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Reflections of a working writer and reader



Fiction and Research

The more images I gathered from the past, I said, the more unlikely it seemed to me that the past had actually happened in this or that way, for nothing about it could be called normal: most of it was absurd, and if not absurd, then appalling. WG Sebald.

What you also cannot do, of course, is to explain how to write a novel. The novel is much too heterogeneous a genre, all kinds of things can be a novel. There is no standard model which to take as a basis for saying: that is how a dialogue has to be structured, that is how a description has to work, this is what a characterisation looks like. But there are certain basic difficulties with fiction writing, such as, for example, the tendency towards generalisation, which occurs especially among people who come from an academic literary background. Whole registers of the vocabulary you acquire as a literature student are entirely useless because they are too general, because in a prose text everything has to be concrete. That is something which is not at all clear to most people.

I remember a student from my last class, who wrote something about band stands in her text, something like there was this person who got interested in band stands in London. And that was it. So I asked her, why did she not take a look at those things, to find out where exactly they stand, how long they have been there for, what kind of people go there, what they look like, and whether there still is music being played there or not. Those are concrete forms of research, and they can be very enjoyable for a fiction writer. You cannot undertake such research if you are writing, say, a dissertation on Robert Musil. But for imaginative writing, it is indispensable to go and take a look at certain things. That seems very obvious, but like most obvious things, it is often overlooked.

The entire text is extracted from ” title=”Sebald”>The Permanent Exile of WG Sebald by © Jens Mühling, published by ” title=”about vertigo”>Vertigo.

3 Responses to “Fiction and Research”

  1. Jim Murdoch says:

    I’ve just written a review of a new book which is essentially a collection of lectures given by a creative writing teacher (and successful novelist) in which she does try (up to a point) to do exactly that. And she doesn’t do too bad a job at laying down the groundwork without saying, “You must do it my way.” But at the end despite having waded through 400 pages of interesting anecdotes and examples she still leaves her readers poised on that precipice and alone to get on with it. In my article I liken it to driving a car. Having a degree in Physics should certainly give you an advantage in understanding the natural laws that come into play when one drives but at the end of the day the only way to learn is to sit behind the wheel of a vehicle weighing a couple of tons, shift into first, take off the handbrake and head off into the unknown.

  2. john baker says:

    And the link to your review, Jim?

  3. shoreacres says:

    Or, to bring out one of my favorite quotations for a dusting off:

    “Don’t tell me the moon is shining. Show me the glint of light on broken glass.” Anton Chekov