Not Always 100% Narrative and Dialogue

Bel Kaufman with Sandy Dennis, who starred in the movie version of Ms. Kaufman’s novel Up the Down Staircase.

We admire the ingenuity of authors who include nontraditional elements in their novels, even as that sort of thing can get a bit annoying when overdone.

Most novels of course consist solely of narrative prose and dialogue. The exceptions are when authors throw in poems or songs or letters or emails or texts or newspaper clippings or memos or lists or recipes or drawings orโ€ฆ 

All this can make a novel more interesting, but also less smooth to read. We might feel interrupted, thrown out of our page-turning zone. Especially if the non-prose, non-dialogue elements are long or frequent. It can be hard to leave the comfort of our usual reading habits.

I just read Bel Kaufman’s Up the Down Staircase. It’s quite good — hilariously, frenetically, and at times movingly capturing the challenges faced by an idealistic new teacher in an urban high school where many students are troubled, classes are large, administrators are insanely over-bureaucratic, and supplies are in shortโ€ฆsupply. But the semi-autobiographical 1964 novel is not always easy to get totally absorbed in, as it’s written entirely in the form of letters, lesson plans, student assignments, inter-school memos, meeting minutes, and so on. Still, a reader has got to hand it to Ms. Kaufman for creativity, for the social-justice bent in her best-selling book, andโ€ฆfor living an impressively long life, from 1911 to 2014.

Nontraditional elements didn’t significantly slow down another recently read book: J.K. Rowling’s Troubled Blood. That crime novel features many text messages (in bold type), but they’re brief — as text messages usually are. And the book’s full-page drawings by a police-detective character losing his mind are used sparingly. The texts and drawings definitely enhance the novel, as nontraditional elements can do.

Among the other novels that include nontraditional elements are A.S. Byatt’s Possession, Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire, Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin, J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, Wilkie Collins’ Armadale, H. Rider Haggard’s She, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther, and Fanny Burney’s Evelina, to name just a few. Those Burney and Goethe novels are a reminder that a number of 18th-century novels feature plenty of correspondence between characters — the epistolary format.

Any novels you’d like to mention that fit this theme? Do you like or not like it when novels include lots of content other than narrative prose and dialogue?

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com every Thursday. The latest piece — containing local news to be thankful and not thankful for on Thanksgiving — is here.

116 thoughts on “Not Always 100% Narrative and Dialogue

  1. Theodore Dreiser’s novel “An American Tragedy” contains a number of letters which either advance the plot or reveal the mental states of some of the major characters.

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  2. Epistolary insertion has been with us since forever. However missing “Griffin and Sabine” which Vonnegut described as being from the fourth dimension in that discussion is sad. As for me I can handle pretty much whatever the story demands. I feel “Up the Down Staircase” should be read almost as a case study. When taken in that light, it paints a very vivid picture. What the author needs to say should be acceptable even if it requires us stepping into a specific subculture and accompanying vernacular for authenticity. Not something I’d do every day, but neither is Jennifer Egan’s “The Keep” but I’d recommend it just to get off the franchise author track.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Phil!

      You’re right that novels have included letters written from one character to another for a long time.

      Also, I agree that “Up the Down Staircase” was very effective in vividly depicting life at a high school — and that the book’s format of memos, homework assignments, etc., helped convey all that. I just wish there had been a few prose/dialogue breaks to smooth things along. I would read a few pages, have to put the book down, and repeat that cycle. ๐Ÿ™‚ I realize other readers might react differently. ๐Ÿ™‚

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      • When I get into one of those situations and Iโ€™m not ready for it I have to put it down and come back. But I find almost anything more tolerable than endless headtime and cliche slop. I was thinking of the WWI mentioned and thought the sheer elegance of โ€œMrs Dallowayโ€ showing the two experiential worlds was one of the best war angst reads out there. Woolf might have been crazy but she was brilliant.

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        • “Up the Down Staircase” is certainly not predictable or cliched!

          And, yes, “Mrs. Dalloway” is a great, memorable novel that obliquely has a lot to say about WWI and the way it traumatized people.

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  3. You mentioned “Haggard’s She”– perhaps those who have not read it would appreciate the particulars of its non-dialogue and non-narrative elements: the illustration of the potsherd with inscription at the book’s front, which looks identical, by design, to archeological illustrations of the era– lends the appearance of verisimilitude to the fiction. As do its translations of Greek and Latin and its footnotes. As does the dedication to Andrew Lang, noted anthropologist.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, jhNY!

      Excellent description of the particulars of the “She” novel’s nontraditional elements. They do indeed pack a visual punch and add to the book’s story and atmosphere.

