I generally enjoy the books Lev Grossman praises more than the books Matt Cheney praises, but I think that on balance Cheney is more right than not. Grossman is getting at something real, but the way he’s couching his argument is rife with what Cheney calls “armies of straw people marching through an alternate literary history.” Among other things, Grossman palms a whole bunch of cards, first telling us that “the Modernists” were a group of writers including E. M. Forster, Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway, and F. Scott Fitzgerald—none of whom are really known for their wild, plot-free typographic experimentalism—and then suddenly turning around to reveal that, no, actually, the Modernists were really Pound, Joyce, and Eliot, who set out in their remote mountain fastness to “break plot.” Which evidently they managed to do, putting “the novel” into a “100-year carbonite nap” from which it is finally awakening (never mind the math), because there are a bunch of new mainstream writers who don’t disdain genre elements and fun storylines, hooray.
I want to see the bookstore shelves in this alternate world, the one in which The Waste Land and Ulysses had this titanic influence on what got published, filling the catalogs of Doubleday and Harper & Row with brilliantly hermetic stream-of-consciousness narratives and irregular verse. More to the point, I sometimes think that people lap this storyline up because so many people’s school experience contains at least one instance of being looked down upon because they didn’t care for one or more of the sacred mutant outcroppings of High Modernism, and they concluded from this that Literature is all about impenetrable stuff that they don’t like. That damn Hemingway with his crazy free verse.
As far as “plot” goes, as I get older I more and more suspect that “plot” is really being used, in the many incarnations of this argument, as a placeholder for a whole cloud of qualities found (or not found) in certain narratives, some of which actually constitute “plot” and many of which do not. What first led me to suspect this is the fact that many of the sternest exponents of “I want novels to have plots, dammit” are also demonstrably fans of, for instance, quite a few Robert A. Heinlein novels whose plots can barely be detected even by advanced scientific equipment. (Not just later Heinlein, either; go back and look at Beyond This Horizon). As it happens, I like some of those books, too, and what I learn from them, and from thousands of other books, is that what matters isn’t the presence of a carefully-engineered, structurally sound “plot.” What matters is whether a book entrances us into reading it or forces us to decode it—and “plot” is just one of several methods of getting us into the reading trance. It’s a good method. It’s not the only one.
Teresa has observed that “plot is a literary convention; story is a force of nature.” But that’s only a sidebar to what I’m saying, because “story” isn’t the only way a book can entrance us, either. Sometimes it’s just the voice. A sensibility. The promise of knowledge we urgently want. Sometimes it’s the way a book flatters us, and sometimes it’s because it hurts us, but in just the right way. (Seductions don’t all work by a single means; why should we expect books to?) My point is this: We don’t read plots. We read books. Some of them captivate us; many don’t. Plot is one way to captivate us, but there are far too many uninteresting books with perfectly-formed plots, and fascinating books with defective or stunted plots, to support an argument that Plot is the magic juice that makes good books good.
I said that Grossman is getting at something real. Cheney is right when he says:
Lev Grossman sez: “Old hierarchies of taste are collapsing. Genres are hybridizing.” This is called The History of the Novel. Those two statements could have been made at any time during the last 300 years at least.Quite right. And yet, it’s worth talking about the specifics; what’s actually happening between particular readers and particular books. Imagine: Conversations about actual books! Instead of grudge matches about somebody else’s imagined (or even real) snobbery! We could even try believing one another when we talk about why we find certain things cool. Instead of making up narratives about straw men. It’s a crazy idea, but it might be worth a try.
UPDATE: Evil Monkey weighs in.