Like many teenagers with literary pretentions, I spent a lot of my school years in libraries, devouring the great classics of the Western canon, hoping to stumble across some single commonality that would unlock my own nascent teenage genius. Of course, no such secret ingredient exists, but I would venture to say that there are certainly shared qualities in the finest and most enduring fiction.
Through my teenage obsession, I concluded that I do not enjoy neat stories. And this remains mostly true today. As much as I admire the craft that goes into sculpting certain genre fiction to comply to well-defined rules and shapes, it never sits well with me for everything to be fully resolved as I turn the final page.
For me, the best fiction is unresolvable, unruly and daring. Fiction thrives when the reader is left space to recognise the best and worst of themselves; when the final page is turned and questions linger.
For me, the best fiction is unresolvable, unruly and daring.
Back in the school library, I remember reading that when Tolstoy set out to write Anna Karenina, he was coming off the back of a failed attempt to chronicle the life of Peter the Great – a project which had swollen beyond his control. He was keen to write a more manageable subject, and in his initial imagining of Anna, he believed he had found one: she was to be a well-disciplined, tamed woman.
Instead, in Anna, Tolstoy found a vehicle to write one of the most epic examinations of human nature ever crafted. He had the conviction and talent to follow through on where the story led him. He was unable to tame Anna, and we are better off for it.
In my limited experience, the process of writing a novel is an unwieldy, messy affair. My imagination is nearly always at odds with itself, with different ideas and voices jostling for supremacy, forever leading me in unexpected and fertile directions.
In her recent article, Fascinated to Presume: In Defense of Fiction, Zadie Smith makes a case for writing beyond ourselves through exercising empathy. Smith discusses contending with the voices in her head – characters she had encountered and internalised to a point where her own voice and personality become indistinct – an amalgam of influence and feeling.
For me, this rings very true. Characters lead plot, and our task as writers is to keep pace. We must not worry over or second-guess our inspirations. In writing, confidence and skill are secondary to courage and empathy. My best work has come from places I still struggle to explain, justify or defend adequately.
We must not worry over or second-guess our inspirations.
I’m aware this all sounds stressful and complicated, which definitely can be the case. But it is also fun. There’s inherent fun to embracing chaos and inconsistency. When writing is fun, everything seems possible and contradictions cease to matter.
Inconsistency in fiction is indispensible – characters are people, and people are complex and unreliable in articulating and pursuing their wants. We often want two contradictory things at once. Ferrante’s Lenu wants to honour and emulate the brilliance of her friend, whilst simultaneously undermining and dismissing her. In The Art of the Body, my debut novel, the character of Janet wants to care for Sean, an art student with cerebral palsy, but also resents and envies him and the life she is enabling him to live.
The complexity of these wants stretch plot in unsexy ways, pulling characters apart and pushing them back together. In Tolstoy, Smith, Ferrante, and great fiction generally, stories thrive when things veer off into the sequestered parts of human nature we are least at ease with.
I believe that the best ideas are the ones that drag you to places you never expected to be. The best ideas are destined to evolve and mutate beyond recognition. The best ideas are messy until they’re not. And then, they’re a proper story.
Alex Allison was born in London in 1991. He studied Art History (BA) at University of York and Creative Writing (MA) at University of Manchester. Alex is the author of The Art of the Body, a novel published by Dialogue Books in September 2019.