Losing the plot

There are certain words we use frequently, quite sure that we know what they mean, but then tie ourselves up in knots when asked to define them. “Tune” for instance. We all know what a “tune” is. Which of us has not hummed along to one? And yet, when we come to define it, we flounder. The best I can think of is something along the lines of:

“A sequence of pitches, with each element of that sequence lasting for a specified duration, and with a different level of stress applied to each.”

Not very elegantly phrased, I agree, but I think that should cover just about everything we may recognise as a tune. Problem is that it applies to a whole lot of things also that we wouldn’t recognise as a tune. If I were to, say, play a random sequence of notes on a piano, that too, according to my definition, must be counted a tune, but I doubt anyone would recognise it as such. No doubt musicologists have very refined and sophisticated definitions of what constitutes “melody”, but, speaking as a layman, although I am sure I know what the word means, I cannot even begin to articulate what it is.

I have the same difficulty when it comes to fiction: what is “plot”? Once again, I think I know what the word means. Tom Jones has a plot, and Tristram Shandy doesn’t; The Age of Innocence has a plot, but To the Lighthouse doesn’t. But once again, I don’t know how to define it. The best I can think of is “a sequence of incidents, each related to the others”. But of course, that would cover Tristram Shandy and To the Lighthouse as well as it does Tom Jones or The Age of Innocence. I’d hazard a guess that it might even cover Finnegans Wake. Indeed, I am not at all sure it’s possible to write fiction without incidents of some form or other. But as with “tune” or “melody”, this definition does not cover what we mean when we speak of “plot”. We do use the term merely to describe a sequence of related incidents. But what we actually mean by it, I really don’t think I can articulate.

All this makes it difficult to write about such matters. Possibly it’s my scientific background that makes me feel very uneasy when terms are discussed and debated that have not been defined. When we talk about fiction, we speak all the time of “plot”. But what do we mean?

This lack of definition of “plot” is the first thing – though by no means the only thing – that worried me about this recent article by Tim Lott. For those unwilling to click on links, let me summarise as best I can what I think it says. Mr Lott first refers to a recent report by the Arts Council that tells us sales of literary fiction have declined sharply in Britain; he then rejects the idea that literary authors ought to be subsidised, and proposes instead that they write “better books”. By which he means that they should focus more on plot. For to neglect plot is, he thinks, poor craftsmanship.

(I may have misinterpreted Mr Lott, or I may be caricaturing what he is saying. If so, both misinterpretation and caricature are unintentional. But I have at least provided a link to the article, so curious readers may easily satisfy themselves on this point.)

Quite apart from the lack of definition of “plot”, there is also another term that Mr Lott uses quite freely, and which, I believe, the Arts Council report to which he refers also uses quite freely; but which, too, is undefined: “literary fiction”. While I think I know what “plot” is, even without a working definition, I honestly have no idea what “literary fiction” means. Presumably it is some category of fiction – a genre; but genres are defined by content: horror, thriller, romance, western, science fiction, fantasy, erotica – all of these and more are defined by the nature of the content. But is there any element of the content of a work of fiction that defines it as “literary”?

The only reasonable definition of “literary fiction” I can think of is “fiction that has, or aspires to have, literary qualities”. This is not, I agree, a very good definition, as it raises, but leaves unanswered, the question of what we mean by “literary quality”, but I don’t think I can be taken to task for not providing a good watertight definition of a term when the term itself is not mine, and not one I would ever think of using. But if “literary fiction” is indeed fiction that has, or aspires to having, literary qualities (however we define them), then “literary fiction” seems to me to be about as meaningful as “artistic art”, or “musical music”.

And then, “better books”. By which Mr Lott means “books with more plot”. And his implication that the stronger the element of plot, the greater the craftsmanship. I was going to write a refutation of these assertions, but now I come to it, I really don’t think it’s worthwhile: it’s hardly difficult to find a great many very prominent counter-examples in literary history.

Now, we are not talking here about the opinions of some bloke from down the pub: Tim Lott is an eminent author, and teaches postgraduate students in possibly the most prestigious creative writing course in Britain. And I find it profoundly depressing to see someone in so eminent a position saying such things.

It is not to denigrate plot (and let us not get too worried here about the definition) to say that fiction lacking plot can be of an extremely high quality, and require a very high degree of craftsmanship. For instance, The Count of Monte Cristo, say, has, I think, an extremely good plot. Actually, it has very many good plots, all intertwined together with a breathtaking skill and panache; and it maintains our interest over a thousand and more pages almost entirely by maintaining narrative tension – by keeping the reader in suspense over the questions of what happens next, or what has happened in the past that is yet to be revealed. It is a magnificent achievement. On the other hand, Ulysses, though not lacking in incident (as I said earlier, I don’t think it is possible to conceive of fiction that lacks incident), is lacking in what we normally think of as plot. Going by Mr Lott’s equating of plot with craftsmanship, it should follow that Ulysses, compared to The Count of Monte Cristo, say, is lacking in craftsmanship – a sentiment so self-evidently absurd that Mr Lott himself would, I am sure, be happy to distance himself from it.

