I’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?