Novels suck when they're novels

Novels suck when they're novels

2020, May 12    

I’ve been writing a lot of short stories on Medium. Well, I’ve been writing a lot more off of Medium - just in my own private Google Docs. I write ~10 stories for every one that I publish. Many of my practice stories never finish. I might be finished with them, I might have brought them to my idea of ‘conclusion’ but they’re not Done.

I kept getting this feeling and thinking about why my stories felt so undone. They were like single episodes of an unfunny sitcom - nothing changes at the end of the story. You’re just taken on a tour of an alternate world for some time. It all amounts to a little vignette or anthropological exploration expedition. The story, I tell myself, is you-the-reader changing because of the world you’ve just read about. Even if the story doesn’t change or move you, that’s also fine though. It is literally just a little curiosity in the thoughtrealms and that’s all it needs to be.

But it was still interesting to investigate the source of my disappointment. I find that my stories lack that tension and release pattern that I am so used to - the one that comes from struggling against a universe that doesn’t want to give you something you want and learning how to either live without or become ‘worthy’ of it. It’s a big part of the Hero’s Journey that Joseph Campbell talks about in myth and Dan Harmon distills and uses as a formula in Community, Rick and Morty.

Like any industrial application, once we get too good at applying a formula we tire of it. Community is often set up in the way novels are - characters grow and learn and change in conjunction with other characters and find their place. Seinfeld is often set up like a Greek epic poem - characters are defined by their fatal flaws and repeatedly bump into them without learning anything. I love Community, but I only like Seinfeld (the show, not the guy, I mean what’s the deal with pedophilia?)

If you’re coming from a growth narrative, the story must be parsimonious in its pursuit of the characters’ growth. Every element of the story must have a purpose. Teleology is central to the novel, and novels to nations. Since nations are the fundamental political organizing block of the modern world, the idea of purpose is central to our current existence. We don’t look at ourselves as just something that has arisen and something that will fall one day - that’s nations you’re thinking of. They just arose, naturally, they have no purpose, they simply are. You however, have a purpose within the nation and isn’t that…grand?

Rick builds a robot that is trapped in this narrative. Its “Oh God” realization is a function of how badly things in a growth narrative need to serve a purpose. If you can’t contribute to the growth of a story and its characters, then what are you here for?

Well, we are, in the words of Kurt Vonnegut, here to fart around. And that’s about it.