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Good Books Don't Have to Be Easy, Either
There's been a lot of debunking of Lev Grossman's recent article on the nature of the novel at the Wall Street Journal. It's all good stuff, and needs to be said, because much as I like Lev, this article is B-A-N-A-N-A-S, as St Gwen would put it. The history, the logic, the attitude, the careful exclusion of facts and the mind-breaking namedropping of Kelly Link as one of the new writers who are putting plot over style, they're all cokepants and no Lohan, you know?

Basically: the modernists ruined Literature for everyone with their insistence on dense intellectualism and lyrical writing and plotless meandering but now the genre kids RULE GOTHAM and it's super awesome that plot is king again! Twilight sells, so it's better, because people en masse turned away from New York literary short story collections and started reading Twilight to satisfy their needs! Or something.

Unpacking all that...well, follow the links. It's been done. Frankly, the whole article has been done before--this kind of crowing about how the potboiler ownz litfic is unnecessary tribalism and it's really only that Grossman is so comically wrong in his facts and assumptions that makes for the debate surrounding the article. That and it being in the WSJ makes us feel all warm and fuzzy and validated. What I want to point out is something I haven't really seen discussed yet, and as 2005's Miss Congeniality Lyricism, I have to raise my hand politely. In the back. Where the goth kids hang out.

The idea that up until the last couple of years lyrical, plotless, densely intellectual fiction has had some kind of free pass is bizarre and hilarious. The whole notion is some kind of crazy opposite day where those of us who write surreal, postmodern, stylized fiction are rolling in six figure deals and sipping on Cristal while laughing uproariously at those not in on the joke is...well, it's actually kind of offensive, given that what actually happens. Because, kittens, reality is that if you dare to try something other than transparent prose and FASTPACEDACTIONVAMPIRESPLOSIONDETECTIVELEATHERPANTSRAYGUN in genre, you win the grand prize of defending yourself for the rest of your career while you struggle to get paid more than about five dollars for your books. If you try it outside of genre, frankly, it's pretty much the same treatment. Look at the big sellers in literary ficiton, the ones that make a splash: Bee Season, Everything Is Illuminated, The Brief Wonderful Life of Oscar Wao. The Secret History. There's plot all over those things. Plotgasm City. And precious little lyricism, really. Because the way things stand these days? An adverb makes you a wacky lyrical stylist.

The Modernists? Are all dead, my friends. They have no dog in this race. They wrote what seemed vital and important to them and then a hundred years passed for crying out loud. Why people still want to call T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound out and challenge them to fisticuffs because once they were made to feel bad for not understanding them in college is well and truly beyond me. They were a tiny minority--two guys! Virginia Woolf had plot, I swear! Edna Ferber? ZOMGplot!--and their opinions did not triumph. The vast majority of books are plot-heavy, language-light, for better or for worse, and not terribly hard to read. Hard to read = hard to sell. Thus it ever was, and ever more shall be.

And look. I really and genuinely believe that no writer has ever set out to write a book that no one could understand. That's not what people think when they write. They might think it should take more work than reading the nutritional content of ketchup, but writing is communicating, and even Eliot wanted to be heard, to be understood. Certainly, no writer has ever set out deliberately to make you feel stupid or shit in your cornflakes because you didn't go to the right school or whatever. There is no conspiracy. Hand to god.

I've spent most of my career as a writer defending what I do, in writing groups, workshops, online, to anyone who starts a conversation with the word "accessible." I have agonized over the constant pressure to add more plot and take away the pretty words. Nothing in my world was made easier because I like Eliot and think, you know, he might have had a point and even written a pretty good poem or two back in the day. There was never any hegemony of the plotless to oppress others, in genre or out. The beautiful plotless book is a rare animal, not a cruel, arrogant master cackling at the misfortune of WSJ readers.

Remember how I said that one way to see who has power and who doesn't is to look at who feels free to speak and who does not? Well. We've heard this screed before. Everyone and their grandma feels pretty damn good about tearing down Eliot and the modernists and intellectuals and every classic they were told was great and turned out to be boring. You know why people keep trying to punch out Eliot after all these years? Because since him, this side of the fence has been short on champions. Precious few defenses of dense writing have been published in the Wall Street Journal. You have to go back to Eliot to get a good straw man to set on fire. Harold Bloom is just too easy.

There's just no culture war going on here. There are people writing and people reading and in the main they're reading and writing hard and easy books in about the same proportion that they always have. Digging up this old argument always gives me hives. It is just so much chest-beating by the same people who turn up their nose at what I write and what I want to read, all the while setting up this bizarre universe where they're the victim of some vast plot. Because it's more fun to be the underdog, I suspect. No one wants to think of themselves as Goliath.