Even when plot exists, I am not too sure that it is necessarily of primary importance. Middlemarch, say, is not short of plot: there are two main, intertwining plotlines, with many subsidiary plots hanging off them. One of these plotlines involves hidden crimes in the past, blackmail, manslaughter (possibly even murder!), public scandal … in short, incidents often sensational in nature. But does anyone actually read Middlemarch for the plot? Is “What happens next?” the main concern that keeps the reader turning the pages?

In novels such as, say, Conrad’s Nostromo, we actually do have a good plot. If all the events were arranged in chronological order, then we would have a thrilling tale of hidden silver, torture, revolution, etc. But Conrad takes this plot, turns it inside out, fragments it, displays only some of the fragments to us (out of chronological order) – indeed, does everything he can think of to take the reader’s attention away from the plot. Faulkner does something similar: Absalom, Absalom!, if written in a conventional manner, would be a vast family saga encompassing the American Civil War, and would no doubt have been the basis of a Hollywood epic to rival Gone With the Wind. But, as with Conrad, Faulkner fragments the plot and gives us some of those fragments (often narrated by unreliable sources) out of sequence; he also writes it in a prose so idiosyncratically convoluted that it’s only the most determined of readers who can last for more than a few pages. So apparently uninterested were Conrad and Faulkner in the plot that even when they had good ones, they effectively smashed it to bits.

And there’s Chandler, whom I find a particularly interesting case. He was definitely writing “genre fiction” – the detective story; and the genre he wrote in is one that generally demands good plotting. Yet, it seems to me that Chandler relegates the plot to the background – not by not having enough of it, but by having too much of it. There are so many plot elements, and they are so very intricate, that, after a while, the reader – well, this reader at least – finds it impossible to keep track of it all. And the strange thing is that it doesn’t matter. Even when I can follow no more than a very rough outline of the plot, I find it all enthralling. Once again, the plot is there, but relegated away from the principal focus of interest.

None of this is to denigrate the plot. However one defines it, it is a tremendous skill to plot well. But to assert that plotting makes for “better books”; or that plotting is indicative of superior craftsmanship; strikes me as so self-evidently absurd, that I wonder whether Mr Lott himself would care to stand by the conclusions they lead us to.

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32 responses to this post.

  1. Agree completely – many of my favourite books don’t have conventional plots. I just hate genre definitions basically. Very depressing to see such platitudes coming from Lott who should know better.

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  2. Does Tom Jones have a plot? As a picaresque it is a series of events: is that a plot? Recall the quotation from John Hawkes: “I began to write fiction on the assumption that the true enemies of the novel were plot, character, setting and theme.” Or to be more specific, Barthelme suggests that “the aim of literature … is the creation of a strange object covered with fur which breaks your heart.”

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    • Posted by Joseph on January 7, 2018 at 10:04 pm

      Tom Jones has a very clear plot and a beautiful structure throughout.

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      • I certainly agree with you on Tom Jones: its plotting is a marvel. It is perfectly paced, and it all fits together like clockwork. I think Coleridge cited it as one of the three best plots (I can’t, off the top of my head, remember what the other two were).

  3. Posted by Joseph on January 7, 2018 at 10:03 pm

    Tim Lott is a journalist with no news to report so it’s his duty to be provocative instead. If he wrote a balanced analysis of modern English fiction, no-one would be interested except dyed-in-the-wool Guardian readers, so no-one would tweet or blog about and so bring in new readers to put adverstising revenue in The Guardian’s depleted coffers. But he doesn’t say literary fiction is competing with genre fiction. He says it’s competing with television dramas such as Better Call Saul, which have compelling narrative drive. He’s right in a way. Better Call Saul has the depth that I look for in literary fiction with a story you want to talk about when you’re not watching it. This kind of storytelling can be taught and it is taught — to screenwriters. Maybe it should be taught to novelists too. It’s a point well made.

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    • “Literary Fiction” and “Genre Fiction” only have relevance in a bookstore when deciding where the books should be displayed.

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      • Indeed. And even in the bookshop, the taxonomy is questionable. Is “The Turn of the Screw” literary fiction, or horror? What about the ghost stories of M R James? In separating the various genres from the “literary”, there seems to be an implicit assumption that genres such as horror, thriller, science fiction, etc. cannot be “literary fiction”. That’s highly questionable, to say the least.

    • Tim Lott may well have written this piece in the way he did for the reasons you give, but of course, that does not exempt his article from criticism.

      And yes, you’re right: he does not say literary fiction is competing with genre fiction. But the problem is that he does not define what literary fiction is in the first place. So I am left trying to second guess what he means by that term. It is clearly a type of fiction, a category – which means it’s a genre, as “genre” is defined as “a type or category of fiction”. But of course, since Lott does not define his terms, I am guessing here.

      However, be that as it may, I do take issue with his contention that to write “better books” involves paying more attention to the plot. This is, at best, an unargued assertion.

      And I am certainly not disputing that plotting is a craft. What I am disputing is Lott’s implication that books lacking in plot are, for that reason, lacking in craftsmanship.

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  4. I suspect that Lott is making a common (and tedious) recommendation that a good story attracts readers whereas a carefully crafted narrative or an imaginatively constructed form does little to sell books to the generations who sit catatonic on the old davenport watching television and munching sweets. Sometimes literature is like cheese: the really good stuff is only appreciated by a select few.

    I think that is as it should be and I hope that no one suggests adding copious amounts of sugar to tempt the common palate (not to say that an occasional toffee bar and a grilled cheese sandwich are not a refreshing break from all those truffles and fish eggs).

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  5. “A sequence of incidents, each related to the others” is insufficient to define “plot”, IMO. As E.M. Forster put it in Aspects of the Novel:

    ‘The king died and then the queen died,’ is a story. ‘The king died, and then the queen died of grief,’ is a plot.

    The difference is that plot implies causality and human agency. Traditionally, plot concerns one or more protagonists in pursuit of one or more goals. It requires conflict (usually escalating), crisis and catharsis. It may involve one or more dilemmas, moral or practical.

    There’s nothing new about these ideas, of course: Aristotle laid them out in the Poetics 2,000 years ago.

    The question of whether plot is presented as a chronological sequence, or something more fragmentary and/or non-chronological is a separate matter, to my mind. But even so, non-chronological plots are nothing new. Analepsis and prolepsis are narrative devices known from ancient times. The difference, from Modernism onwards, is one of degree not type. As one critic noted (sorry, I don’t have the reference to hand), it’s not so much that the story has changed, but the way that we become acquainted with it.

    Perhaps more interesting is the notion of “anti-plot” – the deliberate subversion or parodying of plotting conventions – the sort of thing we find in Tristram Shandy, in meta-fiction, and in Monty Python’s Holy Grail. Arguably, this approach attempts to undermine our faith in “traditional plot” as mimetic realism.

    Which brings me to “literary fiction”. Perhaps there’s a case that what distinguishes “literary fiction” from “popular fiction” (besides mere marketing concerns) is self-awareness. It seems to me that the term often refers to fiction that is more openly aware of its own processes, techniques and cultural heritage.

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    • Hello Mike,
      Definitions of these matters should, of course, be descriptive rather than prescriptive. There’s clearly little point in saying “This is what a plot is, and anything that diverges from this isn’t a plot”. Rather, it is better to observe all that we recognise as “plot”, and then, from these observations, try to formulate a definition that includes all that we recognise as having “plot”, and excludes all that we don’t. This is, of course, fraught with difficulties, since what we recognise as plot no doubt varies from reader to reader: it can never be a watertight definition. But to discourse on plot without even attempting a working definition seems to me unacceptable.

      My own definition of “plot” is, I fully accept, unsatisfactory, because it is far too general – it admits far too much that most of us wouldn’t recognise as “plot”. Forster’s definition is certainly more thoughtful than mine (no surprise there!), and more detailed and specific than the one I suggested; but Forster’s definition too, I think, admits much that most of us would not recognise as “plot”. Ulysses, for instance: this is frequently cited as an example of a “plotless” modernist novel, yet, by Forster’s definition, this too has a “plot”, since it contains incidents that are related by causality, and are predicated on the concept of human agency.

      I agree with you fully about modernism. Now that we are some hundred or so years from the birth of modernism, we should be able to see the continuities as well as the breaks with what had gone before. Certainly , all the major modernists I can think of – Joyce, Eliot, Picasso, Matisse, Stravinsky, Bartok, etc. etc. – knew and respected the past, and it should come as no surprise that they built on what they knew well and respected. Problem is that the very term “modernism” still scares people off.

      I remain sceptical, though, about the concept of “literary fiction”. To separate out the “literary” from the “popular” implies that the literary cannot be popular, and, even worse, that the popular cannot be literary. The latter strikes me as outrageous snobbery. I think, for instance, that George Macdonald Fraser’s Flashman novels are outstanding: if these novels aren’t literature, I don’t know what is. Fraser was certainly very much aware of his “processes, techniques and cultural heritage”, though not, as you stipulate, “openly aware” (my italics): but I really do not see why this should disqualify his fiction from being considered “literary”.

      The introduction of the term “literary” seems to me merely to drive a quite unnecessary wedge: there’s this “popular” stuff, that we read, and the “literary” stuff, that we don’t. And, as you know from the various book boards we’ve both been on, the next step is entirely predictable: those who read those “literary” books are snobs and elitists, they’re are just showing off, blah blah blah.

      But even before we get to the deleterious effects of this taxonomy, I would still challenge those who use the term “literary fiction” simply to define what they mean by it. And a definition that excludes something like the Flashman novels doesn’t, to my mind, make the cut.

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  6. I agree that Lott is being provocative – it’s one of the things journalists do. We often mistake the role of journalism to be objective, truth-seeking and truth-speaking. It isn’t. This isn’t to say that Lott doesn’t believe what he says, or that there isn’t some truism lurking in his article. It’s only to confirm that he’s in the entertainment industry, whether he thinks that or not. All that being said, the article and his stance are pretty silly.

    As a writer I listen to endless debates by writers on the meaning, goals and significance of writing styles and genres. Most of them are exercises brought on by a variety of influences including academia’s need to categorize and explain and marketing’s need to target audiences through categorization. Most of them have a subtext of how do I attract an audience. If, as Lott suggests, the goal of being a writer is to attract large audiences, and by Lott’s standards the largest audience possible is best, then he’s probably right: plot and storytelling are a predictable way to go.

    If you’re interested in writing as a means of expression and language as a form of musical philosophy then you might want to emphasize other parts of the very complex practice of writing. And true, you may end up with only a small coterie of readers, but that’s OK. You would have the rare privilege of doing what you want to do as a writer. Readers have a vast pool of resources to read. Whether they know it or not, any writing can enhance their life in unexpected ways, but they are obliged only to read for what they seek.

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    • Hello Jaime,

      Yes, I agree, Lott is certainly setting about to be provocative. But what he expresses does, I think, need to be challenged.

      I have spent a great many years on various book boards, and I know there are many who demand a strong storyline from their fiction, and are disappointed if a book fails to provide one. And that is fair enough: we all look for different things from fiction. Indeed, a single individual may look for different things at different times, in different frames of mind. But there are many who go one step further, and insist that lack of plot is a literary weakness, a shortcoming. This I have always argued against, and I must admit I find it disappointing that someone so eminent as Lott should, even as a provocation, repeat this nonsense.

      If the point of literary discussion and debate is to come closer to an understanding of literary values, and hence, gain a keener appreciation of literary merits, then this has to be engaged with, and countered. If lack of plot indicates inferior literary quality, then there is no shortage of supreme masterpieces we would have to view as “inferior”.

      But in any case, if I were to stop reacting to provocation, I may as well stop blogging now! 🙂

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      • I wasn’t suggesting that the objection shouldn’t be put forth. Not at all. Any sort of dogma, and this does sound like dogma, is quivering with the desire to be challenged.

  7. Posted by Janet on January 9, 2018 at 1:28 am

    In the US, I think the number of writers who make a living from writing is around 4,000. The profession pays abyssmally, and even bestselling authors almost always have a day job. If the situation is similar in the UK, I understand the call for subsidizing writers for the purpose of ensuring they eat once in a while. I get that selecting the “worthy” would be highly problematic, as is Lott’s suggestion that authors would make more money if they wrote “better books.” To be fair to Lott, though, I doubt the headline is his. It is always safe to assume the headline was slapped on by an editor without much deference to the article writer’s intentions in order to sex up its appeal to scanning readers. As I read it, his frustration is with writers whose craftsmanship is detrimentally lopsided–all dressed up with nowhere to go.

    I agree with him that much literary fiction is defective, plotwise. Nearly every recent novel I’ve read starts out gorgeously, launched from a canon, and then there is a period of wandering in the wilderness, followed by a conclusion that strives to be unexpected and original but leaves me with the suspicion that it was dictated more by deadline than genius. People who love literary fiction are pretty forgiving when it comes to plot, as people who prefer popular fiction are awfully forgiving where sentence structure is concerned. The American authors that Lott names (Chabon, Tartt, etc.) are writers of literary fiction with a relatively strong grasp of plot; by naming them, Lott is arguing that it is not only possible but also highly desirable to master both aspects of creative writing; a well-written page-turner will have a larger readership and more sales (and therefore more income for the author). Writers who choose to write very personal stories that do not interest large numbers of readers, according to Lott, ought to live with their choices and not expect to be paid for producing vanity projects.

    Well, Moby Dick.

    Literary fiction is a little like porn in that it is hard to define but you know it when you read it. Literary fiction aspires to be “literature,” if we can define literature as works able to stand the test of time as readable objects of enduring merit. Literary fiction is nearly always cultured in an MFA petri dish, and MFAs tend to be its most outspoken and devoted admirers. It is deeply concerned with the aesthetics of language and issues centered on identity. You might say it is serious minded as opposed to market driven or people pleasing. But I have also heard literary fiction writers declare that books are “just entertainment,” so I would caution against trying to draw up any rules in stone. But if you want some more generalizations: A literary fiction novel will likely be described as boring by a popular fiction reader, having too much description, not enough dialog, too long paragraphs, too difficult words, too confusing sentences, and taking too long to get going. A popular fiction reader may miss what the author expects to be read between the lines, and may object to characters that do not fit certain stereotypes or tropes or are simply not “relatable.”

    It would be wrong, though, to assume that literary fiction is the same thing as literature or that only literary fiction is qualified to become literature. Stephen King, for example, is most definitely not literary fiction but it seems likely that many of his works will be very long-lived, having qualities that do not fall under the literary fiction umbrella but nevertheless serve many of the purposes of literature. Pulp fiction writers such as Chandler and Hammett have earned respect from later generations of readers though they took a lot of flack at the time from critics. Conversely, a lot of literary fiction, though lovingly crafted, is ultimately forgettable and will not stand the test of time. Further, lovers of Dickens (clearly literature) may never pick up a work by Francine Prose (literary fiction), who savaged fellow literary fiction writer Donna Tartt’s too Dickensian Goldfinch, which was a massive bestseller.

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    • Hello Janet,

      I’m afraid I still have a problem with the term “literary fiction”. For me, the Flashman novels by George Macdonald Fraser are “literary fiction”. They possess obviously literary qualities, including a complete mastery of storytelling. They are as likely to last the test of time as the works of Dumas or of Stevenson or of Conan Doyle have. Similarly, I’d say that the “weird tales” (as he preferred to call them) of Robert Aickman are literary fiction, as, once again, they possess literary qualities, and are likely to last the test of time just as surely as the works of Poe or of M.R. James have done. Both Fraser and Aickman wrote to entertain, but then, so did any number of serious writers you may care to mention: they wrote with a serious purpose also, and took their art seriously. Their works are not, however, generally considered “literary”, and, that being so, I honestly don’t have the first idea what is meant by this very odd term.
      And I fear furthermore that the very existence of this term gives rise to all sorts of snobbery, from “I only read proper literary stuff, not the mindless prolefeed churned out for the masses” at one end, to “I like a good story myself, and not the sort of pretentious garbage aimed at the pretentious” at the other. Literary merit should be judged completely independently of how popular or otherwise the work is. Anything else is either inverted snobbery, or the right-way-up snobbery, and both I think are equally undesirable.

