Thursday, February 10, 2011

The really exciting part - or, too many machinery metaphors

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.


  1. I've been wanting to join this discussion and suddenly, now that I have a moment to do so, I see that you've taken away both of my points. I was first going to suggest "premise" is important in discussion of books even when plot isn't (which, it seems, you decided yesterday). Then I was going to add that, based on other conversations, you really do enjoy a good plot, but you don't want to spend time writing about them (which you arrived at today).
    I very much enjoy drinking good champagne, but after a few attempts at writing about the experience, realized I don't even like reading good wine reviewers wine drinking experiences, much less writing my own.

    My little analogy to add to the spoiled plot, innocence/knowledge discussion is that of amusement park rides. For most rides, knowing the path of the roller coaster does not in any way diminish from the experience of riding it, and in many cases, knowledge of what is going to happen heightens the anticipation of the experience itself.
    There are other rides with a tunnel on them-- I think it is fully fair to tell people that there is a tunnel, but a good reviewer should avoid an exact description of the creature that jumps out in the tunnel. A very few rides (my least favorites), rely on surprise to make the whole experience. Telling future riders, "You turn six times, pass the hanged bootlegger, it speeds up right past the fire, jerks left and then you get splashed" (for instance)does spoil part of the experience. Revealing the premise, "It's a slow roller coaster in the dark," does not.

  2. If plot is the machine, it has the ability to produce valuable things but is itself not actually of a thing of value (except in its ability to produce other valuable things). The story is just a way show how characters grow and change (or stay the same). Or its a good way to highlight theme. Or maybe its just a good excuse to play with language. Is that what you are saying?

    (And just a note to SS: That surprise hanged bootlegger completely spoiled my young son's first roller-coaster ride. Tears for an hour.)

  3. I love the roller coaster analogy - more machinery! My favorites are the ones that reveal the entire "plot" - that lift you up to a view of the whole track. There's some good tension-building. Too late to turn back now!

    Lifetime Reader - at the risk of breaking the shaky mechanism of the metaphor, I would suggest that "story" is also one of the things produced by plot, along with the items you mention. Also, "cool stuff," which is what the plots of most action movies, idiotic as a whole, produce - those bits where you say "Neato" or "Awesome" or whatever the youths say now.

    To stay with The Iliad - the battle between Achilles and the river is an episode I would call inessential for the "story" of the poem, but it's pretty cool.

  4. LR- How awful! I was just using that particular ride because I rode it with AR in December. And then you give us an example of where advance knowledge would make the experience better.

  5. SS: The "hanged bootlegger" in our case was actually a decapitated Medusa. Somehow that seems like a relevant detail here. But I love the idea of AR on a roller coaster. I'm getting a picture of AR waiting in a long line, reading aloud to all who will listen from a little leather-bound copy of Flaubert, and contemplating that precise moment where the search for excitement leads to major collapse, complete with splash in this case.

    (Excuse me, AR, while I talk to your friends in front of you.)

  6. Agreed. I love mysteries as long as there is more to them than plot -- I want good characters, atmosphere, good writing, interesting ideas, etc. Nothing at all wrong with basically the same story again and again -- just tell it to me differently.

  7. Well, put that way, it's like complaining that a sonnet is always three quatrains and a couplet, or an octet and a sestet. Bo-ring! But it can say anything at all.

    Except, wait, that's form, not plot. Bad analogy. No biscuit.

    I am not sure that I agree that plot is completely irrelevant, that it's only in the style and voice and details and manner of telling that we find joy. But the problem with my disagreement is that I find myself in the position of the emperor who wanted a perfect map of his realm, and kept making the scale larger and larger until he realized that the best map of all would be one mile of map to one mile of land, including all the inhabitants, cattle, houses, and rivers. The ideal summary, maybe, would be to sit and retell the book, voice, style, characters, and all. Like the Ancient Mariner of blogs. No wait, come back! I was only on chapter three!

  8. LR- Medusa sounds more interesting than the hanged bootlegger (in a mine?). I'm such a literalist sometimes-- I was genuinely surprised you'd been on this particular roller coaster.
    I'm sure AR was reading Flaubert in line, or at least discussing Dickens.

    AR- Sorry if I outed you as a real person who might ride a lame roller coaster.

    Jenny- I'm unashamedly a plot fan, but I'm not sure I've fully distinguished plot from AR's concept of "story".

  9. Hey, wait, this is the pro-plot post! Not only not completely irrelevant, but highly relevant!

    The sestina and (Elizabethan, not Petrarchan) sonnet examples are good analogies, exactly like the sonata example I used. In a restricted genre like a procedural, the plot has become indistinguishable from the form. The plot can be broken down into generic elements which are hard to rearrange, but easy to color in different ways.

