Chattering teeth. Wind them up, set them down, and instantly those plastic choppers are clack-clacking away faster than a jackhammer, skittering around in circles on a Formica table top. For a boy in the early 1960’s, there was nothing better.
Well, except maybe for X-Ray spectacles, trick handcuffs, a dribble glass, rocket kits, coin tricks, ant farms, muscle builders, hypno-coins, two-way radios, snake-in-a-can, joy buzzers, invisible ink or fake vomit. These mail-away delights could be found in the classified ads in comic books and Mad Magazine, to which I was devoted.
Most of those items were manufactured by the estimable S.S. Adams company of New Jersey. They knew their market and worked tirelessly to improve their products. (Itch powder was particularly difficult to get right.) To get these necessities, you had to send away. In those days there was no Amazon offering expedited delivery. You had to wait for weeks, tingling with anticipation so long that you almost forgot what you’d ordered so that when the package eventually was stuffed into your curbside mailbox, it was Christmas in July.
Chattering teeth belonged to a category of goods called novelties. Novel. Ties. Yes, it makes one think of water-squirting neckties but it also, for us, recalls the story form that is the unifying topic of this blog site. Novels. Surely that shared root word is not an accident?
The Roots of Novelty
The word novel derives from the Old French nouvel, meaning young, fresh, or recent, and comes from the even older Latin novellus, which meant the same thing, and which was diminutive of the Latin novus, meaning new and novella meaning new things.
The use of novel to mean a fictional prose narrative began in Italy in the Sixteenth Century, originally referring to short stories in a collection (as, say, by Boccaccio), then in the Seventeenth Century began to describe longer prose tales. (Before that such a story would have been called a romance.) The root word gave rise to other English words too, such as announce, need, neon, newborn, news, pronounce and renew.
The need for novelty is hard-wired into our brains. When we encounter what is different than expected, dopamine is released. It arouses our interest and drives us to seek the reward of exploring and learning. I’ll spare you the math behind Bayesian Surprise, but suffice it to say that substantia nigral/ventral segmental area (SN/VTA) in our brains lights up when we try a new route, travel to new places, try on new clothes, try a new approach, get a makeover, redecorate, meet someone interesting, see new things, encounter the unexpected or discover something we didn’t know before.
If you look more closely at the toy novelties of a Sixties childhood, it becomes apparent that their appeal lay in more than surprise or amusement. Each novelty in some way said something about who we long to be. Novelties stirred up our feelings: our dread, our dream of flying, our curiosity about our neighbors, our desire to be strong, our feelings of disgust, our need to be absorbed, our need to be amused, our fear of appearing foolish, our hope of being unlike anyone else, our delight at being in on something that others aren’t, our hope that magic might be real.
Novelty excites our curiosity in a way that ordinary things cannot. The effect of a written novel on readers depends on verisimilitude—the suspension of disbelief that allows us to feel that the story’s events are really happening—but it also depends on novelty. That which is unlikely, unexpected and sudden stirs our interest, makes us eager, and propels us forward in a narrative.
For our purposes, we can define novelty as an element in a story which surprises, excites, intrigues, runs contrary to expectations, is incongruous or which we simply find amusing, particularly when such an element is touching or terrifying, evoking something that we long for or fear. [Read more…]