Janet Fitch and the shape of a novel



One of my favorite panels from AWP 2017 included Janet Fitch, best known for her beautiful novel White Oleander.

Fitch, along with four other authors, shared her thoughts on the shape of the novel. Below are some forms she notes from most common to least common.

I loved hearing about Fitch’s own process. She says she works symphonically and intuitively. She is most interested in how each page fits together, how  adding or subtracting one page can produce an entirely new tonal quality.

She’s an emotional writer, and said she’s more intrigued by shaping emotion in the reader rather than shaping an artifact. If scene doesn’t move reader, she deletes it — however pretty on the page it may seem. When she clearly imagines a scene in her mind, she writes it down, and places it in a 3 hole punch binder. She then expands from that scene, shifts it in the novel, or omits it based off of its relationship with the other pages. 

Fitch said that all of the following forms have influenced. While she tends not to write formalistic texts, she encourages all writers to keep up with what the avant-garde to never forget what is possible in a form.

The Rashomon novel

  • The same event is described by multiple people
  • It’s the confluence of she said, he said.
  • e.g. Fates and Furies, Let the Great World Spin On

The braided novel

  • Several perspectives that alternate, each character’s segment advancing the story
  • Popular among writers, perhaps because more malleable than other forms
  • e.g. Poisonwood Bible, Delicious Foods, The Hours

The Saragossa Manuscript

  • A frame-tale novel or nested tale
  • Someone tells a story then in the next chapter you see it acted out
  • e.g Possession, Cloud Atlas

The spiral novel

  • Phrases, motifs, movie references are repeated with increasing gravity until “eventually blows up in your face”
  • e.g. Under the volcano

Single sentence novels

  • e.g. Carlos Meso’s Ava, David Markson’s “Readers Block”

Novels with made of one sentence

  • Marquez’s The Autumn of the Patriarch, George Perec’s Life a User’s Manual
  • While difficult, these novels eventually train you how to read within their peculiar universe.

Fitch wrote more about the shape of the novel on her blog.

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