Reading for Plot. And Character. And Other Stuff.

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.

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8 Responses to Reading for Plot. And Character. And Other Stuff.

  1. KeiraSoleore says:

    I agree with you on many points here.

    I don’t think plot-driven necessarily equals easier reading

    Yes, for example, the Da Vinci code. Sigh! The underlying nonfiction books that I read were better written and more gripping.

    or that entertaining and difficult are necessarily opposed

    Yes, for example, Lymond. It is notoriously difficult and flagrantly entertaining.

    or that books with quieter plots must be boring.

    Yes, for example, the women’s fiction by Barbara O’Neal. I love them so much.

    Maybe the quieter ones need more fully-developed characters to suck us in and make us care

    There are even books that have quiet plots and bare minimum of characterization, but are so achingly written that I have fallen in love with them for the sheer beauty of it.

    the narrative elements he mentions (mystery, romance) were part of the novel all along

    Indeed. Scott’s Waverley has all the derring-do of modern-day genre fiction along with beautiful prose of modern LitFic.

    I freely admit I’ve fallen into the danger of labeling all LitFic as dreary, sad, horrifying, soul-destroying. Perhaps the ones most often, not always, recognized by awards lead to that conclusion. However, as a result of this assumption, I realized this year that I have been missing out on good, readable, enjoyable LitFic. So I started reading a bit more of it this year and have really ramped up my list for next year.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I wish there were an easier way to find general/literary fiction with optimistic endings. I mean, the open possibilities for the endings are part of what characterize it, I guess, but sometimes I would like the assurance that a book won’t leave me gutted but not the conventions of a genre. (Sometimes I turn to 19th-century novels for that–they are a fairly safe bet; there’s a reason my PhD is in Victorian Lit.). I have found plenty over the years, but mostly by chance. Maybe I should make a list and ask for recommendations!

      I’ve always read a lot of genre fiction–at different points in my life, mysteries, children’s/YA, and romance have dominated my reading–but I do miss more “literary” books in the mix if I abandon them to long.

      • willaful says:

        Oh my, yes. I enjoy reading fiction outside the romance genre, but I have been truly gut-punched by horrific endings that come out of nowhere in non-genre fiction. A way to find books that don’t necessarily have a genre happy ending but that don’t make you want to slit your wrists would be wonderful.

        Books that wind up on the “strong romantic elements” lists are generally okay, because they’ve been vetted by romance readers.

  2. Sunita says:

    I find Grossman’s status as a literary commentator puzzling, perhaps because I’ve yet to read an argument of his that didn’t have holes you could drive an 18-wheeler through. This one seems even worse than usual. Granted, it was written five years ago, but the shtick (and the errors) bear his usual signature. I am so, so tired of the litfic v. genre wars. Both sides sound like ignorant ideologues most of the time, with one side reliving their worst 9th-grade assigned-in-English memory and the other generalizing from one bad/unsatisfying genre book they read because it was all the airport had to sell them for a 10-hour plane flight.

    That Scott mystery was published by Simon & Schuster! If they can’t even copyedit properly, what on earth good are they? Your points on characterization are interesting; I find that the way characters are depicted in mysteries are a bit different than in romance, now that I’m back reading mysteries more steadily. In romance there is a huge emphasis on appearance, both physical and in terms of dress. We learn the most minute details about what a person looks like, what they wear, and the rooms they inhabit. Whereas in mysteries I don’t always get a full description even of the main characters, and if I do it’s frequently doled out of the course of the story. It’s actually a relief, especially because everyone isn’t beautiful and what they look like doesn’t really matter for the story. It feels a bit like switching from a US television show with its impossibly thin, botoxed characters, to a British one, where the characters look like real people.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Yes, I’m tired of that war too. I’m trying not to read pieces on it any more OR comment–but sometimes I slip. I think Grossman has an obvious dog in the hunt (I mean, he’s advocating the kind of “cross-over” thing he writes as the way of the future) and there’s a lot of straw man evidence in his arguments. So even when I agree with his basic point, he pisses me off.

      Yes. I know. An S&S imprint produced the worst-edited thing I’ve read this year. So discouraging. There’s a hint of romance in Scott’s book (it really does have EVERYTHING I like on paper) and one thing I like is that the attraction between the characters is described in intellectual/personality terms. It’s not that they aren’t physically attracted, as far as we know, but that isn’t really mentioned (beyond, say, liking how someone’s smile lights up her face) and it’s really about how they enjoy talking to each other and like each other as people. We have only the vaguest sense of what they look like. I found that refreshing, because as you say, so many romances today START with the physical part and describe it in such detail. And while that may often be the first thing real-life couples notice about each other, or an earlier one, if it continues to dominate the descriptions I find it harder to believe in the HEA.