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  4. Samuel Richardson’s “Pamela, or, Virtue Rewarded” is an epistolary novel, worth a mention because it is considered to be (1740) the first English novel– or was way back when I was in school. A bit insipid, it also gave rise to “Shamela”, a 1741 parody by Henry Fielding, and “Joseph Andrews”(1742), which ostensibly concerns the doings of Pamela’s brother.

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    • Thank you, jhNY!

      I haven’t read anything by Samuel Richardson, but did read “Joseph Andrews” — which I liked a lot and found hilarious at times.

      Daniel Defoe wrote novels before 1740, making him an earlier English novelist. Unless there was something more “English” about Richardson’s work? But, again, I’m clueless about Richardson. ๐Ÿ™‚

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      • Leaning on wikipedia (again), I see “Pamela” is “considered one of the first true English novels”, which seems like a hedge. I suspect it was described to me as the first, unqualified, in school, as an enticement, since otherwise I might not have had enough curiosity about it to have finished the assignment.

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  5. There was a time before WWII that John Dos Passos enjoyed a literary reputation as fine as any of his contemporaries. He was a distinctive prose stylist with a broad social vision, but he fell out of favor after he fell out with left-wing politics (and Ernest Hemingway) during his time in Spain covering the Civil War, eventually turning reactionary– he supported Goldwater in 1964. His most famous fiction is his “USA Trilogy”.

    from wikipedia:

    “The U.S.A. trilogy is a series of three novels by American writer John Dos Passos, comprising the novels The 42nd Parallel (1930), 1919 (1932) and The Big Money (1936). The books were first published together in a volume titled U.S.A. by Modern Library in 1937.

    The trilogy employs an experimental technique, incorporating four narrative modes: fictional narratives telling the life stories of twelve characters, collages of newspaper clippings and song lyrics labeled “Newsreel”, individually labeled short biographies of public figures of the time such as Woodrow Wilson and Henry Ford and fragments of autobiographical stream of consciousness writing labeled “Camera Eye”. The trilogy covers the historical development of American society during the first three decades of the 20th century. In 1998, the US publisher Modern Library ranked U.S.A. 23rd on its list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century.”

    Not so influential as it was conceived to be, but a good picture of the post WWI period, and a chance to have at some effective, if esoteric, experimental narrative construction, and prose style.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, jhNY!

      I’ve never read John Dos Passos. A shame he became reactionary later in life. Interesting how some writers endure while others fall out of favor.

      The USA Trilogy does sound impressively innovative and experimental in structure. (I wonder if Rush lyricist/drummer Neil Peart was inspired by Dos Passos’ “Camera Eye” to write the words for Rush’s “The Camera Eye” song — one of my favorite tunes from that band. Peart was a major reader of literature and history.)

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      • The trilogy was an engaging read– but it’s been decades.

        Another candidate for Peart’s inspiration: Christopher Isherwood, in “Goodbye to Berlin” (1939), later collected along with “Mr Norris Changes Trains”(1935) into the collection titled “Berlin Stories”– published in the US in 1945. In the opening paragraphs of the collection, Isherwood employs the phrase “I am a camera”– later re-purposed as the title of the earliest stage version of the stories. We today are more acquainted with the movie version, taken from the play: “Cabaret.”

        But Isherwood in the original is best, a fine work of well-wrought prose, and definitely worth seeking out.

        Another candidate for the week’s topic: Lermontov’s” A Hero For Our Time”, which contains excerpts from the main character Pechorin’s diary.

        Reading the wikipedia entry for this work, I learned 2 things: 1) “The name Pechorin is drawn from that of the Pechora River, in the far north, as a homage to Alexander Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, named after the Onega River.” 2) that Nabokov and son published a translation in 1958.

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        • Ah, Christopher Isherwood’s phrase could indeed have been another inspiration for Peart.

          I’ve had “A Hero For Our Time” on my to-read list for quite a while. Never there when I visit my local library, but one of these days…

          And that’s fascinating information in your last paragraph! Pushkin was such an influence on some subsequent Russian literature, and Nabokov certainly kept busy in a variety of ways!

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  6. In 2003,Amanda Hesser,then a food columnist for The New York Times, wrote, “Cooking For Mr. Latte” a food lover’s courtship,with recipes. I have the book grouped with my cookbooks. It was an early,for me,book that integrated recipes,although I infer were many others prior. Also, “French Woman Don’t Get Fat” encorporated recipes. I remember learning about tartines or open faced sandwiches. I photo copied some of Mirielle Guilliano’s recipes. At the time I read this popular book that was a precursor to “French Women Don’t Get Fat Cookbook” , “French Women Do Not Get Facelifts” (to name a few) her husband was then the President of my alma mater NYIT.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Michele!