      If Tim Lott had restricted himself to saying that authors need to focus on plot if they wanted more readers, I’d have had no problem with that. Indeed, I’d have agreed. If he’d merely said that good plotting is a skill, and telling a story well is a craft that needs to be taught in creative writing classes, then, once again, I’d have agreed. But he goes further. He says (and this is in the body of his article, not just the headline) that the author needs to focus on plot to write “better books”. And it is on this point that I find myself objecting.
      On the question of whether writers who write books that are good but not popular should be subsidised, I can’t say I have any definite opinion on the matter. On the one hand, I can see the arguments against (Who decides what is good? Will this not merely give rise to cronyism? etc.); but then, on the other hand, Ibsen only emerged as a major writer once he received an allowance from the Norwegian government; Joyce is unlikely to have finished Ulysses were it not for the patronage of Harriet Weaver Shaw; and so on. It’s a difficult area, and I can see the arguments on both sides.
      And is it really the case that those who read literary fiction are forgiving of plot? I suppose I can only speak for myself here, but if the plot is important to the work, and the writer makes a bad job of it, I certainly won’t be forgiving.

      But the ideas expressed by Lott that plot makes for better fiction; and that lack of plot is indicative of insufficient craftsmanship; really do, I think, need to be challenged.

      It’s impossible to predict what will last the test of time, and what won’t. The works of George Meredith, say, or of Charles Reade, are not so easy to find these days: on the other hand, copies of that cheap, sensational horror novel Dracula can be found in even the smallest bookshops. Strange how things work out…

      So I am sure you’re perfectly right that many books certain readers may look down on will nonetheless last, and that, conversely, many other books considered “literary” will fall by the wayside. But, then again, the opposite holds too. This is yet more reason, it seems to me, why we should be suspicious of the label “literary fiction”!

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      • Posted by Janet on January 9, 2018 at 9:03 pm

        I agree with you heartily. I also don’t want to weigh in on whether government should offer help to struggling writers.

        I do know that income is a real problem for novelists. Presumably higher sales would help, but between you and me, when was the last time you bought a novel by someone who was still breathing? In 2017, I probably bought under a dozen by warm bodies and half of those came from remainder tables. I’m far more excited about the falling-apart Thackaray gems my daughter dug up for me at the Strand. And there’s the problem. Why aren’t we feverishly snatching up the latest “literary” novels and consuming them with the same eagerness Harry Potter or Game of Thrones generates in their readers? If we don’t buy new books, living writers don’t earn anything from our reading habits, which makes it very tough for novels, especially risky novels, to get published, let alone written. But if a book doesn’t interest me, I’m not going to buy it, and I shouldn’t feel it my duty to devote money and time I could be giving to Samuel Titmarsh to a new book just to feed its author.

        So I understand why Lott would say Just write a better book, people, instead of whining when no one wants to read your boring story. But then again, Moby Dick. One publisher asked Melville if it absolutely had to be a whale and suggested that another round of naked island maidens would sell better. It would have sold better, sure, and maybe Melville would have lived a long and healthy life in a jolly little cottage next to Hawthorne, but then all his books would be out of print today because, in fact, Moby Dick WAS the better book.

        “Literary fiction” is absolutely a genre, though with porous borders. I agree the label is snooty. Some day it will pass off and future critics will refer to it as the MFA School or something. If you check the author bios of a work of literary fiction, you will see where the author received their MFA. While it isn’t formally required, and publishers and agents will tell you they don’t judge a book on whether the author has an MFA degree, the aesthetic is so well cultivated that anything that doesn’t smack of it is almost bound to be considered amateurish–including established and much loved classics. In fact, many MFAs are not well read in works older than Gravity’s Rainbow or maybe The Great Gatsby.

        This doesn’t mean that literary fiction is all bad. At the very least, it is well written and some of it is extraordinary. And some people DO gobble it up, so for them these are the “better” books, so who is anyone to judge? I will go so far as to say that there are legit differences in texture, beauty, and potential energy between the prose of literary fiction and commercial fiction. I don’t much care for Stephen King’s style–for the very reasons other people adore it. I prefer Turn of the Screw for all the reasons some people find it excruciating. But some people love it all, and quite a few emerging novelists are writing “literary fiction” in other genres–westerns and detective stories and sci fi and so on. Wyl Menmuir was long-listed for the Booker a couple years ago for a horror novel (The Many)–the first genre novel, I think, ever listed. Good book, but I’d say it’s a horror novel in the same way Mysteries of Udolpho was a gothic romance–using all the tropes but omitting the supernatural in the end with the lifting of a veil. Gorgeously written, very little plot (relatively speaking), and all about the human condition.

