The Ghost in the Machine #2: Novelty Value

So far in my writing, I’ve tended to trust in the belief of James Joyce: “In the particular is contained the universal.”

This is the idea that by writing genuinely and lucidly from our own experiences or fierce little passions–jealousy, or the plight of bees–odds are someone else has been there too, and will be moved by our account. Many of the best writers tell simple but eloquent tales—of love, loss, family, very basic themes. I’m thinking Anne Tyler, Graham Swift, Tolstoy and countless others.

But in seeking publication for my own work, I start to wonder. My writing mostly explores the layers beneath rather ordinary moments and life transitions. I’m not doing too badly so far, but I’m still struggling to pin down that “big story” with which to make my mark.

Competitions and calls for submissions are increasingly begging for novelty, innovation and “exciting new voices” that “take risks”, and sound “fresh and new”. The judge of a recent competition in a top women’s writing magazine even bemoaned getting too many stories from a woman’s point of view!

Part of our thirst for novelty is surely due to the increasing volume of new writing and the outlets available. Everyone’s a writer these days, scrawling across the horizonless pages of blogs, Twitter, Facebook, Myspace and online magazines. So I suppose when editors slush through thousands of stories, only the truly unexpected will stand out.

In my own personal reading marathon I have to admit that work featuring strange characters, surprising action, or unusual settings do stick in my mind, like the young refugees in a detention centre  in The Other Hand by Chris Cleave, or the sharp-witted 19th-century thieves in Fingersmith by Sarah Waters.

That doesn’t mean they’re more likely to stick in my heart, though. The rendering of loss in Maggie O’Farrell’s novel After You’d Gone still gives me goosebumps. And one of my favourite short stories is John Updike’s subtle “You’ll never know, dear, how much I love you”, a very short tale of a child at a carnival. Even so, I’d be hard pressed to articulate just what it is about that story, what it’s saying, why I find it so poignant.

So in today’s bite-sized, flashbulb culture, do we glorify novelty and thrill at the expense of quieter, longer-lasting storytelling? At the risk of sounding distinctly over the hill, is common genuine human experience losing value in our search for more and more and more?

When a friend recently showed me her first attempt at poetry, I felt guilty for finding her description of sexual abuse rather “old hat”. In the 1960s, her voice would have been cutting edge, but today it would be lost in the helpfully labelled “Tragic Life Stories” section at WH Smith.

Ironically, as it gets easier to be heard, it gets harder to be noticed. It reminds me of the rather brutal comment of author Tracy Chevalier in encouraging writers to expand their imaginative horizons. She said, “You’re not as interesting as you think!” (Mslexia, issue 45, Apr/May/Jun 2010). “Write what you know” has become “Write what wakes me up.”

Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen

Or maybe there’s a third way, which I’ve also come across: “Write what you are passionate about.” If you get that right, if you can apply your personal experiences of universal themes to an unusual setting (e.g. the love story at the centre of Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen)—you have a winner all ways round.

No matter what I learn about the craft of writing, though, the impulse to do it always comes from my own heart. My attempts to create out of thin air often end up sounding like just that. When I have an idea—whether it’s new, innovative or as old as the hills, that’s what I want to write, that’s why I write, and it’ll just have to do. And funnily enough, the closer I stick to that, the better I write.

When I told an old friend I was writing a novel based on our childhood romance, he said, “We were just garden variety teenagers. Who would care?” I guess I’m thinking maybe someone who was once a garden variety teenager.

Click to read parts one and three of this feature.

Emily Cleaver

Emily Cleaver

Emily Cleaver is Litro's Online Editor. She is passionate about short stories and writes, reads and reviews them. Her own stories have been published in the London Lies anthology from Arachne Press, Paraxis, .Cent, The Mechanics’ Institute Review, One Eye Grey, and Smoke magazines, performed to audiences at Liars League, Stand Up Tragedy, WritLOUD, Tales of the Decongested and Spark London and broadcasted on Resonance FM and Pagan Radio. As a former manager of one of London’s oldest second-hand bookshops, she also blogs about old and obscure books. You can read her tiny true dramas about working in a secondhand bookshop at and see more of her writing at


  1. Katy Darby Katy says:

    Great piece Paige – thoughtful and true, I think. “Write what you want to read” has become my maxim – or, as you say, “write what excites you” and chances are it will excite someone else.

  2. pascale says:

    Hi Paige: Your point – easier to be heard, harder to be noticed – so true! Nevertheless I have an incandescent faith that good writing (of course, what it is that constitutes ‘good’ is partly a matter of fashion, but only partly) will always stand out despite the chorus for new, innovative, and what have you. There will always be a place for truths about the ordinary. I reckon even the woman’s magazine you mention wouldn’t ignore an Anne Tyler, even if it was just rabbiting on about ordinary aspects of little people’s lives. Jackie Kay said in a class the other day that what readers are interested in is not the big ‘I am’ but the little ‘I’m not’, and it’s the eternal truths about ordinariness that we as writers need to tap. So if I were you I’d hang onto that James Joyce and just look around you and grab the small and the particular and wring it till it squeaks. And sod to those lot who sit up there and tell everyone else what they have to do to be considered worthy.

  3. Anon says:

    Hi Paige

    Very true about the ‘bitesize’ culture we live in now. I think there’s an element of Emperors New Clothes about it all. But don’t get too disenchanted – for me what really stands out is a good story above all. If you think something sounds like an interesting story, it probably is. Mounting and setting it is all down to you, of course, as the writer. But if you’ve stumbled across an idea that keeps you excited as you write it, then that will come through.

    Keep the faith!

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