The Plot Strikes Back

>> Monday, August 31, 2009

There's an interesting article by novelist Lev Grossman in the Wall Street Journal about the death--and resurrection--of plot in literature. He points out that the Modernists who disdained plot had good reason:

"They drew a tough hand, historically speaking. All the bad news of the modern era had just arrived more or less at the same time: mass media, advertising, psychoanalysis, mechanized warfare. The rise of electric light and internal combustion had turned their world into a noisy, reeking travesty of the gas-lit, horse-drawn world they grew up in. The orderly, complacent, optimistic Victorian novel had nothing to say to them. Worse than nothing: it felt like a lie. The novel was a mirror the Modernists needed to break, the better to reflect their broken world. So they did."
Enter Wharton, Joyce, Lawrence, Faulkner, Hemingway, et al, he argues, who threw out the idea of neat, tidy plots and offered up instead messy, unrelenting, and sometimes confusing reflections of their chaotic world. They also, along the way, threw out any consideration of whether what they were writing would be popular. "The motto of Ezra Pound's 'Little Review,' which published the first chapters of Joyce's 'Ulysses,' was 'Making no compromise with the public taste,'" Grossman says. "Imagine what it felt like the first time somebody opened up 'The Waste Land' and saw that it came with footnotes. Amateur hour was over."

But we don't live in the Modernists' era anymore. Even so, their sensibilities still define what "literary novels" should be, Grossman argues, and that ought to change. Perhaps, he says, it's time to make peace with plot.

The sea change is already happening. Writers like Chabon, Lethem, and Gaiman are proving that plot and--gasp! genre fiction!--can still be literary. Even Thomas Pynchon and Cormac McCarthy ("the oldest living Modernist in captivity") have turned to the tropes of genre in their later years, going with the flow, as it were. But it's when Grossman brings up young adult fiction that my antennae really perk up, because he says what so many of us who write for young readers have been saying all along:
"There was a time when difficult literature was exciting. T.S. Eliot once famously read to a whole football stadium full of fans. And it's still exciting—when Eliot does it. But in contemporary writers it has just become a drag. Which is probably why millions of adults are cheating on the literary novel with the young-adult novel, where the unblushing embrace of storytelling is allowed, even encouraged. Sales of hardcover young-adult books are up 30.7% so far this year, through June, according to the Association of American Publishers, while adult hardcovers are down 17.8%. Nam Le's 'The Boat,' one of the best-reviewed books of fiction of 2008, has sold 16,000 copies in hardcover and trade paperback, according to Nielsen Bookscan (which admittedly doesn't include all book retailers). In the first quarter of 2009 alone, the author of the 'Twilight' series, Stephenie Meyer, sold eight million books. What are those readers looking for? You'll find critics who say they have bad taste, or that they're lazy and can't hack it in the big leagues. But that's not the case. They need something they're not getting elsewhere. Let's be honest: Why do so many adults read Suzanne Collins's young-adult novel 'The Hunger Games' instead of contemporary literary fiction? Because 'The Hunger Games' doesn't bore them."
That's always been a driving force behind my writing: "don't bore them." At the same time, I'm trying to write novels that have themes and symbolism and meaning. But first and foremost: I want to entertain. It's that last bit, entertainment, that the Modernists threw out with the bathwater. I think it's high time we brought it back, not just in fiction for young readers, but in fiction for all readers.

One thing Grossman doesn't point out about the rise in young adult lit: a lot of that readership really are young adults, not just adults "slumming" in Plotville. So what happens when those young adults become adults? They're going to want more of the same. Perhaps that's what will really drive the change from Modernist to Postmodernist/Nouveau-Retro fiction--young readers will bring their lust for plot with them into adulthood.


Gwenda August 31, 2009 at 3:56 PM  

Hear hear. I'm honestly a little surprised at how up in arms many in the SFF genre (adult side, mainly) have been over this piece. CALM YOURSELVES AND BE ASSIMILATED. :)

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