        As for plot, it is a supremely difficult skill to master for a writer who is not gifted with that kind of imagination. Writing programs tend to focus on style, character development, and pacing–banking on these things to produce a compelling plot. There are lots of popular courses out there that take plot as the generator for character development (arc), pacing, world building, and so on. These approaches are based on formulas derived from things like Campbell’s Hero’s Journey theory (Game of Thrones) and screenplay structure (three acts, beats, reveals, and so on). Some writers excel at this; some would rather die. There is certainly a discernible divide and, yes, snobbery and hostility (on both sides), which is probably not very helpful to either.

        The other day, I read a review of a reissue of an influential work of criticism by Robert Graves and somebody else. The reviewer was giddy with delight at Graves’ observation on a sentence in a Graham Greene novel in which the protagonist had “his head in his hand and his eyes on the floor,” which Graves found hilariously bad. As an editor, I can tell you that authors can be careless about having eyeballs rolling around on the floor and bouncing out the window, but this example is merely nitpicking–playing bingo with an arbitrary set of rules (never employ floating body parts)–and completely overlooks the general quality of the sentence (the use of synecdoche is perfectly appropriate) and its effective place in the passage. That fundamentalism, the reflexive adherence to rules, can lead some people to think they can tell good writing from bad when in fact they are inspecting tree bark and missing the forest. That, I think, may be at the root of the real problem with literary fiction. I’m not at all convinced the lack of wider interest is all about plot.

        I just finished Pnin. It doesn’t have a traditional plot, but moves forward in swirls and eddies to a point at which it turns inside out. The plot, or lets say movement, is perfectly controlled despite the apparent meandering of its course–that’s mastery. I’m fairly sure this is what all writers strive for, whatever the genre, but there’s an obvious reason so few achieve it. A good plot is a thing of genius and nothing to scoff at. So, while more plot might help literary fiction sell, I don’t think it’s fair or reasonable to advise struggling authors to just stick it in. On the other hand, a great work requires more than compliance with a standard of beauty that may just change with the passage of time; literary fiction writers might benefit in more ways than one from a greater understanding and appreciation of plot.

      • Hello Janet,
        It is true that most of my reading is of writers from the past, but that is because literatures of certain eras of the past interest me more, and one can’t focus on everything. I have been on a number of book boards before starting my blog (including the now defunct BBC board), and, if the memberships of those boards are anything to go by, I was very much in a minority in this: most people read far more contemporary literature.

        I’d guess that the main competition to contemporary fiction comes not from literatures of the past, but from more easily accessible forms such as films, television, DVD boxed sets, etc. Reading a novel – especially a complex novel – takes time and effort: far easier and far quicker simply to watch a film. But be that as it may, Lott’s suggestion that writers focus more on plot is something I still find myself objecting to. You say:

        “So I understand why Lott would say Just write a better book, people, instead of whining when no one wants to read your boring story.”

        But by “better book”, Lott means “book with more plot”. And there are any number of examples that make nonsense of the idea that “more plot” equates to “better book”.

        Later, talking about “literary fiction”, you say:

        “And some people DO gobble it up, so for them these are the “better” books, so who is anyone to judge?”

        To which I’d say:

        We are.”

        Bu “judge”, I don’t mean merely passing opinions: I mean considering carefully, weighing up all the factors as best we can, debating (both with ourselves and with other readers), and reaching conclusions, which, given this isn’t an exact science, can only be tentative. Isn’t that what we’re supposed to do with the books we read?

        As for the term “literary fiction”, it may no doubt be useful for marketing, but when it comes to thinking or talking about discussing literature, it seems to me disastrous. Whether a book is literary or not is something to be determined after we’ve read it, and have exercised our judgement. And even then, a clear-cut division between “literary” and “non-literary” does not seem very helpful: such labelling does not help us understand the book – it is merely making tally marks.

        But yes, I do appreciate there is a certain type of book that is generally termed “literary”, but it is precisely this perception I am arguing against. I do not see that such taxonomy is at all useful when it comes to trying to understand or to discuss a book’s value. For if the label “literary” is pre-determined, there seems little reason for readers to exercise judgement in the first place. And as a consequence, books lacking any significant literary value nonetheless pass as “literary”, while genuinely literary qualities of many books belonging to “genres” are overlooked. It is hardly a satisfactory state of affairs.

        And if a book suffers because the author does not plot very well, or because the writer does not present the plot very well, then I shall certainly consider that a literary shortcoming, whatever spurious label the book may or may not come with!

        In short, I propose we leave this sort of labelling to the marketing people, and not refer to it when we talk about books. Labels based on content – science fiction, thriller, romance, etc. – may be useful for readers looking for specific types of content; but it is hard to see how a label such as “literary”, which is not based on the nature of the content, can be of any use to anyone at all!

  8. Posted by Janet on January 10, 2018 at 5:34 pm

    Beautifully said, Hamadri. That nails it. [insert row of little hands clapping emojis] I would only add that while the label may be useful for marketing and problematic for book discussion, it may be most harmful to writers themselves. Sometimes when reading literary fiction I can’t help hearing Jessie Landis saying to Cary Grant about Grace Kelly: “I’m sorry I ever sent her to that finishing school; I think they finished her there!”

