heritage] enough. The effects of assimilation echo far down the line. Down here on my end, you try to make your own way, to muddle your way back to that heritage, if you can. But you can’t. There’s a feeling of things lost, things missing, things not had because of whatever circumstances. I’m actually jealous of the writer of that article, because of how much more she had than me. She had Puerto Rico. She’s more real than I am. As though my life is fake, somehow, because it was so dominated by whiteness. All my life, every time there’s a demographic question about race and ethnicity, I pause. Every time, I pause, and I ask myself “Is it lying to mark Hispanic?”

Then I mark it.

The Tomato Thief by Ursula Vernon (Apex) – This is set in the same world as The Jackalope Wives, and I’m so glad. I’m also so glad for this worshipful tone about tomatoes. Just this week I was talking with some friends about how much I love tomatoes, and how that’s the thing I miss about Texas. A good, juicy tomato, sliced onto bread and devoured on a too-warm night. Eating cherry tomatoes straight off the vine. Anyway, The Tomato Thief is a bit of a longer story at 14,000 words, but it’s delicious, with magic and earth and desert.