There are three points of view from which a writer can be considered: he may be considered as a storyteller, as a teacher, and as an enchanter. A major writer combines these three – storyteller, teacher, and enchanter – but it is the enchanter in him that predominates and makes him a major writer. (Vladimir Nabokov, “Good Readers and Good Writers,” Lectures on Literature, 1980, p. 5)
When I suggest, or directly state, that I do not care about plot, I am lying.* I love good plots; I love good stories. Who doesn’t? Story is central to fiction, and in an important sense to all writing. An argument is a story – “John Galt is worth reading, and here’s why.” Maybe that's not a good story. Readers, creative devils, fill in or make up stories when the one in front of them is insufficient.
Why so little attention, then, to story, or to plot, the mechanism that drags the story along? My metaphor reveals my prejudices – even in many of the greatest novels, I can hear the clanking cogs and perhaps even see the novelist turning the crank. Now, of course, novels run on electricity, and are quieter, but the internal contraption is similar.
In a review of Henning Mankell’s first Wallander mystery, Rohan Maitzen is able to compress her description of the mechanism of the novel into a single word, “procedural.” The functioning of the procedural machine is so well understood that nothing else is necessary. Maitzen can then concern herself with the interesting parts of the novel – atmosphere, the lead character, the light dusting of politics.
When I spent some concentrated time on mysteries a couple of years ago, I ended a week of posts by noting that six recent mysteries by six different writers, whatever their surface dissimilarities, all followed identical plot paths – the same dang thing over and over again, I called it. One of the authors, Steve Hockensmith, actually read the posts and wrote an entirely reasonable piece about the ways he creates variety – tone, setting, theme. But not form! I concede that the mystery writer who makes too many custom modifications to the well-functioning machinery is probably no longer writing mysteries, but that hardly makes the standard plot interesting, by which I mean, worth writing much about.
I’ve picked on standard mysteries only because the genre is so well-understood, but the fact is that most fiction is not so different. The stories told are old ones, the machinery built from standard blueprints, which hardly means I do not want to hear the stories again, any more than I dismiss a piece of music written in sonata form – oh, that old thing! No, the old forms are capacious. They seem capable of containing anything. But then I want to spend my time playing with the unusual contents, not the container.
[A] great writer is always a great enchanter, and it is here that we come to the really exciting part when we try to grasp the individual magic of his genius and to study the style, the imagery, the pattern of his novels and poems.
The three facets of the great writer – magic, story, lesson – are prone to blend in one impression of unified and unique radiance, since the magic of art may be present in the very bones of the story, in the very marrow of thought. (5-6)
Nabokov concludes the talk, a sentence or two later, with his insistence that we read “the book of genius not with his heart [story], not so much with his brain [meaning], but with his spine.” “[T]he book of genius” is a necessary qualifier. The spine, one might note, is directly connected to the brain, and not so distant from the heart. I fear I am too dismissive of story, and I know I’m too cavalier about meaning, but this is why – I’m excited by the really exciting part.
* I always laugh when I see a negative review praised as “honest” – e.g., “Thanks for the honest review, you brave truth-teller.” All of my reviews and posts are dishonest, whether negative, positive, or wishy washy.