    Reply

  9. […] Argumentative Old Git had a really interesting post recently about the importance of plot in a work of literature. I’m in agreement with him […]

    Reply

  10. Posted by Izzy on January 13, 2018 at 11:16 am

    The two other works cited by Coleridge as having the best plots along with Tom Jones were Oedipus Rex and The Alchemist.

    Reply

  11. Posted by Annabel (gaskella) on January 14, 2018 at 10:58 am

    Hi – I’ve just discovered your blog through Karen’s link. What a fab post and discussion. I believe that whether a book is strongly plotted or not is irrelevant – it’s the quality of the writing that has to draw you in. Chandler certainly does that for me – I don’t read enough classics to comment on those. (I misread the previous comment alluding to The Alchemist – and on first glance thought NOOOOO! Paolo Coelho, before I realised it was alluding to Ben Jonson!) As for lit fic – it’s in the middle ground that it gets really tricky so I’m trying to stop using the term. I also love genre fiction and get really fed up of the genre purists who think that no-one else can add SF elements to their novels etc.

    Reply

    • Hello Annabelle, and welcome.
      I too agree it’s the quality of writing that matters, but in describing books with stronger plotting as “better books”, Lott does seem to be implying that stronger plots enhance literary quality. So the debate quickly turns to the question of “what constitutes literary quality?” – which, I suppose, is a question that has no definite answer, and which we can therefore carry on debating. Indeed, were it not for that question, there would perhaps be no point in book blogs at all!
      I try to avoid using the term “literary fiction”.when any book is described as such, my instant reaction is usually “I’ll be the judge of that!” 🙂
      All the best,
      Himadri

      Reply

  12. Posted by Joseph on January 15, 2018 at 9:43 am

    I think there is an element of blurring of issues on both sides of the debate. What the argument is really about is politics. The Arts Council wants to fund so-called literary fiction because:

    “… the people best positioned to write literary fiction are those for whom making a living isn’t an imperative. That has an effect on the diversity of who is writing – we are losing voices, and we don’t want to be in that position.”

    Writing fiction has never been a sinecure. Many of the best writers of the past actually had other jobs. Others had private incomes.

    But this is not about sustaining literature. What the Arts Council is saying is that it wants to give money to people to write fiction in order to give a voice to a strata of society that would otherwise be voiceless.

    It’s disingenuous to take issue with Tim Lott for not defining literary fiction. It’s quite clear what is meant by the term in this context.

    If you need a definition, you can find one elsewhere in the same paper in a related story. David Kidd and Emanuele Castano, from the New School for Social Research in New York, define genre fiction “by its focus on a particular topic and reliance on relatively formulaic plots”, and say literary fiction is defined “more by its aesthetic qualities and character development.”

    That’s not to say contemporary literary fiction wouldn’t have more readers if its writers better understood the craft of storytelling. In fact I would say the best stories are explications of character and that’s one of the reasons why Better Call Saul was so good.

    Long-form television is not, by the way, quicker or easier than “complex fiction”, and the people who consume it are not necessarily sitting on the sofa scoffing sweets. I do not like television much personally so I find it very difficult to make time to watch it but I see many people watching it on the move on their tablets and phones. I still prefer reading and find paperback books more accessible, because I prefer words. But that’s a personal choice. The point is, these days we have a choice. There are different ways to consume stories and writers need to step up their game if they want to attract enough readers to make a living.

    Nostromo is a very interesting example to feed into the debate because it has a potentially thrilling story that thas been broken up and disguised so well that you coud easily miss it. But Joseph Conrad has mastered his craft. His earlier stories and novels all have a strong narrative drive. He takes the material of thrillers and turns it into literature.

    Raymond Chandler arguably does the same. But he learnt his craft by copying and painstakingly re-writing well-plotted stories. He loses control of elements in his plots, it’s true, because that’s not where his principal interest lies. And we don’t read his novels for the plot. But without that strong narrative basis, his stories would collapse. His attempt to write non-genre literary fiction was an abject failure.

    So, do we need to subsidise literary fiction? I don’t think so. Or we should ask, do we need to subsidise it any further? Because I agree with Will Self, who was quoted in the original story about the Art’s Council’s decision. “Literary fiction is already being subsidised – think of all of the writers who are continuing to make a living now by teaching creative writing. They represent a change taking place in literature … It’s now more like quilting,” he said.

    It’s a cop-out to say you don’t read contemporary novels because your interest lies elsewhere. That in itself speaks volumes. You can’t take issue with a comment on contemporary fiction by referencing only classics from another age.

    I do read contemporary novels. I actually disagree with Tim Lott and many other journalists who thought Golden Hill was magnificent. It was daft. It was not even a good imitation of an eighteenth century novel. But, if I can say this without giving away the plot, it has a particular political slant that addresses The Art’s Council’s wish to give a voice to “diversity.” I think that is why some people praised it more than it deserved.

    There are some excellent contemporary novels out there, though, and I will go on reading them whatever the Arts Council does and not so that I can “judge” them, as you put it, but for entertainment and stimulation because that is why I read.

    (And also why I read this blog, which I have done for many years, and with great pleasure and interest, so I hope you are not offended by my comments.)

