My son was 9 when I dragged him to a concert featuring Ludwig van Beethoven, performed by our town’s orchestra. I wanted John to experience the emotional power Beethoven, at his best, can summon. This link between the classical and romantic eras of music said, “Tones sound, and roar and storm about me until I have set them down in notes.”
Mozart reigned supreme as the composer who so beautifully created music within the strict classical formulas, such as the sonata form. The younger Beethoven was a brilliant student of classical music, and his earlier compositions reflected his genius. But in time, those tones needed to roar out of him and storm his listeners. He broke rules, one after the other, and in doing so, opened the door to a new musical style.
I needed to share that glimpse into music history so you will appreciate what happened next at the concert. Frankly, it was a snore, compared to what I had hoped my son would hear. Every composition was more classical than romantic. As we left the auditorium, I told John that Beethoven could really thunder, but what he heard that evening was Beethoven’s earlier works.
As we walked to my car, a gentleman approached John and asked what he thought of the concert. I assumed the man expected the typical reaction of a school-age boy. Instead, my son informed him, “Well, it was his earlier works.” I managed to get into my car before I burst out laughing.
As writers, can we get away with breaking rules and succeed in traditional publishing? Beethoven managed to successfully break rules on the concert stage. Must we be the literary equivalent of the great master to get away with that? Will the number of books we sell answer that question?
Case in Point
I recently thoroughly enjoyed reading a novel in which the author did all the right things. She put the protagonist into a conundrum from page one. She quickly introduced the other main character who presented an interesting solution to his problem. I was engrossed.
Suddenly the author hopped from the point of view character’s head to the other character’s head in the same paragraph. This blooper surprised me because the author’s writing was excellent. I assumed the editor just missed that one, and happily read on.
The author is writing in third person point of view when suddenly, some entity steps in and muses about human nature in a world run by evil leaders. “We find we often….” Who is this “we”? It is not the protagonist’s inner thoughts, and no one is speaking to him. “We” continued to share more reflections throughout the book.
Would that bother you? Would it pull you out of the story bubble? Frankly, I found We’s reflections interesting, thought provoking, and beautifully written. Somehow, I remained vested in the characters and their situation to the end.
Success or Failure?
Was this an example of a talented writer breaking accepted literary rules, much like Beethoven broke classical composition rules? His music is far more emotionally laden than Mozart’s. Her book evoked philosophical ruminations that she slid into the narrative, making the reader reflect on life and mores 77 years ago. It added depth to the story and made it relevant for our own time.
Do writers succeed if they keep readers buried in their stories, despite breaking rules to add dimension to their work? On the other hand, if they could not achieve their goal without breaking the rules, does that mean they need to grow as writers?
Literary styles change over the years. Is this perhaps how they evolve?