Why not put some whale facts chapters in your WIP?
I totally agree, but literary agents seem to run from such discursive novels like the plague. Ask me how I know.
I'm fresh from a rejection due to whale facts-type reasons, so this was exactly what I needed to read today. Thank you.
The book might seem like it would work better without the whale facts, but it doesn't. It goes bland. Just need to find the person who sees that.
Of course it depends on how it’s done. As your post hit my phone I was reading one such “digression” in Don Quixote and it works there because he’s a master and it’s already a sprawling book. The segments in American Psycho where Bateman talks about different musicians/albums seem far afield, but for me they serve as palette cleansers between rounds of gore. In Moby-Dick I actually found them seamless. I assume there are novels where this is not done well. I can’t think of any off the top of my head but I’ve read reviews recently that were critical of how this was done, not that it was done.
The whale facts may not push the plot onwards, but they do push Melville's vision for the book! These are only facts on a superficial level, because everything in that book has a metaphorical reading on a deeper level -- that is why, actually, it's about an underwater being... So, yes, totally totally agree with your points! The justification of each chapter / scene shouldn't be reduced to plot only, but also to the overall meaning / message / vision of that book.
yeah and it’s not just whale facts, right -- it’s transgressions into depths. Like that whole chapter about the meaning of the dubloon nailed to the mast
“Many of the film and TV rules for storytelling have to do with the basic constraints of filmmaking... But novels are not bound by production costs, fitting in commercial breaks, or the need to convey story only through actors’ actions and dialogue.”
See, these are the historically legitimate medium constraints that a certain type of writer never thinks to mention. Which convinces me they don’t know much about TV writing to begin with.
A fun and thoughtful read as always! I haven’t read Moby Dick but, based on descriptions, Melville pretended he had exactly one book to put out in his lifetime and he stuffed it with every weird, horny obsessively human aspect of his psyche that he could. Good for him.
This was certainly reassuring to read. My latest novel is including interludes, one of which has an interlude within the interlude, following a magical crystal as its traded from Britain to India along Roman trade routes
I loved the whale facts chapter when i first read it unabridged at the age of 10 or so. The problem is that Melville is utterly wrong on all the facts. Anyone who reads the chapter and believes it is horribly misinformed about whales. It’s all fiction, no facts.
I didn’t read Moby Dick until I was in college. And when I did, a teammate of mine said, “You’re probably the only guy on campus who’s ever actually READ Moby Dick. There’s a reason the Cliff Notes are sold out at every bookstore on campus. 😅
I don’t know if you’ve ever read “Watchmen,” but the whale stories in Moby Dick reminded me of “Tales of the Black Freighter” - aka the pirate story that was intercut within the body of the story.
Reading this immediately after teaching a workshop in which we discussed the exciting possibility of not relying on a clearly-demarcated narrative arc + protagonist model for a work in progress. Steering all my students to your Substack now!
Lincoln! I love this celebration of some of the strangest parts of MD! I'm enthusiastically teaching it to high school students right now, and this really fans my flames in a fantastic way. With your permission, I'd love to share this post with them. Lemme know. (PS: Hope you're doing well! S'been too long!)
Such a good post. I think this is why I have such a hard time reading a lot of contemporary novels; without the depth of the "whale facts" sections, a novel can quite honestly be boring. Also, if a literary work falls into the trap of adhering to Hollywood rules, I think it can become a bit like a bad movie, since it is following the rules for another medium; and wouldn't you rather watch a good movie than read a bad one? Tying into this, we hear over and over about film adaptations of books: "The book is better", because we know the film is trying to follow rules to which its medium isn't suited. Wouldn't it make sense that this goes for the other way around, too, and a book trying to be a movie falls flat?
I agree with all of this, and also it's always delightful to see another person to whom Why Did I Ever is an important book.
I'm going to remember this the next time I run into one of those craft essays or books which maintain that "everything in the novel must be in service to the plot."
Melville probably would have been advised in his MFA workshop to "kill his darlings." Glad he didn't. (Also, glad the whale won.)
I'm prepping query materials for my first novel (which was partly and very loosely inspired by Moby Dick) and this really hit home. All the advice I've read/received suggests forcing it into a formula that feels like stripping out what's distinctive and interesting about the book. When I think about the novels I love, I suppose I could describe them in these terms, but they'd be unrecognizable.
I wonder whether (1) I'm wrong and this truly is the universal core of all novels, (2) it's really what people buying books want, or (3) it's a mostly a matter of convenience for agents who have to sift through a million queries and need some standardized way of quickly comparing them.