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.