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Disliking “The Concept Novel”

May 3, 2010

I think of a concept novel as a book that relies on a gimmick, one “oh-my-goodness look at this cool thing I did!” and sometimes they work because the idea really is pretty good and the author still provided a story that was deeper than that twist, but sometimes there’s really nothing more to it than that. I was thinking about this in light of two books which, months later, still remain on the top of people’s reading lists, apparently. I’m talking about The Interrogative Mood by Padgett Powell and Reality Hunger by David Shields.

Now The Interrogative Mood tries to see if it can do the whole “making a book written only in questions” thing and I don’t know if it succeeds because I can’t get past the first page without banging my head against the wall. I’m sure there’s ‘meaning,’ and maybe in between squiggly punctuation marks there’s thoughtfully written prose, but the mental twang that always comes with a question does me in with every line. And if I don’t like hearing Valley Girl tweens ending every sentence with a question mark, I don’t think The Interrogative Mood should be treated any differently.

As for Reality Hunger, people have been giving it bad press because, even though the guy affixes footnotes, the book is entirely made up of other people’s quotes, which wouldn’t be a bad thing if he didn’t also twist them in some small way himself, warping the meaning of Person B’s quote because it’s put into the context of Person A and Person C’s quotes, etc, not to mention that he sometimes tweaks them for his own purposes. But anyhow, all the reveiws I’ve read of this book never have anything to say about the book, just how he decided to present it. At least, it seems that way. Maybe that’s just the more flashy and newsworthy way to go about things, but I’ve never heard good things about the book, just pros and cons about the gimmick.

Basically, even if you do have an astonishing idea, the concept alone won’t save you. If e.e. cummings was only some guy who didn’t like capitalizing letters, then he wouldn’t have gotten very far. I know, I know, how profound of me, but I just wanted to mention that, as well-intentioned as The Interrogative MoodReality Hunger and other ‘concept novels’ are, your gimmick might make me buy the book or at least read the preview on Amazon, but it won’t get me to buy it without a little more meat between the pages.

What books have you read that you feel could be defined as ‘concept novels’? When did you find that they worked and when did they fall flat on their faces? How do you feel about The Interrogative Mood? Reality Hunger? How many questions will I have to ask before you begin banging your head against the wall?

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