Good Books, "Difficulty," and Plot
I think blogs were created for the very reason of attacking articles like Lev Grossman’s Good Novels Don’t Have to Be Hard, which appeared in the Wall Street Journal over the weekend. This article is so annoying and so preposterous that it’s actually dangerous.
It opens with Grossman’s praising “plot” as a sort of guilty pleasure that we crave but find our “attachment to storyline” to be “disgraceful.” That said:
If there’s a key to what the 21st-century novel is going to look like, this is it: the ongoing exoneration and rehabilitation of plot.
OK, so I’m not entirely clear on what he means by “plot,” but more on that in a second. First off, here’s his bit on the Modernists—those assholes that destroyed our guilty pleasure of reading books with plots:
Where did this conspiracy come from in the first place—the plot against plot? I blame the Modernists. Who were, I grant you, the single greatest crop of writers the novel has ever seen. [. . .]
But let’s look back for a second at where the Modernists came from, and what exactly they did with the novel. 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.
One of the things they broke was plot. To the Modernists, stories were a distortion of real life. In real life stories don’t tie up neatly. Events don’t line up in a tidy sequence and mean the same things to everybody they happen to. Ask a veteran of the Somme whether his tour of duty resembled the “Boy’s Own” war stories he grew up on. The Modernists broke the clear straight lines of causality and perception and chronological sequence, to make them look more like life as it’s actually lived. They took in “The Mill on the Floss” and spat out “The Sound and the Fury.”
Granted, the Modernists did a lot of interesting things to the structure, form, content, and style of the novel. They did “break” the Victorian form; they made something new. But does this mean that The Sounds and the Fury has no plot? The story is out of order and told in a relativistic fashion, but there is a “story.” There are characters, events that follow one another, conflicts and resolutions. There is a plot—just not the sort of plot Grossman likes.
I’m going assume (from Grossman’s grand statement below about the future of the novel) that what he means by “plot” are fairly straightforward linear narratives that are realistic, recognizable, simple-to-follow, and tend to have genre elements. I hate even writing “simple-to-follow,” since something that’s difficult to one person can be easily comprehended and enjoyed by another, but, well, in Lev’s unfailingly rational attack on “plotless novels,” he sort of brings it up:
This brought with it another, related development: difficulty. It’s hard to imagine it now, but there was a time when literary novels were not, generally speaking, all that hard to read. Say what you like about the works of Dickens and Thackeray, you pretty much always know who’s talking, and when, and what they’re talking about. The Modernists introduced us to the idea that reading could be work, and not common labor but the work of an intellectual elite, a highly trained coterie of professional aesthetic interpreters.
We all know that Art should never be confusing, or challenging, or “difficult”! Why didn’t Joyce spend his life churning out detective novels? Finnegans Wake should’ve been a sci-fi novel!
I think we can all agree that some of the modernist masterpieces Grossman has in mind — Ulysses, Sound and the Fury, The Waste Land — are not brainless mind candy to be consumed on the beach or the toilet, but labeling them as “difficult” brings with it a ton of baggage that, in the end, can be extremely damaging to book culture and the appreciation of literature as a lasting art form.
Because what usually happens after someone labels a book (or group of books) as “difficult,” they then go on to belittle this book (or books) as essentially unreadable, not worth your time, or as “work”:
After all, the discipline of the conventional literary novel is a pretty harsh one. To read one is to enter into a kind of depressed economy, where pleasure must be bought with large quantities of work and patience. The Modernists felt little obligation to entertain their readers. That was just the price you paid for your Joycean epiphany. Conversely they have trained us, Pavlovianly, to associate a crisp, dynamic, exciting plot with supermarket fiction, and cheap thrills, and embarrassment. Plot was the coward’s way out, for people who can’t deal with the real world. If you’re having too much fun, you’re doing it wrong.
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. [. . .]
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.
And there we go. So here’s the basic argument: no “plot” = difficult = boring = elitist = doesn’t sell in a supermarket.
When I first read this article, I was totally outraged—this article essentially attacking all the books that I like, all the books that I publish, all the beliefs I hold dear about the power of literature as art. And all based on the belief that there’s a certain type of book that appeals to a mass audience and therefore sells astronomically well, and that sales figures trump quality every single time. It really shouldn’t be surprising that we’ve replaced critical appreciation with “units shifted” in our hierarchy of artistic values, but even so, it still pisses me off.
And letting my prejudices show for a minute: This sort of argument is intended to direct young writers into producing more “readable” books. Books with “strong plot” and “realistic characterization.” I don’t want to take away from these sorts of books, but there’s no reason that a certain portion of authors can continue to work in the Modernist (or Post-Modernist, or whatever label you want to apply to these “difficult,” “plotless,” “boring” books) vein creating art that requires a more sophisticated reader willing to contemplate and explore.
And on a really selfish note: I don’t want to live in a world completely dominated by genre fiction and “plotted” novels. I want more variety. I want books that I have to read twice. And yes, I realize that Stephanie Meyer and Jodi Picoult already rule the day, and yes, I realize that one WSJ article isn’t going to alter the course of the novel, but I don’t like Lev’s alone in his beliefs. In fact, his argument is perfectly in line with all corporate publishers—publishers whose accountants would love to eliminate every “unprofitable, difficult, plotless” book from the company’s list. (As I’m writing this, PW Daily arrived with news that Random House’s profits fell a whopping 35.5% for the first half of 2009. Goodbye, “difficult” literature!)
The one potentially redeeming part of Grossman’s piece is his list of authors who are revitalizing the novel:
The revolution is under way. The novel is getting entertaining again. Writers like Michael Chabon, Jonathan Lethem, Donna Tartt, Kelly Link, Audrey Niffenegger, Richard Price, Kate Atkinson, Neil Gaiman, and Susanna Clarke, to name just a few, are busily grafting the sophisticated, intensely aware literary language of Modernism onto the sturdy narrative roots of genre fiction: fantasy, science fiction, detective fiction, romance. They’re forging connections between literary spheres that have been hermetically sealed off from one another for a century. Look at Cormac McCarthy, who for years appeared to be the oldest living Modernist in captivity, but who has inaugurated his late period with a serial-killer novel followed by a work of apocalyptic science fiction. Look at Thomas Pynchon—in “Inherent Vice” he has swapped his usual cumbersome verbal calisthenics for the more maneuverable chassis of a hard-boiled detective novel.
This is the future of fiction. The novel is finally waking up from its 100-year carbonite nap.
These are all fine writers, and I wouldn’t dispute that they’re all doing good work, but in terms of the article, it once again falls back on binary divisions, praising this novelists for writing “entertaining” novels with “entertaining” being defined by what’s “fun” for Grossman to read.
What a complete mess of an article! I’m not going to list everyone that comes to mind, but Mark Binelli, Antonio Lobo Antunes, Meredith Brosnan, Dubavka Ugresic, Jose Manuel Prieto, Attila Bartis, Roberto Bolano, etc., etc., have all written very entertaining novels over the past couple decades that would be considered “plotless” and “Modernist” by Grossman. I know I’m rambling now, but I really don’t even know what the point of his article really is. A self-justification for his own reading habits?