How (And Why) To Write A Surrealist Novel

“More reality.” It’s a watchword of Surrealism today. If you don’t understand this about the Surrealist movement, you won’t understand anything else.

Take Your Desires For Reality!

One of the meanings of the Sur in Surrealism is that it is more realist than our mundane perceptions of reality. Surrealism seeks the vanishing point between (among other things) dreams and waking, external world and internal world. When you get up in the morning, your schoolteacher, your boss and your mum all want you to shake the dreams out of your head and get on with the serious business of whatever the fuck you’re supposed to do all day.

But Surrealism insists that you bring those dreams with you: they’re no less real than your socks or your breakfast. More than that: your dreams are not just a part of the world, they’re what will transform the world. Take your desires for reality!

That’s why Surrealists demand more reality. So much so that there are some in the movement who think that Surrealists today should not write fiction.

You can see the logic behind that position. If your goal is more reality, then there doesn’t seem much point in going around making shit up. Especially not when we live in a world that’s constantly trying to stuff our brains full of shiny distracting made-up stuff, from TV soaps to Marvel movies to the latest Trumpist confabulation. We need to get rid of all the made-up nonsense, get a grip, clear our heads.

Obviously, I don’t share that position. I’ve spent several years writing Surrealist fiction, and I don’t plan to stop any time soon. But I don’t dismiss it either.

Writing Surrealist fiction is a balancing act. If you’re going to do it, you have to find a way to adhere to the principles of Surrealism while also producing something that someone else might ultimately want to read. There’s no guarantee that you’ll pull it off.

I’m Going To Get Some Shit For Saying This…

… But there’s a lot of really dull writing being done in the Surrealist movement. That’s partly because of the difficulty of the balancing act. It’s also because there is a curious lack of serious discussion in Surrealist circles nowadays about what the imagination is and how it works.

All too often, “the supremacy of the imagination” is taken as an article of faith, rather than as an object of scrutiny.

Maybe the Surrealist movement in general is so much on the back foot these days that it’s become reluctant to ask itself complex questions. I don’t know.

But in this respect I think that occultists currently have the edge over Surrealists. Occultists train and hone their imaginations as such, diligently and consciously. Astral projection (for example) is not a matter just accepting whatever your imagination drops into your lap at first sitting.

Well, I’m not going to name names, and the Surrealist book covers I’m using to illustrate this post are all The Good Shit and novels you should read. But let’s face it, there’s nothing worse than bad automatic writing, and over the past 20 years I’ve read innumerable examples of sloppy, rambling, self-indulgent, superficial and downright boring tosh, published in no end of Surrealist blogs, zines and journals. Dreary, dreary, dreary. And I don’t exempt some of my own efforts from that verdict.

Hard And Slow

In fact, it was when I finally faced up to my own increasingly lazy tendency to phone it in that I decided to try to write a novel. A novel that would adhere entirely to Surrealist principles, but would also be at least a little bit fun to read. A novel that bothered to tell a story, instead of just being an extremely long line of words in a row.

The result was The Golden Cut. Whether I succeeded in making it fun to read is not for me to judge, but it was what I was aiming for.

It took bloody ages.

Yes, it’s not exactly news that writing a novel is a slow process. But I’m going to stick my neck out and say that in the context of the contemporary Surrealist movement, the extreme slowness was radical in itself.

The use of the Internet as the primary means of international communication within the movement has led to an increasing preponderance of forms of writing that are fast. Forms that provide (dare I say it? oh, go on then) instant gratification to the writer. Word games played online, automatic texts written at high speed and shared on social media, blog posts bashed out and uploaded in the blink of an eye. All of which can of course produce truly dazzling results, but can equally produce sheer crap, and before you start clutching your pearls let me repeat that I am not exempting myself from any of these charges.

Writing slowly is a whole nuther thing. Working on the same text for three, four, five years or more, writing and rewriting it, and often not writing it at all but simply contemplating it, at length and deeply… It’s a different kind of encounter with the imagination: both a surrender to it and a conquest of it at the same time. You have to trust your imagination, but you also have to interrogate it, push and pull it, kick its arse and slap its face. And let it take its (and your) time.

Taking time is an attitude that might do some good for Surrealism in general. Last summer, when I was still working on the final edits of The Golden Cut, I discussed some of these questions with a Surrealist friend who works with visual materials, and she explained to me the importance of time in her own work. If she’s working with an object or an image, she told me, she doesn’t just jump in with an immediate automatic response: she gives the object plenty of time, and waits for it to speak to her in its own voice. Only then does she enter into dialogue with it, when she can collaborate with it on an equal footing.

I tried to do the same with the people, places and things in The Golden Cut. The central characters took their own sweet time to emerge, but when they did they were fully fledged imaginary friends, with lives and agendas of their own, and I let them follow me around and whisper in my ear until they had become such thorough pains in my behind that I simply had to sit down and write about them in an attempt to get them to shut up.

Which didn’t work, by the way. TJ Breckenridge is still hanging around my house, full of big talk and behaving like a fuckwit.

It’s Not A Technique, It’s A Method

I promised you a “how-to” guide, and now I’m going to give you one. Hell, I didn’t promise it would be an easy how-to.

  • Remember the watchword: more reality. The point of Surrealist fiction is that it’s a tool for exploring layers of reality that are only accessible to the imagination. You’re not just making shit up for the sake of it.
  • Develop a deeply perverted and reciprocally sadomasochistic relationship with your own imagination. Let it force you to do things you wouldn’t consciously have chosen, but by the same token, don’t let it fob you off with whatever it doles out first time. Make your imagination sweat. And then let it turn the tables on you.
  • Don’t lust after results; work with and for the process. For example, don’t just pull an image out of your dream diary and “insert” into a story as if it were an inert thing for you to plonk onto the page. Wait quietly, and eventually the image will tell you what it want.
  • Be patient, be prepared to mess up and start over, and take your goddam time.

Those are all pretty general principles. I could add others, not least of which would be the wider principles of Surrealism itself, but I’m not going to get into Surrealism 101 here. Drop me a line if you want to talk about that.

But while I was working on The Golden Cut, I did also develop a concrete technique for writing Surrealist pulp fiction specifically: a set of rules, like the rules of a game, which were fun (though still not easy) to use as a way to get started.

I won’t reveal those rules now, because I’m going to divulge them elsewhere very soon. So if you want to know how to write Surrealist pulp fiction, make sure you’ve signed up to my newsletter.

And if you want to read some Surrealist pulp fiction in the meantime, well, TJ is always willing to talk trash to anybody, and you know where we are.

Goya’s The Sleep Of Reason Produces Monsters – image in the public domain.
Surrealist novel cover images all reproduced under fair use.

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