The Plot Against Plot

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...