The Plot Against Plot

pencilsharpeningsI’ve been part of an interesting conversation about plot in literature lately. By “part” I mean that through Tweeted and emailed links to blogs and articles, a conversation has made itself available me as witness, commenter and now commentator.

First, Lev Grossman wrote a piece, “Good Books Don’t Have to Be Hard” for the Wall Street Journal. His subtitle: “A novelist on the pleasure of reading stories that don’t bore; rising up from the supermarket racks.” He says point-blank that the desire for plot, for a good story, “is a dirty secret we all share. ” The modernists pushed plot out of the limelight, but things are changing.

Plot is coming out of the closet:  “If there’s a key to what the 21st-century novel is going to look like,” Grossman claims, “this is it: the ongoing exoneration and rehabilitation of plot.” As proof of the renewed interest in plot, Grossman points out that “millions of adults are cheating on the literary novel with the young-adult novel, where the unblushing embrace of storytelling is allowed, even encouraged.”

In an amazing and beautiful essay in The Atlantic, Tim O’Brien writes a defense of the imagination in fiction, countering the obsession with verisimilitude that has shaped writing workshops and the products that come out of them. Navel-gazing reality is not the stuff of stories, O’Brien claims convincingly. “Above all, a well-imagined story is organized around extraordinary human behaviors and unexpected and startling events,” he writes, “which help illuminate the commonplace and the ordinary.”

Alexander Chee, a remarkable up-and-coming novelist (read what Junot Diaz and Annie Dillard and others have to say about him; don’t take it from me), takes up Grossman’s article and the whole issue from a teaching perspective in his blog Koreanish. He makes a distinction between pain and plot and urges students of writing to stop segregating techniques for developing character and such from “telling the story:

So the advice is, don’t be afraid to have a plot, and to tell a story. Too many writing students are trying to become masters of style and not masters of story, and they do so to their detriment. They have all these beautiful beautiful sentences and we don’t really know what they’re doing with them. Be sure to tell a story.

I love this whole conversation. I’m a fan of plot. I’m not naturally a storyteller—I’m more of an ideas person—and consequently, I’ve studied plot extensively.  And you’ll find many entries on this blog about my opinions on and strategies for plot.

However, I’ve begun thinking about what it means that we’re all running around claiming that plot is about to revive. Of Michel Foucault’s The History of Sexuality I have only an amateur’s view, a layperson’s, if you will (pun disavowed).  But I’ve dredged up this much from my long-ago undergraduate’s perspective: the constant discussion of the repression of sex is just another way to talk about . . . sex. The hide-and-seek of sexuality in society is a way to keep it in view, to keep us watching.

Likewise, is it possible that the plot against plot (our shared dirty little secret) is itself just another plot?

Aside from folks in English departments and MFA programs, who thinks that plot has weakened its hold or threatened to disappear? Might there be a social reason why defending plot emerges now as a popular pastime?

I’m looking here for a brilliant editorial analysis, something that encompasses the battle over healthcare, the failure of war and the glacial process of extracting ourselves, a national identity crisis over the loss of our superhero status in the world and the concurrent spawn of mock-superheroes, freakish superheroes and failed superheroes that has invaded literature and television?

Perhaps in a moment when successful international or national action seems unlikely, the assertion of the triumph of plot comforts us. Perhaps the failure of imagination and the tendency to navel gaze is as much a problem in our politics as in our literature, perhaps more so. Or is Modernism is to blame for the surreal, kaleidoscopic nature of policy, foreign and domestic, over the past many decades, the fracturing of the president as a coherent and reliable subject? Anyone? Anyone?

Be Sociable, Share!


  1. Plot! Maybe plot goes in and out of style, but it is always here. Plot is a way we order our stories/lives, especially in hard times. I think of the popularity of “Gone With The Wind” in the depression times of the 30’s or the plots of… Dickens and George Eliot in the harsh Victorian times. People crave plots, a certain structure in their unstructured lives. This is no doubt why mysteries are such a popular genre as they are plot driven. For me plot is very important in my chosen genre of historical fiction as it closes in a time line that could stretch to infinity 😉 . I’m an advocate for plot staying out of the closet & co-existing with style, modernist, and all other forms of fiction! P.S. As I am so intrigued by this conversation, I also posted this to my Facebook Wall:

  2. Thanks, Judith. I love how you describe the uses of plot in curbing time’s infinity. Indeed! Thanks for the repost, too. Always appreciated, and now we are FB friends. 🙂

  3. Modernism as a project had a tendency to systematically empty all significance out of the vessel and then smash the hollow vessel as a demonstration of its hollowness (or rather, as I always insist, hollowed-ness).

    I think we’re coming round to another new way of looking at the world, which isn’t postmodernism. Transmodernism? Something. One that’s able to recapture and recycle what’s valuable from earlier stages – things like plot.

    (And by the way, I’m one of those adults who reads YA fiction, exactly because it tells a good, uncluttered story in which things happen and people change as a result.)

  4. I think many things are cyclical and perhaps recent works that have been lauded for experimentation or other non-plot-focused elements may have triggered a backlash of sorts, a hue and cry for the return of plot.

    Many forms of art and human expression experience this, a push forward and then a “back to basics” reaction, usually with a twist that makes it not exactly the same as in the past but different from what just transpired.

    This description (mine) is an oversimplification of the process I see but I have no immediate explanation for why this happens, nor what triggers it and when.

    I notice some of these patterns in odd places, like looking at what offensive and defensive formations are in vogue in pro football. The single wing, the modern T formation, the I formation, Cover Two, the 4-3 vs. the 3-4, the misnamed West Coast offense, etc, etc.

    Whatever is new is often a reaction to what currently exists, a craving for something different. “Perhaps it will be new and better!” we think. And sometimes that new thing could be a reaction to things outside the obvious realm.

    For example, many times there is a move to simplify sports once things get complex and get back to “putting the best athletes on the field and letting them do what they do best.”

    Does that mean that the revival of the “Wildcat” formation in the NFL (taken from the pros and earlier from the single wing) was perhaps as much a reaction to the complexity of America’s position in the modern political world as it is to the complexity of a football team’s playbook or the defenses they face?

    I don’t really know. But it is an interesting thing to ponder. Likewise, I don’t think plot ever went away but it perhaps wasn’t the hot new trend to follow and now people are calling for a return to it as a way of making the old seem new again. And quite possibly as a way to simplify our literary goals in the context of a complex world.

  5. wow that is deeply thought provoking.

    i never thought of plot that way. i suppose plot = art and creativity. the loss of plot in television and movies has created media like twinkies, addicting and ultimately unsatisfying, leaving us hungry, always hungry.

    your article makes me want to know more about plot and true storytelling.

  6. Judith,
    your idea that plot is a boundary to curb infinity is nothing short of brilliant! thank you!

  7. The book “Story” was recently recommended to me. It’s by Robert McKee and focuses on writing screenplays but it is great (so far) addressing the core dynamics that create any good story.

    It is also an inspirational work that really gets me excited to write. And sometimes additional motivation is very necessary!


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *