This week I’d like to channel some of my COVID-19 quarantine frustrations by quickly and angrily debunking a bit of literati bullshit that has always pissed me off. One of many ways in which people without imagination try to belittle people with imagination is by looking down their noses at genre fiction for a variety of reasons, the most absurd of which is a disdain for plot.
Plot, these nitwits would have us believe, is neither necessary nor desirable for a novel, and is instead a sign of weakness in the author and ignorance in the reader, which honestly makes me want to go on some kind of violent rampage. I’ve heard this over and over again but was triggered this past week when I read “How Pandemics Seep into Literature” by Elizabeth Outka at (of course) the Paris Review:
One’s reality doesn’t simply shift in a pandemic; it becomes radically uncertain—indeed, uncertainty is the reality. The unpredictability of the COVID-19 virus and all we don’t know about it means we have no idea where we are in the story or even what story we are in. Is this the first wave of something even deadlier to come? Have we reached the top of the curve? What’s the scope of the tragedy? Is the economy the real story? What do we think we know now that may prove fatally wrong? The narrative uncertainty causes many of us to turn to genre fiction and predictable movies (even if they are about disaster)—they allow us to pull down another story like a shade and sit in a place where we already know the ending. The modernist literature I spend my days teaching and studying typically grants the opposite, capturing the fragmentation and plotlessness of a postwar/postpandemic world.
First of all, what we’re going through very much reads like a genre novel plot, and it’s the uncertainty of what happens next that drives a plot forward. Uncertainty doesn’t negate the concept of a plot, it strengthens it. Her argument is entirely upside down. And now I get to really blow your mind (or, at least, Elizabeth Outka’s) by revealing that what she refers to as “modernist literature” is not in any way “plotless.”
If it is fiction, it has a plot. There can not be one without the other.
Maybe we need to define our terms. Here’s the definition of plot (in the literacy sense), according to Google: “the main events of a play, novel, movie, or similar work, devised and presented by the writer as an interrelated sequence.” and here’s one from Literary Devices: “…the plot focuses attention on the important characters and their roles in the story. It motivates the characters to affect the story, and connects the events in an orderly manner.”
Reduced to its primal nature, plot is anything that happens in a story.
It’s that simple. If a couple guys get in a car to drive down Route 66, that’s the plot of the book. If they stop to pick up a hitchhiker, that’s a plot point. If two people sit on a park bench waiting for someone to show up, even if he never shows up, that’s the plot of the play. I could go on and on.
A case has been made for so-called plotless books, as in “In Praise of Plotless Books” by Clay Andres at Book Riot. The first example he gives is Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Times of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman:
This is the big one, the grandaddy of them all. Laurence Sterne was a clergyman who got tired of preaching the Bible (a book notorious for its use of narrative) and decided to write a book that was just some random dude sharing his opinions on random stuff. I don’t know how Sterne was able to channel his experience as a preacher into a bunch of opinionated ramblings that never go anywhere, but somehow he pulled it off.
Except that by the only shared definition of “plot” we have, The Life and Times of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman does indeed have a plot. Even Wikipedia found one in there somewhere:
Most of the action is concerned with domestic upsets or misunderstandings, which find humour in the opposing temperaments of Walter—splenetic, rational, and somewhat sarcastic—and Uncle Toby, who is gentle, uncomplicated, and a lover of his fellow man.
In between such events, Tristram as narrator finds himself discoursing at length on sexual practices, insults, the influence of one’s name, and noses, as well as explorations of obstetrics, siege warfare, and philosophy as he struggles to marshal his material and finish the story of his life.
Though Tristram is always present as narrator and commentator, the book contains little of his life, only the story of a trip through France and accounts of the four comical mishaps which shaped the course of his life from an early age.
That may not be an intricate plot, but things are actually happening between rambling soliloquies. If The Life and Times of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman has a plot, then every novel has a plot. If some authors don’t put a particular emphasis on plot, or try to subvert conventions in some way by making their plots make less sense, or whatever experiment they’re cooking up, fine. I’ve said before and will say again (right now) that I’m as much a fan of William S. Burroughs as I am a fan of Edgar Rice Burroughs. The latter may have worn his plots more on his sleeve than the former, but the plots were there just the same.
So, for God’s sake, stop with this “plotless novel” nonsense.
Here’s a book with a whole chapter on plot…
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