Verse Novels: Does format really need to be justified?

Verse Novels: Does format really need to be justified?

I thought I'd kick off verse novel week (which will be a bit abbreviated this year, unfortunately) by examining something that I chew in whenever I read reviews of verse novels--by examining the oft-made assumption that the choice in format needs to be justified in some way. Or, rather, that there's an understanding among many readers that traditional prose is the "normal" way to tell a story and that if an author choices to write their story in the verse format, there better be a damn good reason. 

Do we demand that graphic novelists justify their choice to tell their story in visual form?

This perspective is one that always gives me pause, because I don't see it applied to other "alternative" formats. Do we demand that graphic novelists justify their choice to tell their story in visual form? Or even--to make a closer analogy--expect writers using a epistolary devices (letters, text messages, etc) to do so? Maybe on an isolated basis, but not in anyway that could be considered meaningful. 

In a guest post for our third annual verse novel week celebration in 2014, verse novelist Stasia Ward Kehoe hit the nail on the head of this tension, 

The questions and warnings may point to a challenge to the verse novel that is not, perhaps, reflected in other literary, visual and performing arts genres. The correlation between content and form seems to be held to a more stringent standard for verse novels.
Stasia Ward Kehoe, Why Verse Novels Can Be About Anything, Clear Eyes, Full Shelves 2014

As Stasia points out, even industry professionals warn about the verse form. And, it's not uncommon at all the see comments on Goodreads--and even in professional reviews--that demand justification for the verse medium. Prose is the default, full stop.

To connect this question to something I’m pretty familiar with, visual art criticism, there’s a lot you can dig into with regard to medium.

And to a certain extent, I do get it. To connect this question to something I'm pretty familiar with, visual art criticism, there's a lot you can dig into with regard to medium. Artists' choices in medium are often fascinating. Why does a painter choose oils over acrylics? How does that choice influence our "reading" of the work? Is it effective in conveying what the work is trying to convey, or does it get in the way?

But these questions are all far more interesting than, "Should this be in verse?"

To tease out this convoluted metaphor even further, I thought about verse novels when I watched The Big Short recently (my god, that movie is an incredible adaptation). That movie was directed and co-written by Adam McKay, who's best-known for movies like Anchorman and Stepbrothers (my mom and husband watch that movie together every Christmas, by the way--my family is weird) and he brought a very different eye to telling that story.

If you've read the book of the same name, you know the story: it's high drama, lots of big, messy personalities and in a lot of ways, perfect for your typical Big Wall Street Movie™. But McKay took the film's narrative style in a totally different direction, breaking through the fourth wall, embracing a lack of a central heroic figure, and crafting a generally inconsistent rhythm that works for some reason.

Even though it's a Hollywood movie, the narrative structure and style of The Big Short feels risky. It would have been far easier to tell this story in a traditional way, rewriting the characters to be fighting the good fight, but that movie felt experimental, and even when pieces didn't work (like a character looking at the camera and saying, "That's not actually how it happened."), I appreciated the movie beyond its story and acting in a way I haven't in a long time. If it had been the movie equivalent of "traditional prose," it would have been fine, but I'm sure glad they took the risk in playing with form. 

And I guess that's why I feel defensive of verse novelists--they're taking a risk in eschewing "traditional prose" (even though verse stories are incredibly old) and there's something meaningful in that, whether or not the form "works" in each specific case or not. 

I think a lot of the anti-verse novel sentiment likely stems from people's bad experiences with poetry in school (raise your hand if you had an English teach single-handedly ruin poetry for you!), and so there's a visceral thing that a lot of folks feel in the fragmented lines of the poetic forms you see in verse novels. And that sucks, to put it inelegantly. But this oddball bias sure makes me wonder about the impact on what we actually see on store and library shelves. 

If you've never tried a verse novel, why not give it a shot?

There's probably one out there for you! Like history fiction, contemporary lit, non-fiction, paranormal? You can find stories in verse in all those genres. If you're one of those folks whose feelings run to the side of demanding "traditional prose" unless there's a justification for the form, I'd love it if you started asking different questions when encountering a verse novel--you might just start to appreciate the narrative choice in a new way.

Note: This post is part of our annual Verse Novel Week celebration. Stay tuned for more on this topic throughout the week. 

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