With increasing frequency, whenever we encounter the term “plot” in literary criticism, we’re told to treat it as an unfashionable hat. In her recent New Yorker essay, “An Answer to the Novel’s Detractors,” author Adelle Waldman summarizes this current dismissal of plot succinctly, quoting Karl Ove Knausgaard, James Wood, and David Shields, all of whom regard plot, to use Wood’s phrase, as “silly machinery.” More to the point: plot in contemporary literary fiction is treated at best as a necessary, if occasionally interesting, evil and at worst as a virtue of the network-TV-watching hoi polloi and the antithesis of serious reading.
While Waldman doesn’t fully endorse this dismissal of plot, she understands where it’s coming from. “All too often,” she writes, “plot is a drag.” Waldman then quotes Tim Parks in The New York Review of Books who finds most plots to be manipulative and unoriginal. This assault on plot is curious in part because it conveys the current cultural anxieties of the literati and it demands that we ask: why are some of our most intelligent critics so eager to willfully and foolishly confuse bad plots with all plots?
When critics encounter an awful metaphor, they don’t conclude their essay by saying, “All too often, metaphor is a drag.” Because we understand that an awful metaphor is just that—awful—and that its existence doesn’t discredit all metaphors ever written. No one, after analyzing a poorly realized female character in a Philip Roth novel, reaches the conclusion that the problem is characterization. Instead we understand that the author has done a bad job in this particular instance and that the problem is the author’s, not characterization’s (whatever that would mean). Yet with plot, oddly enough, we place the blame on plot itself, instead of where it should be placed, on our writers.
The fact is there are a lot of horrid plots out there, just as there are a lot of awful metaphors and poorly realized characters. But when faced with a horrid plot, instead of concluding that we need more interesting and compelling plots, some critics have pushed instead for no plot at all. In Shields’s case, when he’s arguing for the triumph of the lyric essay, this makes sense at least, but when Wood pishposhes plot it’s a bit baffling. If our problem is that too many novels and short stories are dull and silly, it’s ridiculous to imagine that ejecting plot from narrative writing will help us (as if that’s even possible, since all narrative writing, including Wood favorites like Herzog and Middle March and every Shakespeare play, has a plot). This perspective on plot is a detriment to our current appreciation of fiction and to our writers; by vacuously disdaining plot, we accept it when unambitious writers simply say, “Well, I don’t do plot,” as an excuse for why their most recent novels are so stunningly boring.
I mean plot in the most general, non-theoretical sense of the word—plot is what actually happens in a story. In other words, and this is important, plot is what the writer has chosen to make happen. The Brothers Karamazov has a good plot—a really good one, in fact, thanks to Dostoevsky. So do other novels of mayhem and struggle, novels like The Adventures of Augie March, Infinite Jest, and Native Son; but then so do novels and stories that sing the quotidian. Mrs. Dalloway has a fascinating, interwoven plot. “Cathedral” is an amazing short story because of what Raymond Carver chose to make happen in it. Beloved’s moral and ethical complexity is deeply intertwined with its plot. And if you want a perfectly executed and mildly melodramatic plot, you don’t even need to turn on the TV—instead just read The Great Gatsby.
All readers should value plot. And we should understand it not as “silly machinery” or as the tedious trappings for metaphors and deep lyric thoughts, but as a fundamental component of narrative writing. Moreover, we should demand good plots from all of our writers. Is that so unreasonable to ask, to seek fiction in which something interesting happens?
To be “interesting”—that is a challenge and also one reason why I think some critics are dismissive of plot. In pop culture, in mass-market potboilers and summer blockbusters, to be interesting often means a work must contain blatant drama, explosions, salacious interludes, and a lot of rising action climaxing in an incredibly salacious explosion; in short, in pop culture narratives a lot happens and then it explodes and plot is all there is—it’s impossible to find complex characters or impressive sentences in the prose of Dan Brown, for instance. In this way, when plot is discussed critically it often carries the taint of pop culture. Readers who value plot, we’re told, are readers who value Dan Brown.
And in too much contemporary literary fiction the average plots are just as bad as the plots in the potboilers. Keep the salaciousness and replace the “explosions” with “banal epiphanies and tedious descriptions of everyday stuff” and make sure your characters are affluent and white and bingo, contemporary literary fiction. This is what Tim Parks was getting at when he effectively summed up a lot of the literary novels on the New Release shelf: “the dilemma, the dramatic crises, the wise sadness, and more in general a suffering made bearable, or even noble through aesthetic form, fine prose, and the conviction that one has lived through something important.” Parks is right to abhor this; his adjective “fine” in “fine prose” is especially on-point. “How’s the prose?” “It’s fine.” After all, the least interesting thing to say about a book is that it’s well written.
Parks’s summation is nicely encapsulated by the zinger from Two Dollar Radio publisher Eric Obenauf, who said, “‘Literary fiction’ is a great name for it, because it’s not actually literature.” Yet, once again, the problem here is not plot in and of itself. The problem is that both in too much contemporary literary fiction and too many pop culture narratives we see the same exhausted devices, gestures, and dramatics employed to propel a bound-to-be unoriginal plot, which leads to that aforementioned horridness. There is an absolute dearth of wonder or adventure or moral weight. None of it’s very interesting.
Still I wonder why it is so uncouth for readers to ask, to demand, that good writing contain some interesting content. I want stories with momentum and excitement and devastating struggle, where there are inexorable consequences, where more than a character’s momentary happiness is at stake. I want stories that reject banal worry and bland handwringing and instead deliver us to the terrifying edge of life and death.