      It’s nice when recipes are incorporated into books. They’re fun, useful, educational, and more. I haven’t read the books you mentioned and described so well, but if there’s plenty of prose to go with the recipes, I’m fine with that. ๐Ÿ™‚

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  7. Dave!
    I’ve read “Lord of the Rings”…. in the early 80’s.
    I remember it about as much as I remember the bible. (yes, I did read the bible) UCH! Thinking about everything, the list of begats disturbed the flow of the stories.
    I adore Sandy Dennis, especially in “Whose Afraid of Virginia Woolf”.
    Again it comes to my shallow “I saw the movie” life and career.
    Yes, I SAW “Up the Down Staircase”.
    I’m going to read one of the books I see mentioned in your one of your blog posts.
    Not sure which one, or when. Will let you know.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Resa!

      I liked “The Lord of the Rings” more than the Bible (of which I haven’t read a heckuva lot). The Bible needs a few more hobbits, elves, and talking trees… ๐Ÿ™‚

      Sandy Dennis was indeed a fantastic actress. A shame she died relatively young. ๐Ÿ˜ฆ

      I’d be interested in seeing the “Up the Down Staircase” movie. I imagine it’s written somewhat less disjointedly than the novel.

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  8. Years ago I read Atlas Shrugged, by Ayn Rand. The dystopian novel is at least 1000 pages long. Toward the end of the novel, there is a 100+ page speech by John Galt that tried my patience so – I skipped it! The book was a challenge but can I really say I read it?

    Liked by 1 person

    • “Atlas Shrugged”: stick figures dwarfed by speech balloons of cant.

      Hardly surprising you weren’t up for the task of that interminable speech- by a supposedly visionary railroad magnate. If you can’t say you read it, I say you read enough of it.

      Except you see no sign in Rand’s narrative that she knew or understood the railroad biz back then: the smart boys therein were selling the easement, in some places as much as a mile on either side of the laid track. In other words, by the 1950’s, the railroads had gone into the real estate business– after first divorcing their land holding part from the rail transportation part. It was the latter part that soon became insolvent.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Very interesting, jhNY. Additional reasons not to read “Atlas Shrugged.” There are so many other things I’d rather read in my limited time — some old classics, some contemporary classics, the backs of cereal boxes, mattress tags…

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  9. Great topic, and I LOVE it when authors do this! I’m reading one right now, The Upstairs House by Julia Fine, in which the author includes sections from the main character’s dissertation that she is supposed to be working on soon after having a baby. Trouble is afoot, however, as she believes that the dead children’s literature author, Margaret Wise Brown, has moved in upstairs…

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  10. As I have never heard of “Up the Down Staircase” I thank you very much for this proposal, Dave! In Johannes Mario Simmel’s “It can’t always be Caviar” there are many recipes for delicicious dishes and in “Gut gegen Nordwind” or in “Every seventh wave” by Daniel Glattauer Emmi Rothner writes, by mistake, an email to a speech psychologist and due to this mistake these two people start writing each other long and longer emails, sometimes within minutes. After a certain time they ask themselves, whether the picture they make themselves of the other has anything to do with reality!
    All the best:)

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you, Martina!

      It sounds like both the works you mention use nontraditional elements in very interesting ways. Emails (as well as texts and social media conversations) are so much a part of our lives these days that it makes sense for some novels to include them. And — ha ๐Ÿ™‚ — yes, are people showing their real selves in those digital interactions?

      Recipes in fiction? They can be quite fun — and useful. I’m not sure if I’m remembering correctly from when I read them, but I think novels such as Laura Esquivel’s “Like Water for Chocolate,” Fannie Flagg’s “Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe,” and Richard Morais’ “The Hundred-Foot Journey” included recipes.

      The best to you, too!

      Liked by 2 people

        • True, Martina!

          Of the three novels I mentioned, I loved โ€œFried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe,โ€ liked โ€œThe Hundred-Foot Journey” a lot, and liked โ€œLike Water for Chocolate.” None are totally escapist — some sad moments — but all are also entertaining.

          Liked by 1 person

  11. Hi Dave, you have mentioned quite a few great books with unusual structuring. Another author that uses all sorts of different ways of conveying information is Stephen King. He used the scrapbook full of newspaper cuttings, bills, and other information in The Shining. Carrie also has a most unusual structure with the interviews of the witnesses to Carrie’s destruction. Both IT and The Dead Zone also use newspaper articles. Another tool is memory flashbacks and dreams, and King uses these tools. He is actually quite a remarkable writer. I am currently writing a book that includes songs and letter as well as journal entries and my previous novel also made use of these tools. Probably because I have been heavily influenced by King and Bram Stoker.