But hey, it's ok! Kelly Link is here to save us from all those evil lyrical stylists who disdain plot! At last, the world is safe for children.

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Loved this, thanks! :)

But, but... but! There has to be a vast evil plot! Somewhere! Someone is plotting evilly! They just gotta be! It's the only way my life has meaning!

These people who think "entertaining" and "lyrical" are at odds make Sweet Baby Jesus's head hurt, and mine too.

But hey, it's ok! Kelly Link is here to save us from all those evil lyrical stylists who disdain plot!

Hooray! Three cheers for Kelly Link!!!

hey, reading the nutritional content of ketchup isn't exactly easy! ;)

I like books. I like pretty books. I like books with phrases that make me go "oooh!" and want to read it out loud to someone nearby who can echo my "oooh!". I like plot, as it gives me an excuse to get to the next pretty part, and the on after that. I don't really want things fast paced, because that is what I have movies for.

My brother, feels the opposite about books, he wants them to be fast paced and thrilling, and his movies to be thrilling with a background of pretty (think Last of the Mohicans).

Fortunately, last I checked, there was lots of room on the bookcase for both kinds, and the internet was making it even easier for us to find people to go "ooh! read this!" with, whether we are oohing over the author exploding a bus, or blowing off the top of our brains.

People can feel free to argue the merits of either. I'm not listening, I'll be over here, curled up in a fuzzy blanket, reading. I, for one, am very glad to have choices about what I read. May publishers continue to provide them.

Ironically enough, I actually did set out to write a dense nonsensical novel when I was in college. We can blame college for a lot. I think I was writing experimental at the time because I wasn't very good at writing in the normal fashion with characters and compelling plot lines and interesting descriptions and dialogue.

Of course, now that I'm marginally better at writing those tropes, I still write experimental fiction and as far as my stories that sold will tell you, that seems to be all that I write. It's what sells for me at least. But the difference now is that my experimental fiction is actually experimental fiction and not the navel gazing crap that I was writing in college.

I can see the blaming of T.S. Eliot only that a lot of his imitators are still at poetry slams and traditional readings in the mistaken belief that all he had to do was throw words together and it comes out deep and profound. Usually when we blame writers for giving us a certain genre, we aren't blaming the writers per se, but their imitators who really don't get why they love the originals.

And you can OD on that kind of imitative writing. I still profess to hate poetry even though I don't. There are plenty of poets and poems that I just adore but poetry is so common in that belief that "everyone can be a poet" or "democractizing the artform" that every poetry audience is like a slush pile reader who is forced to pretend to like everything that's being recited.

Beyond that, I did not know that Kelly Link did not write lyrical stylists.

Ironically, ellen_datlow just posted her contribution to the genre vs. literary debate. I guess none of us are getting any writing done today. :)

(no seriously, I got a 1.5 page job on the history of a sunglasses store that needs doing and I've been distracting myself for hours.)

I've spent most of my career as a writer defending what I do, in writing groups, workshops, online, to anyone who starts a conversation with the word "accessible."

Ha! Okay, it's not just me who has to do this. Sweet.

Since minute one of publication. It's gotten a little easier post-winning-a-few-awards, but still. I have the fight several times a year.

(Deleted comment)
Also, LEV GROSSMAN wrote a book about MAGIC and it's IN STORES NOW so perhaps you should TAKE A LOOK O readers of TIME MAGAZINE HUH HUH GET IT EH?

Yeah...I mean, before Readercon I had never come across one of his articles but they are everywhere now.

Yes, those evil literary books have prevented James Patterson and Tom Clancy and W.E.B. Griffin and Diana Gabaldon from getting published, right? Oh, wait...

I love best how he derides Gatsby, but then the picture of "page turners" accompanying the article includes Gatsby. I think he does not know what he's talking about.

This attitude is what caused the Oscars to increase the number of Best Picture nominees to 10 this year: smaller independent movies are dominating the awards while commercially successful films are ignored. According the the studios, this is because the nominators are just a bunch of stuck up faux intellectuals.

It couldn't possibly be because 95% or more of studio movies are sequels, remakes, or tired derivatives, could it? That those movies, while popularly comfortable for their target audiences, usually read like they were written by a committee? It can't be that the studios are making bad movies, it must be those snobby selectors.

(The one completely underrepresented genre at the Oscars is comedy, but that's another matter.)

Yeah, Gatsby has a hefty plot. I boggled at his list.

Really? 10? Is that necessary in any way? Just so more movies can put nominee on their posters? Were any of the other categories increased?

Beautifully written and highly insightful! I appreciate the time you took to inform those that didn't know the difference in the lyrical sense.