  3. Janine Ballard says:

    “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.”

    I tend to be one who prefers one POV per scene, especially in genre fiction. It’s not that i can’t enjoy books with same scene shifts but rather that I think it takes great skill to execute them well, and some writers don’t have the craftsmanship to pull it off. The one POV per scene structure is more forgiving, i think.

    I found your post very interesting. i agree that literary novels have plots (of course they do!) and many have elements we associate with genre fiction — Toni Morrison’s Beloved, for example, is IMO a horror novel as well as a great literary work. The division of novel-length fiction into genres is a marketing strategy, not something inherent to novel-writing, and I wonder if we’re not, perhaps, poorer for it. I wonder what books we might be missing out on because writers now angle their novels to fit into genre categories.

    At the same time, it’s also important to separate out the classics works of fiction that predate the division of bookstore shelves into genre sections from the literary fiction that has come after that. I see literary fiction as but another genre. And just as it’s absolutely true that genre elements like romance, mystery, etc. didn’t originate with genre fiction, and can be found in some literary novels, it is also equally true that well-crafted prose and deep characterization didn’t originate with literary fiction, and can be found in some genre novels.

    I haven’t read this Grossman article and it surely doesn’t sound well thought out. I get frustrated with some of the judgmental pronouncements I hear about literary fiction from genre readers and writers sometimes, but I’m more forgiving of these than I am of the judgmental pronouncements I hear about genre fiction from readers who read literary fiction exclusively among novels. This is because I see the genre readers as reacting out of defensiveness, whereas I don’t think readers of literary fiction feel the same kind of defensiveness about their reading choices.

    Maybe the division of fiction into genres made these turf wars inevitable, the result of writers and readers on both sides wanting to claim as big an umbrella for the kinds of books they prefer to read, but it surely isn’t good for fiction as a whole. I think writers on both sides of the genre divide could learn more from one another if this conflict died down.

    With all that said, I think there can sometimes be a real tension between plot and character that comes up in the fiction writing process. What I mean by this is that the more eventful and fast-paced a plot is, the more challenging it is for a writer to concurrently develop his or her characters with a great deal of depth. And conversely, the more time (and wordcount) a writer takes to delve into a character’s motives, conflicts and contradictions, the harder it can be to keep an eventful plot moving at a fast clip. That’s not to say that both can’t be done well in one book, or that sentences can’t serve more than one function. Thank goodness they can.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I absolutely agree that there aren’t really elements that can be “claimed” by any one genre/publishing niche. I have read romances, mysteries, fantasy with writing better than most literary fiction (why pretend there isn’t plenty of bad lit fic?). And it irks me when they are described as “transcending” the genre rather than as really good exemplars of the genre. (It would be better to describe them as books that appeal to many readers who don’t usually read a specific genre).

      I wonder if in the current panicky publishing market writers are pushed to conform more to a rigid idea of genre/category conventions. I’ve had a lot of conversations with romance readers about how things like a narrow focus on the couple and the trend towards raw/high emotion means there are fewer books (or a smaller percentage) in the genre that appeal to them right now. And lit fic has taken heat for the dominance of the MFA novel; how many books have over-written “lyrical” prose because “beautiful writing” is supposed to be a hallmark of literary books?

      That is a great point about the tension that can exist between plot and character. I agree–some books I care about one more than the other. And sometimes we don’t need deep character development to be attached to a character: I was thinking about Sherlock Holmes when I wrote this. He and Watson are very lightly sketched characters, really, there to populate a puzzle plot, but think how they have fascinated readers for so long and how many fannish versions of filling in the gaps Conan Doyle left they have generated. So a good character doesn’t always have to be a deep/round one.

  4. Janine Ballard says:

    “it irks me when they are described as “transcending” the genre rather than as really good exemplars of the genre.”

    That’s a terrific point. There is something condescending about that, isn’t there? As if genre writing can’t be good. It’s the mirror image of those comments from genre readers that discuss literary novels as if they can’t be good.

    “I wonder if in the current panicky publishing market writers are pushed to conform more to a rigid idea of genre/category conventions.”

    That’s a great question. When I wrote my comment I was actually wondering whether the rise of self-publishing makes it easier or harder to publish a novel that pushes at genre constraints and have it find an audience. I suspect the answer may depend on the genre in question.

    Terrific point about Sherlock and Watson. They’ve never captured my imagination but I can think of other lightly sketched characters who have. It’s an interesting question to me, what are the qualities that make a character fascinating? i think cleverness is one (but far from the only one), and Sherlock certainly has it.

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