Author Jonathan Franzen appears to have stirred up controversy with his ’10 Rules for Novelists’ piece recently published on LitHub.
And you can see why – people are upset because it challenges how they do things, it implies their approach will be less successful, and the listing takes a very elitist view, particularly through the use of the term ‘rules’.
But really, who cares?
If you don’t agree with Franzen’s ‘rules’, don’t apply them to your process.
It’d be hard to argue that there’s zero value to them – Franzen has published many critically acclaimed novels, he clearly knows a thing or two about the endeavour, likely more than most. But as with all things related to writing, you need to find what works for you, then work with that. Once you’ve established why you’re writing, what you’re trying to achieve, what you want to get out of the process, then you can adopt (or indeed ignore) outside recommendations and ideas in a more creatively beneficial way.
The truth is, there are no prescriptive ‘rules’ to writing. If there were a set of clear guidelines you could follow, then every aspiring novelist would do so, and we’d all be published and successful, etc. But that’s not how it works.
If someone says ‘you can’t do this’, someone else will be able to show you an example which defies it – some would say, for example, that you can’t have pictures in a literary novel. But ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time’ does just that, and it works perfectly to illustrate the relevant points. Every ‘rule’ can be broken if it fits into what you’re trying to achieve.
The truth of great writing is just that – that you need to find the truth of the story you want to tell, then expose that within the narrative.
Every story you write, or want to write, will have a personal connection to you, a reason that you connect with it, and if you can find that and link it back to your own psychology, then definitely, your work will be better for it (this is what Franzen’s referring to in his second rule above). Writing is a way of better understanding the world and your place within it, better understanding the human experience more broadly, and connecting with others. It’s the ‘why’, it’s viewing things from another perspective and not merely reading or writing the words, but feeling them too.
You need to find the voice of the characters, you have to understand them, you need to feel what they feel. Then you need to re-create that emotion within the body of your readers.
That’s no easy feat, but there are no prescriptive ‘rules’ on how to achieve this.
The more tangible you can make the world of your novel, the more effective it will be – and you do that through honesty, through knowing the story, the scenes, the characters. If you really, truly know these elements, and can translate them into the right words, through your learned experience and understanding of effective language, then your story will work.
Definitely, it’s worth noting how other authors go about doing this, but there are no ‘set in stone’ regulations on literary communication.