    Liked by 4 people

    • Thank you, Robbie!

      I hadn’t clearly remembered Stephen King using nontraditional elements so often. Very impressive! And those flourishes rarely get in the way of King’s work being propulsive — almost nothing can slow down the page turning. ๐Ÿ™‚

      Also, great that you have used and are using nontraditional elements in your own books! I really have no problem with that approach; “Up the Down Staircase” was a somewhat-problematic exception for me because that novel is ALL nontraditional elements. ๐Ÿ™‚

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  12. Liaisons dangereuses is purely epistolary, isn’t it? That’s the first one that came to mind. The digressions in LOTR didn’t bother me; I thought they gave weight and richness to the story. I did find the ‘extras’ in Hugo’s Les miserables a bit tedious, though.
    I’ve put journal entries, letters, and poems in a couple of my own novels, but of course can’t say if that helped or harmed them. ๐Ÿ™‚

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you, Audrey!

      It seems like so many 18th-century novels — including “Les Liaisons dangereuses” — were epistolary. Something about the 1700s…

      The digressions in “The Lord of the Rings” do indeed give that trilogy another dimension. Really an incredible world-building work.

      What kind of reader response have you gotten to the presence of journal entries, letters, and poems in a couple of your novels?

      Liked by 2 people

  13. I read Up the Down Staircase in high school, and I don’t remember finding it difficult to read–which may be because I was in a high school environment. The school lost its NEASC accreditation during that time period because it didn’t have separate up and a down staircases, which was a fire hazard (among other fire hazards, I’m sure).

    I remember being extremely annoyed by John Irving’s digressive nonsense about bears in The World Accordingto Garp. Another book that annoyed me was filled with massive amounts of research about elephants. It got to the point whenever I would encounter more elephants, I would start yelling, which, in turn, annoyed my husband.

    Liked by 6 people

  14. Hi Dave, I like finding novels with a slightly different structure, if only because it challenges expectations. My first thought was ‘Dracula’ by Bram Stoker which begins with a journal entry and has (if I recall correctly) correspondence throughout. One of my absolute favourites of the epistolary format is the 1782 novel ‘Dangerous Liaisons’ by Choderlos de Laclos. I read ‘The Guernsey Literary Potato Peel Pie Society’ by Annie Barrows and Mary Ann Shaffer, which I found all a bit twee to be honest, but I did enjoy the movie. Another book that relies on journal entries was ‘Gone Girl’ by Gillian Flynn. That was an excellent book and not at all what I was expecting it to be.

    Liked by 6 people

  15. Even before I read your second paragraph, my mind went to J.R.R. Tolkienโ€™s LOTR trilogy. How did Tom Bombadil and Goldberry factor in the main story? And Old Man Willow? And the Barrow-wright? And all of the poetry disruptions! YIKES! When I read LOTR as a teenager, I simply skipped all the โ€œunnecessaryโ€ lines that didnโ€™t feel like they were part of a story. And now, in the โ€œwisdomโ€ that comes of age, they are a welcome disruption.

    You have the best topics, Dave, and the timing at the beginning of the week gives me something to think about in he week ahead. As you know, I just finished the #KaramazovReadalong which challenged me with time sequence and long religious and philosophical debates. And now, there is a new challenge looming in the 2022 distance that will again test my reading abilities. Many thanks for another great post.

    Liked by 5 people

    • Thank you, Rebecca!

      Yes, “The Lord of the Rings” definitely comes to mind when discussing this topic. ๐Ÿ™‚ Like you, I skipped/skimmed much of the poetry and such when first reading Tolkien’s trilogy, but paid more attention during rereads. Maybe nontraditional elements have a better chance to come into their own when a novel is visited again.

      The amazing “The Brothers Karamazov” obviously enriched a lot of peoples’ 2021. Looking forward to hearing more about, and following, next year’s reading challenge!

      Liked by 2 people

      • They do indeed, Robbie. But when I was 15, I really did not see the significance. Now, they are the heart of the story line. As to the new reading challenge – stay tuned for December 6 TTT podcast. But I will give you a hint that I know will give it away. Russia! Lots of names – some based on family members! 361 Chapters. The author hesitated to call it a novel. Some of the dialogues are in French.

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  16. I’ve read two 19th Century novels that have non-fiction essays inserted within them, they are “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” and “War and Peace”. In fact the 2nd epilogue in “War and Peace” is a series of repetitious essays on the meaning of history that is probably the weakest part of the novel.

    Liked by 3 people

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