    Reply

    • Hello Joseph, and thank you very much for your very interesting post above. Far from taking offence, I was delighted to read it. The purpose of most of my posts is to try out new ideas rather than merely to declare my ground and stick to it, and I like to think that there have been many occasions when, prompted by responses to my posts, I have shifted my ground. At least, I hope I have, as there is little point in dialogue otherwise. There is, after all, much that I have written in the past on this blog that I would not care to stand by now, and, quite often, comments I have received on my posts have been instrumental in compelling me to rethink matters.

      I do actually agree with a great many things you say above – especially your comments on Conrad and on Chandler. I put these two writers (as well as Faulkner) into the mix to demonstrate that even when a novel contains strong elements of plot, the plot need not be of primary interest; and that the relegation of the plot need not result in a weaker novel.

      I think I tend to agree with you also about the undesirability of awarding grants to writers of “literary fiction”, although, as I said in one of my comments above, I would prefer to remain uncommitted on this point: I can see arguments both for and against.

      However, there are also a few points you make I still find myself disagreeing with. For instance, the question of “judgement”. Like yourself, I too read books for “entertainment and stimulation”, but I don’t see why either should preclude judgement. For instance, last year I read two marvellous supernatural novels – Dark Matter and Thin Air by Michelle Paver, both of which I found thoroughly entertaining. (But then again, ghost stories are a favourite genre of mine.) I judged them to be entertaining; I judged them to be eerie and frightening; I judged them to be superior examples of the genre. Unless one switches off one’s mind completely when reading – something I think is not possible, nor desirable even if it were – I do not see how it is possible not to judge.

      As for films and television being “easier” than complex fiction, I am happy to retract that point. I made the mistake of making a general statement based purely on my own experience: often, when I feel too mentally tired to read, I put on a film instead as an “easier” option. However, the argument can easily be made that there are many films and television series that are challenging, and many books that aren’t, so the contention that films and television are necessarily “easier” is clearly untenable.

      Now, the definition of “literary fiction”.

      David Kidd and Emanuele Castano, from the New School for Social Research in New York, define genre fiction “by its focus on a particular topic and reliance on relatively formulaic plots”, and say literary fiction is defined “more by its aesthetic qualities and character development.”

      If we were to accept this, there are a great many books that are currently mis-classified. I can think, off the top of my head, of several books currently classified as genre fiction which have plots that are far from formulaic, and which possess qualities that satisfy aesthetically. And conversely, there are a great many books that are classified as “literary fiction” which have formulaic plots, where the character development is perfunctory, and aesthetic qualities negligible. The above definition would require us to reclassify a great many books, to such an extent that what most of us think we understand by the terms “genre” and “literary” would no longer hold.

      The definition offered above effectively says “Genre = formulaic plots, Literary = aesthetic qualities”. Whether or not a piece of fiction has “formulaic plot” or “aesthetic quality” – or, perhaps, both, as the two are not mutually exclusive – is for the reader, and not the publishers’ marketing departments, to decide. In short, I remain unconvinced on this point. I remain unconvinced that this classification is in any way useful when discussing literary matters; and I find it particularly frustrating when this term is used without even a working definition, as, without such a definition, it becomes a slippery term, making it impossible for me to specify with any precision my objections to it.

      Now, the question of “contemporary fiction”. It is true that I read more of fiction from the past – and this is especially the case recently, as I find my ability to concentrate over long periods increasingly limited, and am forced to focus more on what interests me most. But that does not mean that I do not read contemporary literature at all, or that I am entirely unacquainted with it. And, from my acquaintance (which is, I think, somewhat more than the posts on this blog may suggest, as there is much that I read that I do not necessarily blog about), I do not get the impression that contemporary fiction is so different a beast from past fictions that general observations cannot apply.

      What I am taking issue with is Tim Lott’s contention that a greater focus on plot will make for “better books”. Had he said “books that will attract more readers”, I would have had no complaint: I would, indeed, have agreed. But he explicitly says better books. Now, I have argued (with examples) that this contention does not hold for fiction of the past; and, from my knowledge of contemporary fiction – limited, I agree, but not entirely non-existent – I see no reason to think that it is so radically different that this contention may now be seen as reasonable. Or that my experience of contemporary literature is limited disqualifies me from commenting on this issue. At the very least, if it is indeed the case that Lott’s contention – that stronger plotting makes for better fiction – is applicable specifically to contemporary works and not to classic works in the past, I would like to see a clear account of what makes contemporary fiction so different in this respect.

      Reply

  13. A terrific post and a great discussion!

    As for a plot making a “better” book, I agree when it comes to fiction written in the past few years. Current writing styles are usually fresh and inventive. But I notice a trend: Main characters are not complex, and secondary characters are one-dimensional. Additionally, storylines are often illogical or unreasonable, and many authors can’t seem to write their way out of it. In these cases, yes, better storylines would make for better novels, because a reader should come away with something that is satisfying.

    Reply

    • Hello, and welcome!

      I am sure there are certain books, or certain kinds of books, that would indeed have been better if the author had had a greater mastery of plotting. But if this is what Tim Lott had meant, he doesn’t say so: he doesn’t say that his contention applies only to a particular kind of fiction. My point is that Lott’s contention cannot apply generally: there are far too many examples to the contrary – of fictions that are essentially plotless, or in which the plot has been relegated to a status of comparatively little importance, but which are, nonetheless, works of exceptional quality.

      Cheers, Himadri

      Reply

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