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Conspiracy Theory: The Plot Against Plot

Saturday, September 5th, 2009 | Posted by Soyka

Lev Grossman maintains that the reading public’s desire for plot accounts for the rising popularity of young adult novels among adult readers who have tired of difficult, and, by implication, plotless novels that are supposed to be “good for you.”  Perhaps not coincidentally, Grossman himself is the author of what is classified in some corners as young adult fiction; his latest, The Magicians, sounds like a “grown-up” take on Harry Potter.  I’m looking forward to reading it, but not because I have been denied plot and have to resort to the young adult fiction aisles to avoid more difficult work that might give me a headache.

Grossman argues that the general reading public is reacting against the “plotless” works of Modernism that presumably have come to dominate our reading selections. The problem with this is that many of the works cited as “plotless” Modernist, such as The Great Gatsby, weren’t all that popular  at the time of their publication. Indeed, it wasn’t until after World War II when the academy declared these works as part of the literary canon, coupled with the post-war rise in college attendance, that people came to hear of them.  

Nor would I agree that all of the novels Grossman cites are plotless, though they perhaps are not page turners in the sense of what he terms “supermarket thrillers (which might explain why The Great Gastby didn’t turn out to be such a great movie). Or that there has been some overall trend towards “plotlessness” that  has somehow inhibited plot development. The truly plotless novel is Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, and that dates back to the late 18th century, which certainly didn’t stop folks like Dickens from writing highly plotted novels.

Pardon my elitism, but there’s a difference between what critics and English graduate students worry about in their books and the “good read”  the average browser in “Borders n Noble” is looking for.  That means something that, yeah, has a good plot, and is relatively straightforward in terms of language and linear narrative. Now, nothing wrong with that; I confess to have read The Da Vinci Code. But I tend to doubt that whatever trends current book sales indicate have anything to do with the non-English major general public’s reaction to Modernism because probably the only place they have encountered such works is in the classroom.  In other words, they’re not saying they’ve had enough of Fitzgerald, they’ve never been that much interested in the first place.

While it’s true, as Grossman points out,  that a certain group of writers is adopting and playing with genre conventions, and that the literary critical establishment seems to be going along with this as something legitimate if only because they don’t have much choice, again I’m unconvinced this has anything to do with a yearning for plotting. It’s not extraordinary to me that in these science fictional times, writers are adopting science fictional tropes.

Grossman says that the rise in popularity in young adult books while adult book sales decline is evidence of the return of the plot. Well, maybe it’s just a sign of kids reading more than adults. And perhaps that parents are interested in what their kids are reading. But I’ll bet you dollars to donuts the average Stephanie Meyer reader has never heard of such writers as Kelly Link cited by Grossman for bringing back plot (nor, for that matter, does Link in particular stand out for me for her plotting strengths).  The reason such young adult books attract otherwise non-readers is because of stock characters in story lines that reflect a certain age demographic written in an accessible (meaning not overly difficult) prose style.  And, of course, and perhaps more importantly, effective marketing and media-tie ins.

The general reading public isn’t  turning to such works because of a reaction to Modernism, they aren’t turning from  James Joyce because of his plotting (in fact they probably haven’t read him), they’re reading what they’re reading for the same reason they’re wearing certain clothes — because it’s been successfully marketed to them.

Now, why you can’t mass market The Great Gatsby is another question, but one that only matters to English majors.  And which also answers the question.

5 Comments »

  1. An interesting and informed perspective that I’m glad you shared. Until I read your comments, I might have been inclined to agree with Grossman. Now I’m not so sure. I think you’ve got some excellent points.

    Comment by Managing Editor Howard Andrew Jones - September 5, 2009 11:45 am

  2. It does seem as though you’d be hard-pressed to say for sure that the rise of young adult novels is representative of a renewed interest in plot as opposed to a growing lack of interest in everything else.

    Comment by braak - September 5, 2009 2:55 pm

  3. I teach 8th graders, and I know how passtionate they get about books like Harry Potter, Twilight, the Darren Shan books, and others. I do NOT think this has anything to do with a “return of plot” per se, but simply a return to GOOD STORYTELLING. It is a very human thing to enjoy a GOOD STORY…and the elements of a good story have not really changed during the course of human history (and pre-history). To tell a story without plot is ridiculous in one respect…plot is an essential element in STORY itself! A story without a plot is like a car without wheels. The truly great works of literature aren’t great because they “don’t focus on plot”–they’re great because they strike a human chord, and they tell a good story that makes people care about the characters. Marketing, as mentioned above, is definitely a major factor. But marketing only works temporarily if the product doesn’t deliver…and these Young Adult readers are embracing the timeless storytelling tradition that includes the fact that THINGS HAPPEN. And that’s really all plot is…a succession of things that happen, cause-and-effect, and extension of characters and their settings. I’d also like to point out that “plot-driven” stories don’t have to skimp on characterization. It’s a balance…a writer should not sacrifice characterization for plot, or plot for characterization. A story with no plot is a story where NOTHING HAPPENS. Literally. Kids are reading books more than adults because, for one thing, they have MORE TIME to read than most adults. And they can’t AFFORD as many diversions as adults. Also, the publishers have learned to let writers tell GOOD STORIES and marketed them to kids. A good story is a good story.

    Comment by John R. Fultz - September 5, 2009 3:31 pm

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