I'm learning and constantly learning is essential toward a goal and in some cases, will never be reached. Sadly, those that are comfortable with their terrible jive remain stagnant and those are the ones that complain the most when their windfall stops flowing over the hill.

Thanks for these links! As someone who reads literary and genre fiction (or at least what I perceive as good writing in both categories) with equal enthusiasm, and as someone who teaches literature (and sometimes popular culture), I'm always frustrated and fascinated by these debates. (My department head thinks the book I plan to write on Lewis Carroll is too unserious; otoh, a fair number of my LJ friends say "litfic" as though it had cooties. Etc.)

Delighted to have found your writing, btw!

While I agree with most of this, I beg to differ on certain points, namely:

Certainly, no writer has ever set out deliberately to make you feel stupid or shit in your cornflakes because you didn't go to the right school or whatever.

Just because you don't do this doesn't mean those writers -- and that style -- don't exist. I have met them. They're jerks. And their books are crap.

Also, which book of Woolf's had a plot? I must've missed it. Or the plot. I mean -- having a plot is sort of irrelevant when, in the book you're writing, the plot very clearly isn't the point, right?

Also.2, we need a new freakin' word for the Modernists before they go the way of New College in Oxford.

I think the idea that there isn't a plot in Mrs Dalloway or The Waves is weird. Things happen, they progress, there is climax, denouement. There's plot.

Please tell me the name of one published writer who falls into this camp. Who writes deliberately in order to obscure and make sure no one understands them. I'm really curious. I think this is the definition of a straw man.

Your Name Here (Anonymous) Expand
Your Name Here (Anonymous) Expand
I have agonized over the constant pressure to add more plot and take away the pretty words.

Fuck that. I want your pretty words. I want to bathe in them, let their slick, warm forms circulate and propagate my half-barrel bathtub as they will to make not just action, but breath-stealing cities and machines. Your landscapes fill my dreams, and I wouldn't have it any other way.

Kelly Link puts style above plot? Kelly Link??? I mean, I love her work and all, but geez, she's highly stylized, and I, for one, wouldn't know how to plot about half her stuff on those silly plot trees and things they used to give us in school. The hell?

I, for one, wouldn't know how to plot about half her stuff on those silly plot trees and things they used to give us in school

That's because none of her stories have plots. At least, none of the ones I've ever read, though admittedly after a few of the best-regarded ones I gave up and went off to read something less dense and plotless.

Here via ithiliana's LJ.
I very much enjoyed reading your take on the current debate and I LOVE your Eliot/Pound icon!
ETA: Grossman: "Plot makes perverts of us all." Oi, get your hands off Hamlet!

Edited at 2009-08-31 07:38 pm (UTC)

This is one of those "augh, why must people who are theoretically on my side go about embarrassing themselves in public" moments. I really do appreciate that Lev is trying to champion genre fiction in mainstream venues. I wish he'd gone about it differently.

Oh those nefarious "Modernists." ;-)

I liked PNH's comment (I think it was his) about how many people who demand "plot" above all else are really just demanding a seduction into the reading experience, and they use "plot" as a shorthand to describe this. It certainly reflects my experience when discussing certain books with others. They praise the "plot" as key to their enjoyment, when in fact the plots of these books are often incoherent messes (usually they're a lot of action/battle scenes strung together with some expository dialogue).

Okay, I'm obviously not the cool people and I'm certainly in the minority here, but I didn't read Grossman's piece quite the way everyone else seems to have:

All of this is changing. The revolution is under way. The novel is getting entertaining again. Writers like Michael Chabon, Jonathan Lethem, Donna Tartt, Kelly Link, Audrey Niffenegger, Richard Price, Kate Atkinson, Neil Gaiman, and Susanna Clarke, to name just a few, are busily grafting the sophisticated, intensely aware literary language of Modernism onto the sturdy narrative roots of genre fiction: fantasy, science fiction, detective fiction, romance. They're forging connections between literary spheres that have been hermetically sealed off from one another for a century. Look at Cormac ­McCarthy, who for years appeared to be the oldest living Modernist in captivity, but who has inaugurated his late period with a serial-killer novel followed by a work of apocalyptic science fiction. Look at Thomas Pynchon—in "Inherent Vice" he has swapped his usual cumbersome verbal calisthenics for the more maneuverable chassis of a hard-boiled detective novel.

This is the future of fiction. The novel is finally waking up from its 100-year carbonite nap. Old hierarchies of taste are collapsing.

Sounds like he's celebrating the marriage of good writing and good plot and the collapse of hierarchy of taste, where non-genre self-consciously "literary" folk looked down upon the genre ghetto.

And if someone can please tell me what in hell is the matter with that, I'll say that Grossman therefore deserves all the hostility that has been heaped upon the Internets today.

