The Docu-novel



L.R. Dorn is the pen name for Matt Dorff and Suzanne Dunn. Their debut novel, “The Anatomy of Desire,” is being published by William Morrow.


What do the novels Dangerous Liaisons (1782), Dracula (1899), The Screwtape Letters (1942),

Bridget Jones Diary (1996), and Daisy Jones and the Six (2019) all have in common?


Each was composed of material that supposedly originated outside of the novel medium. Using fictitious private correspondences, diary entries, instructional memos from advisor to advisee, newspaper reports, spoken memories of past events, these authors discarded conventional first and third-person styles of narrative and substituted extended rhetorical devices to tell their stories. They laid out their books according to a different set of blueprints.


In Choderlos de Laclos’s eighteenth century France, epistolary novels were already popular with readers. With Dangerous Liaisons, he invigorated the form by having his main characters write letters to various correspondents while advancing hidden agendas. With no authorial voice guiding the way, readers must sort through the multiple viewpoints of a group of jaded French aristocrats in order to track the unfolding events. This puts the responsibility in readers’ hands to determine where the truth lies. Other than attach a preface from the fictional “editor,” de Laclos presents only a selection of the letters in chronological order, sans any narrator commentary. His trust in his readers to assemble for themselves the tale he aimed to tell was well founded. The novel has not been out of print in two-hundred years.


In Dracula, Bram Stoker paints the title character solely through the private descriptions of those who encounter him. The reader gets no direct insights into the heart or mind of the Transylvanian Count, he is portrayed exclusively in journal entries from a circle of acquaintances with limited perspectives. C.S. Lewis gives us a one-sided perspective through a single letter writer to a single recipient in The Screwtape Letters, with endless variations on the how-to of morally redirecting humans from heaven to hell. Helen Fielding shows us modern Englishwoman Bridget Jones by allowing the reader to peek over her shoulder as she confides her innermost quirks and eccentricities in the private pages of a diary. In her novel of a fictional 1970s rock band, Taylor Jenkins Reid confines her storytelling to the recorded voices of Daisy Jones and the Six bandmates, music producers, and rock journalists as they respond to questions by a mostly off- screen interviewer. Reid allows these rock’n’roll confessionals to stand in a sometimes wry, sometimes rueful coexistence,. She even takes her oral history beyond the novel’s ending and adds a postscript of song lyrics from the band’s (nonexistent) final album.


Alternatives for Conveying Story and Character


In each of these novels, the author establishes an explicit conceit for delivering the narrative and closely adheres to it. In the current era of traditional media disruption and “the listening revolution,” our literary alter ego L.R. Dorn has been looking at fresh conceits for presenting story and character. With the audio platform for fiction expanding exponentially, we were inspired to write a novel for the page and voice, to utilize a format we think will be highly effective for delivering an immersive reading and listening experience from a single 80,000- word text: the docu-novel.


The root word “doc” comes from the Latin “to teach.” “Document” refers to written or printed material that conveys information. To convey its narrative, the docu-novel draws from documents that originated in other mediums. In our novel, THE ANATOMY OF DESIRE., we extensively used transcript documents to tell the story. Through trial transcripts, transcripts of recorded phone calls, interview transcripts, transcripts of social media posts, news report transcripts, and other such documents, we composed a novel about a crime investigation and murder trial. Writing from the conceit of a current television docuseries, we orchestrated a selection of voices to channel the fictional story onto the pages of our novel.


In this approach some things are lost but many other things are gained. The docu-novel doesn’t give readers access to the characters’ inner lives except through what is communicated in transcript documents. The reader can’t get that direct intimacy with a main character as when an author writes from the first person or close third person. Instead, the main character is constructed solely through spoken observations and recorded interactions. In, THE ANATOMY OF DESIRE, accused murderer Cleo Ray is seen through law enforcement’s eyes, the prosecutor’s eyes, her defense attorneys’ eyes, through the eyes of her boyfriend, family members, social media followers, and the news media. This 360-degree portrait provides opportunities for contrast and counterpoint. It requires readers to consider the sources and perceive where the biases lie. Seen from multiple angles, including her own (Cleo’s interviews account for many of those 80,000 words), Cleo Ray emerges as an array of puzzle pieces, to be assembled based on how the reader interprets this collage of testimonies. Not just trial testimonies, but the defendant’s outside-the-courtroom testimony and the testimonies of people who are in some form of relationship with her, each informed by a particular set of cultural attitudes.


Our Inspirations for a New Form


We are flooded by innumerable voices across all forms of today’s media. Facebook and Instagram comments, Goodreads and Rotten Tomatoes reviews, shares and retweets, customer ratings, the collective chor

us is fragmenting into a vast mishmash of singular viewpoint  expressed through a spectrum of biases and emotions.  The result is a constantly breaking tidal wave of perspectives on every issue and event, and it is this fragged reality we tried to reflect in THE ANATOMY OF DESIRE.



Another reason for this docu style evolved from our study of the source material, Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy. In that and his other novels, Dreiser tried to capture “the voice of the people” in all its multiplicities and social forms. He sought to show the panorama of American life through diverse characters occupying divergent societal positions. A hundred years before the internet engulfed our social consciousness, Dreiser wrote, “Our modern brain- pan does not seem capable of receiving, sorting and storing the vast army of facts and impressions which present themselves daily.” By examining the religious, the political, the rich and the poor, the male and the female, by exploring the halls of high finance, and the backstage dressing rooms of Broadway, the small-town courtrooms, the urban skid rows, Dreiser strove in his fiction to present a full spectrum of the American experience. We conceived a way to emulate this by deploying the voices of a big-media talent agent, a rural district attorney, various social media influencers, a small-town deputy sheriff, a newspaper reporter, a documentary filmmaker, a Christian missionary, and others to personify a

cross-section of modern America coming together for a high-profile murder trial.


We had a personal reason for telling this narrative through multiple voices. As two individuals, male and female, husband and wife, west-coast raised and east-coast raised, an arts college graduate and a business college graduate, we, the authors who make up the voice of L.R. Dorn, were drawn to a narrative based on intercutting divergent points-of-view. This docu style both reflected and reinforced our daily collaboration. We had the creative space to express our individual voices across the panorama of more than twenty fictional characters.


The docu-novel both harkens back to a tradition of innovation in narrative execution and looks forward to new innovations in the ways novels are written. As the world of technology and media continues to evolve and the culture of storytelling expands, there will be further attempts to reconceive non-novel material for fictional purposes. L.R. Dorn isn’t the first to channel other mediums onto the pages of a novel, and we won’t be the last. New rhetorical devices will emerge and continue to challenge, intrigue, and immerse readers and listeners in the age-old pleasures to be found in a great novel.