Lit Crush: Books that Break the Rules

As we gear up for April's Muse and the Marketplace Conference, where this year many presenters will be talking about writerly rules and rule-breaking, we asked the Grub community for their favorite rule-breaking books. This is a non-exhaustive list of Grubbie recommendations.


Programs Coordinator Lauren suggests Dancer by Colum McCann, because it follows no rules about making the narrative timeline clear to the reader; it changes perspectives, time period, and location every chapter with no explanation, and trusts the reader to figure it out.


Instructor and GrubWrites columnist Crystal King doesn't think there is a single likable character in Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections, and Nicholson Baker's book Vox is written entirely in dialogue.


Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch starts with a dream, and it won the Pulitzer Prize! (And it’s one of Muse Conference Volunteer Coordinator Diane's favorites.)


GrubWrites contributor and Grubbie Grace Lapointe always says that Alice Munro's short stories break the "show, don't tell" rule constantly. She summarizes huge periods in characters' lives, tells you exactly how they're feeling, and somehow, it works. See "Dear Life," "The Moons of Jupiter," and "Too Much Happiness."


Director of the Muse & Advocacy Sonya just read David Henry Hwang's M. Butterfly, which destroyed her, and one of the playwriting "rules" it breaks is a scene in which the lead character tells the audience that he's going to spend intermission on stage, washing makeup off his face, transitioning from a woman to a man. "So I thought you might want to take this opportunity to stretch your legs, enjoy a drink, or listen to the musicians," he says. "I'll be here, when you return, right where you left me." NOW the audience suddenly wants to stay and watch him, but if they do, they're complicit in the very cultural fascination that he's been critiquing the whole time. It's utterly brilliant.


Roberto Bolaño's By Night in Chile is a novel with no chapter breaks, told in one long paragraph. Instructor Jonathan Escoffery is pretty sure that breaks a couple conventions, if not rules.


Jorge Luis Borges's Labyrinths is the favorite of Head of Faculty & Curriculum Dariel. Borges has stories with no main characters, and narratives that read like philosophical musings.


GrubWrites editor Sarah wants to shout out Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh, for the flagrant and joyous use of dialect and phonetic spelling in every glorious corner of the prose, and Peter Ho Davies' The Fortunes for boldly challenging the conventional conception of narrative unity.

The book that made Muse & Events Coordinator Hanna a reader, Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time, begins with the weather: "It was a dark and stormy night."


 Grubbie Cathy Elcik just finished Gina Frangello's  A Life in Men and was gobsmacked by all the POV rules she broke.


If you ask Director of Programs & Marketing Alison, she'll suggest David Grossman's To the End of the Land, which not only starts with a prologue, it starts with a long prologue that is almost entirely dialogue, in a POV and timeline that do not show up again throughout the rest of the novel. It also includes many tangents that Alison has a feeling workshoppers would have identified as "darlings," and every single one of them makes the book better.


Administrative Assistant Erin thinks David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest is riddled with backstories of characters we never see again, which gets right at the heart of what it's like to live in a city, which is, in the end, only held together by the stories people tell about it.


Grubbie Maria MayMar says Sylvain Neuvel's Sleeping Giants (and its sequel) is written in interview form. A single voice for the interviewer. Different points of view of an event. Excellent book.


Author and Novel Incubator alum Emily Ross noticed that Jane Harper’s The Dry just drops the past (in italics) into the middle of the present. Must be breaking some rule but it works. 


HR & Operations Manager Lauren loved Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell, which is a novel composed of nested stories, all of which are based on different reincarnations of the same soul in different bodies. There are wild jumps into the past and future, stories end in the middle of a pivotal moment, and the last five stories are told in reverse chronological order, like a mirror for the first five.


Founder & Executive Director Eve was just talking to a friend about Milan Kundera's novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being, which blew her mind back in the early nineties largely because it offered almost nothing you normally expect from a novel. Characters are flat, and Kundera breaks in all the time to remind you that his brain is producing everything on the page. It's idea-driven and absurdist. Eve wants to re-read it and imagines that it's not a book that will hold up for her.


Missed an edition of Lit Hits? Fear not! Find the entire back catalogue of Grubbie-recommended titles right here.

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About the Author

Colwill is an instructor and manuscript consultant at GrubStreet, an associate editor at Bat City Review, and an MFA candidate at the University of Texas at Austin. After graduating a scholarship awardee of GrubStreet’s Novel Incubator program, Colwill found representation for her first novel, Before We Tear Our Selves Apart, with Robert Guinsler of Sterling Lord Literistic, which is currently on submission to publishing houses. She is the recipient of the Wellspring House Emerging Writer Fellowship, the Henry Blackwell Essay Prize, and a Crawley-Garwood Research Grant, and has received fellowships and support from Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, The University of Texas at Austin, Boston College, Kansas State University, the Anderson Center for Disciplinary Studies, and GrubStreet. She was a finalist for the 2019 Tennessee Williams Fiction Prize, the 2019 Reynolds Price Award, the 2019 Far Horizons Fiction Award, the 2019 Disquiet International Literary Prize, and the 2019 Lit Fest Emerging Writer Fellowship. Colwill’s fiction is forthcoming in Granta and is anthologized in Everywhere Stories: Short Fiction from a Small Planet (Press 53). She has served on the editorial team for Post Road magazine, The Conium Review,  Solstice Literary Magazine, and Pangyrus magazine. Colwill is a founding member of the  Back Porch Collective, a Boston-based group of writers. With members connected to Cuba, India, Albania, Atlanta, Bosnia, Miami, Jamaica, and the UK, they bonded over a common passion for global narratives and literature’s potential to create empathy and understanding across all geographical, political, and cultural borders. Hailing from Yorkshire, in the north of England, Colwill is determined to introduce the word “sozzard” to the American vernacular. For a full list of publications, projects, and services, please visit

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