Tom Williams

Archive for November, 2011|Monthly archive page

A Guest Post from Mr. Caleb J. Ross

In Uncategorized on November 7, 2011 at 3:07 pm

In Defense of Concept

This is a guest post byCalebJRoss (also known as Caleb Ross, to people who hate Js) as part of his Stranger Will Tour for Strange blog tour. He will be guest-posting beginning with the release of his novel Stranger Will in March 2011 to the release of his second novel, I Didn’t Mean to Be Kevin and novella, As a Machine and Parts, in November 2011. If you have connections to a lit blog of any type, professional journal or personal site, pleasecontacthim. To be a groupie and follow this tour,subscribe to the CalebJRossblogRSSfeed. Follow him on Twitter: Friend him on Facebook:


The world of literary fiction seems to have an aversion to conceptually driven work. Concept and character too-often feel planted on opposite ends of the genre/literary fiction divide (a divide, by the way, that I don’t agree with in the first place). Concept implies plot. Literature implies characters. Are they mutually exclusive?

First, a definition of sorts. When I say “concept” I don’t mean Hollywood high concept. Though, I suppose by etymological law the terms must share a node somewhere in the OED. Concept fiction, to me, is often seeded by the simple phrase “what if?” But Caleb, can’t all books be summarized by asking “what if?” Perhaps. But the difference with a concept “what if” is that the question has inherent intrigue.

Why does concept fiction need to be defended? The aforementioned potential confusion between the terms high concept and concept fiction is worth a blog post. But terminology alone does not a war make. I am motivated primarily by the empirical evidence for concept fiction being too easily misunderstood and misdiagnosed as “bad fiction.” I’m not going to use this post to definitively defend concept fiction (I’m lazy), but instead I simply want to explore why concept fiction is so intriguing (which makes this post an opinion piece; see I’m lazy, above).

Why concept fiction? I love the mileage a great author can get out of a great concept, simultaneously supporting the innate human drive to connect (the best of literary fiction) and innate curiosity (the best of great concepts).

Brian Evenson does concept fiction beautifully. His novella Dark Property might very well have been born of the question “what if a person carried a bag, which may or may not contain body parts, across the desert?” The visual may not be agreeable for some readers, but it would be hard to argue that the idea doesn’t create some sort of visceral reaction. His novel Last Days is another great example (what if a detective had to remove his own body parts in order to solve a case?). My post host, the wonderful Tom Williams’ own The Mimic’s Own Voice seems born of the question “what if a socially inept man could accurately mimic anyone?” Once again, inherent intrigue. As a counter example, take Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, one of my favorite books of all time. The “what if” here is, ‘what if a black man living in the racially charged American South travels north to attend college?’ Of course, Invisible Man does a great deal with this concept, but the concept alone is not inherently intriguing.

Do you have any examples of great concept fiction? List them in the comments below.