This has been a really busy fall so far, and I haven’t had much time to read, let alone blog. So now I am going to make some tenuous connections between things I’ve been reading and thinking and call it a post.
Recently I picked up some mysteries from my favorite bricks-and-mortar bookstore. They have a small but nicely-curated mystery section and I usually like what I find there. A. D. Scott’s A Double Death on the Black Isle, the first book I tried from my stash, sounded like just my thing: the series is set in Scotland in the late 1950s, and features Joanne Ross, a newly single mother who has left her abusive husband and taken a job at the local newpaper–both frowned upon in her religious small town. (It’s actually the second in a series). Unfortunately, it didn’t live up to its promise, and if I hadn’t paid $15 for a trade paperback, I wouldn’t have bothered to finish it. Why didn’t it work for me?
For one thing, it needed better copy-editing. Discrete was confused with discreet every single time (this happened in the next book I picked up, too). And there were a few bewildering sentences like this: “Crouching down, she wet her hands with soft grassy glittered in the rising sunlight dew.” It’s a shame, because some of Scott’s writing is really good, like this passage where two imprisoned farm-workers think about what they’re missing:
The hay-making, too, that they had already missed. The smell of fresh-cut meadows, the itchy arms and legs, the aching backs from tossing, bending, tossing, working the pitchfork as an extended limb with hardly ever a spill, tossing the hay up above to the bogie and riding home at the end of the day, lying on the fragrant pile of work, tired, happy, the day never seeming like work.
I love the way the rhythm of the sentence evokes the rhythm of their labour, and also the respect for the skill in physical labour.
Scott has a gift for description, but more trouble with characterization. It took forever for the characters to come to life, and some never did. A big part of this was her mis-handling of point of view. I often feel pronouncements against “head-hopping” are too rigid, and don’t mind multiple points of view in a single scene. But the author has to make clear, smooth transitions between them, and here I felt jerked around and was often confused about whose point of view I was in. The constant shifts also meant characters were under-developed. We need to spend time in someone’s head to get them. A lot of the characters were intriguing in outline, but the outlines didn’t get filled in.
There were also problems with plotting: for instance, Scott depicts a young lawyer getting ready for the first day of a trial and then . . . there’s a second-hand report of it later. We never see what the lawyer does with the papers he’s shuffling. This happened too often. She’d write the build-up to a big scene but then it would fizzle or never be shown directly. Both the plot and character issues could have been solved, I think, by a good content editor. There was so much potential here, but most of it was unrealized. I finished the book still confused about the motives for the crimes.
Reading A Double Death made me realize how much character matters to me in an ostensibly plot-driven genre. Granted, this is a cozy, not a thriller, and so the development of a community of characters is as important as the mystery plot. But I don’t really want to read a thriller populated by characters who don’t come to life either. I think this is why I’m pickier about my romance-reading now, too. When I first started reading in the genre, I just wanted anything that provided me with the satisfactions of a courtship plot and a happy ending. I was reading for the plot. (Also, to be honest, I didn’t expect the books to be good). But then I realized that there was a pretty much endless supply of that plot out there, and I started looking for satisfaction beyond the plot, for books that offered me well-drawn characters, interesting style, and complex themes as well.
On Twitter the other day people were talking about this Lev Grossman article on the “rehabilitation” of plot as the future of the novel (it turns out to be from 2009, so I’m not sure why it came up again). Let’s just say I disagree with a lot of what Grossman is saying: I think his picture of the Victorian novel is nonsense (“optimistic,” maybe, but “orderly” and “complacent”? not all of them, by a long shot), and I’m not sure about his idea that Modernist novels lack plots, either. I don’t think plot-driven necessarily equals easier reading, or that entertaining and difficult are necessarily opposed, or that books with quieter plots must be boring.
I like a lot of the authors he describes as “busily grafting the sophisticated, intensely aware literary language of Modernism onto the sturdy narrative roots of genre fiction.” But I think he’s missing–or ignoring for the sake of argument–the fact that the narrative elements he mentions (mystery, romance) were part of the novel all along–they weren’t invented with or by modern publishing’s genre categories. If you look at the 19th century novel, even that ur-orderly realist tome, Middlemarch, has elements like a contested will, a cheated heir, and a maybe-murder. Writers we’d now regard as genre (e.g. Wilkie Collins) and those we’d now regard as literary (e.g. Eliot) use similar plot elements.
And the Modernist novels Grossman lists aren’t “unplotted,” in my view. Sure, Mrs. Dalloway is a stream-of-consciousness account of a woman getting ready to give a dinner party. But it also contains the suicide of a shell-shocked former soldier. And Mrs. Dalloway goes about her day pondering whether she married the right man, prompted by a visit from an old flame. OK, that’s not a whizz-bang car-chase type plot. But it isn’t “nothing happens,” either. I’m still recovering from my encounter with an old flame in May and wishing I had behaved differently (for the record, I never wondered if I married the right man–not that I got to that point with Old Flame). Am I lucky that this registers as an “event” in my life? Sure I am. But I don’t think that small–and perhaps maybe all in our heads–events are not plot. They are the events of many people’s lives. What does it mean if we declare them not worth narrating? Or intrinsically boring to onlookers? I’m not (mostly) bored by the small problems of my family, friends, and students.
Sometimes I want a whizz-bang plot, a dramatic romance, an epic fantasy, a page-turning thriller, an escape from ordinary life. Sometimes I want to be absorbed by another person’s everyday life, maybe find in it the value of my own. Any plot–i.e. series of events–can be engaging to readers in the right hands. Maybe the quieter ones need more fully-developed characters to suck us in and make us care. Some books may be successfully character-driven, some successfully plot-driven. But there’s no reason they can’t be both.
I’m not sure what my point is, really, except that I don’t think entertainment is the only valid purpose of reading, or that there’s only one kind of pleasure/entertainment to be found in books. I’m tired of the caricature of “literary” fiction as boring and plot-less, the idea that when something exciting happens in a literary book it must be “borrowed” from genre. I’m looking for books that offer me more than one kind of satisfaction. And I want to read a variety of books that engage different parts of my heart and brain: difficult books, easy books, fun books, serious books, plotty page-turners, deep character studies. Surely there’s space on the shelf for all of them.