    Has anyone here read any of Syd Field's guides to screenwriting? I don't remember all of his labels, but I always remember Plot Points 1, 2, and 3. Almost every good - almost every great - Hollywood movie fits smoothly on top of Field's formula. Novels, epic poems, etc. are not so different. The old forms do their job well.

    Hang on - I just read Lifetime Readers last post. I want to ride the Adventures of Perseus Roller Coaster! I would not read aloud from Flaubert - that's ridiculous. I would declaim the relevant passages from Ovid.

  10. I've been deliberately loose with the plot \ story thing, but I mean something like this:

    The story of the Fall of Troy can be told in many different ways, using many different plots.

    The same structure \ plot - the standard police procedural, as in the first half of a middlin' Law & Order episode - can be used to tell many different stories. In the TV show case, not that different, but different enough.

  11. Thanks for a fascinating discussion that has stretched my thinking and made me laugh. Hope my silliness did not offend.

  12. Okay, now that I'm getting the distinction you're making between plot and story, yes, uh-huh. Also, my sonnet analogy makes more sense, even to me.

    What kind of boogeyman would be appropriate in a roller coaster on which you read passages from Flaubert? A closed hackney coach? An amputee? A crucified lion? (Oh gee, now I've done it.)

  13. I'll bet Flaubert's Temptations of St. Anthony has a whole funhouse worth of amusement park nonsense. Bats and weird noises and the such. I'm just guessing.

    But in the spirit of Madame Bovary, maybe you have to spend the whole ride next to an annoying pharmacist, who, once the ride ends, is given a big prize.

    Lifetime Reader - Offended! Please! Your notion that I might be offended offends me!

  14. Thanks, AR. As for Madame Bovary, I was merely thinking thematically: you're sitting around waiting some some excitement, waiting for any excitement--and when it comes, and you risk plummeting to the bottom. (You all are thinking PLOT DETAILS!)

  15. What - the excitement in Madame Bovary begins almost immediately, with the description of young Charles' ridiculous hat.

    There had never before, in all of literature, been a hat like that.

  16. I'm sorry to be late to the game. Interesting debate here.

    First off, I went skydiving on my 30 birthday. After 10,000 feet of free fall one loses all interest in roller coasters forever. It's a thrill that can never be matched.

    As a fan of procedurals I do believe in the importance of plot. A skeleton metaphor may be a bit tired but I think it will work here. For a procedural, and for a substantial amount of everything else, plot is the skeleton everything else hangs on. One skeleton is much like another, as is the case with plots. You still need a good one if your story is going to stand up on its own.

    I'm currently working my way through Tristram Shandy, a novel famous for lacking a plot. Except that this lack of plot is the plot. Take Samuel Beckett's "Waiting for Godot" a play where nothing happens in the first act, and then nothing happens again in the second act. Expect this nothing is everything.

    Finally, does plot matter when one is re-reading a book? Why is it that readers enjoy the experience of seeing things happen that they know will happen? True one can gain a deeper appreciation of things other than plot by re-reading, but by re-reading we willing experience the plot once again. There must be something profound in the experience of plot itself that causes us to seek out the experience a second time.

  17. Pull back to my agument - sure, the procedural's skeleton is important, important for the existence of the book. But is it exciting?

    I am far from convinced that many readers re-read because of their enjoyment of a novel's skeleton. Readers learning how to write their own procedurals, perhaps. Where is Plot Point 1, where is Plot Point 2, etc.

    Why profound? Maybe a particular story prodvides cheap, shallow thrills, so we return to it again and again, to get those little endorphin jolts. I mean, sure, maybe profound, but I don't think that the act of reading a dozen Brad Thor novels is evidence of the depth of the experience.

  18. CB- That readers enjoy re-reading books is usually seen as an argument against the importance of plot and against the high valuation of fresh experience. (If the experience of finding out what happens is the main pleasure in reading, then re-reading would be much less pleasurable. That readers do enjoy books that where they already know what is going to happens suggests they are receiving pleasure from other aspects of the writing besides the plot.)

  19. Really, I'm just unconvinced that revisiting stories, re-reading, is necessarily a sign of anything too complex. People re-read for a million reasons. Children demand the same story over and over and over for a range of reasons, some testifying to the fundamental importance of a particular story, some related to who knows what - comfort, maturity, brain development.

    If the value of a particularly story is - I'm with Aristotle here - catharsis or some other emotionally ptiched experience, knowing the story in advance contributes to the more profound experience, is perhaps even necessary.