And if Michael Chabon and Neil Gaiman (whom he praises) are "Not Stylists" then what can I say? Besides Huh?

I read it that way, too. Especially given the very large prejudice towards the import of literary fiction, and against genre. I read this as a (perhaps a bit self-important) bit on why fiction, has its worth and is just as necessary as the literary books.

I get accessibility complaints, too. I refuse to dumb down my prose if I want to use a big word. I think people can look it up. But I've also gotten added to classes and workshops as the "token genre writer" while everyone else wrote "literary", or asked by family when I was going to write something "worthwhile", yadda yadda...

I don't know about the Modernist thing. I think that might have been trying too hard. I'd be pretty happy if he left it at "fiction's worthwhile, too, and it'd be great if other people saw that, too". And there's lots of kinds of fiction, to those books with pretty words to those that eat like popcorn. I like them all.

First off, this is a great piece. I like how you pulled apart some of the conceptual problems in Grossman's piece, particularly his targeting of the Modernists and convenient skip over everything in-between them and, well, now. They are a bright, shiny target, and I think there is some ritual invocation in the establishment of new territory being performed here. That territory is a sort of middle ground where the hoity-toity writers learn the hard lesson that without plot no one loves them but other snobs. He wants a certain set of books to then function as a sort of vanguard canon pointing us to new levels of success.

That said, I agree to an extent with the last two posters that Grossman wants to champion a new fusion. But there are two problems with his conclusion: first, he gets there by setting up an awful opposition between "difficult" books and books with "plot." That is a very fallacious opposition. And second, he implies that the problem with (in particular) genre fiction is that people do not want to read "difficult" books, which are all the things that the Twilight series is not. This sets up books like that series as somehow the pinnacle of "plot," which from what I've read of it is not the case. And I didn't know that "plot" was the complete opposite of "difficult."

Grossman may get to a point that some folks appreciate, but he takes a very confusing, tortured road to get there, and I think that has more to do with the invocation of a divide between art and entertainment, as if the two are rarely united. Which is horse puckey. Art, like entertainment, is about pleasure. Even the writers who bash us over the head with subtleties and philosophical conundrums evoke pleasure of some sort, or we would not read it. Pleasure is not just escape; pleasure is a feeling stimulated by many sorts of pursuits.

I mean, maybe people are enjoying Gaiman and Chabon and the rest not because they have "discovered" plot, but because they write interesting, compelling art, without much concern over a novel's mixture of difficult and plotty?

I think there's more to say about this, especially given some of the links that our host has put up for us. I'm actually going to write about this at more length for my Forces of Geek column tomorrow. Not to bash the article, but to talk about what it says about our ideas of author and reader, of genre and type, and of the reception of art and pleasure.

Oh, thank you.

Good books don't have to be hard, but they shouldn't have to be easy, either, and people tend to ignore the fact that the very definition of "an easy read" has changed over time and will continue to do so.

I, for one, get a lot of entertainment value out of novels with less plot than language. Other people might get their entertainment value mainly from plot rather than language. But it doesn't mean that those concepts should trump each other, or be at war, or that the readers and the writers of books should have to choose "sides." You *could* choose sides, if you preferred, but it would be nice to have some middle, too.

Oh god, that was beautiful. Succinct and yet...funny. Also, true. I don't want pabulum, but I'd like to know what the hell is going on in a story. Storytelling doesn't have to be dumb, but for pete's sake, there are people I want to throttle with lyricism. The article draws pat conclusions that I don't disagree with; they're just too easy to draw.
All hail the postmoderns, wherever they may be. I suspect they'll prove the literary pundits wrong. ;)

People certainly want to throttle me for lyricism from time to time. ;)

I really and genuinely believe that no writer has ever set out to write a book that no one could understand.

The Voynich Manuscript! :)

I <3 the Voynich Manuscript.

I like what you're saying, but object to the notion that Safran Foer doesn't write lyrically. The Trachimbrod portions of Everything is Illuminated are densely, beautifully lyrical in places.
(Of course, the dichotomy is the problem, isn't it. It's so much easier to find a person who writes all plot, no lyricism than the obverse, and yet.)

Oh, he is lyrical. But also a ton of plot in there. The two aren't opposed, much as Grossman would like to pretend they are for the length of an article.

I use adverbs. So does it make me a Wacky Lyrical Stylist? ;)



Finnegans Wake. Eliot didn't even write novels, why did you leave out Joyce?

And . . . Henry James. (OMGs I would so throttle that guy. OMGs he did more to wreck storytelling . . . )

And just about anything ever chosen as a "short story" to appear in the New Yorker. Or to be told on NPR news as "storytelling." In both those flagship venues, the notion that anything should happen in a story is anathema. That's after all why "the genres" are still ghettoized.


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