Thursday, September 3, 2009

Return of the Plot

Sometimes I think I struggle with the idea of great literature more than the average literature major or gradate student. The cannon bothers me, but not for the usual matters of who was left out -- although many a great writer has been ignored based on their gender or race; no, what concerns me is why did Writer A become an American standard while Writer B is berated for his/her accomplishments. Writer A may break ground in an unexplored writing style, but Writer B appeals to readers; therefore, Writer B must be a lesser writer. I must confess that I prefer a good story and well-developed characters to an explorative new genre full of page-long Faulknerian sentences.

A few days ago, a friend from grad school brought the following Wall Street Journal article to my attention: While I don't agree with all Lev Grossman says about the state of literature, I am inclined to admit that something resonates with me about the "dirty little secret" that is a good story. As an English major in college, and especially in grad school, I've always felt like I should apologize for the books I enjoy. I love curling up with a good book, and more importantly, I relish a good discussion about books, stories, and literature as a whole; but I've never understood why for a book to be "great" it has to be incomprehensible or completely outside the realm of exciting story telling. Grossman seems to harbour the same sentiments that I do concerning the loss of plot. I understand why Modernism rejected the need to adhere to plot, but many still maintained a fine line between plot and story, which illuminate the stark realities of the modern world and abolishing story altogether. These are the ones I am drawn to: their names are Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Cather, just to name a few. They didn't write to entertain, but rather to reflect the world as broken and unfulfilled as they found it. For Modernists writing and by consequence, reading itself, is a social commentary. I like that. I just don't agree that stories no longer have a place in the contemporary literary world.

Grossman writes,

After all, the discipline of the conventional literary novel is a pretty harsh one. To read one is to enter into a kind of depressed economy, where pleasure must be bought with large quantities of work and patience. The Modernists felt little obligation to entertain their readers. That was just the price you paid for your Joycean epiphany. Conversely they have trained us, Pavlovianly, to associate a crisp, dynamic, exciting plot with supermarket fiction, and cheap thrills, and embarrassment. Plot was the coward's way out, for people who can't deal with the real world. If you're having too much fun, you're doing it wrong.

This was the hippocracy I've felt lately as I've read one popular young adult novel after another. I picked up Twilight by Stephanie Meyer while in Germany this past winter. It had its good moments, and its bad, but it was always plot driven. I had to keep reading to find out how it ended. In between Twilight books, because I was sharing them amongst family members who read at different speeds and lived in different countries, I began The Gemma Doyle Trilogy by Libba Bray. I picked these up because the title of the first book, A Great and Terrible Beauty, was stuck in my head. I'm not even sure where I first heard of it, but I had to read it to satisfy my curiosity. I'm sure I have my fellow English grad student colleagues ready to ex-communicate me if they ever read these blogs. Although there are a number of holes in the plots of both series, they are compelling, and something speaks to the reader in a way that is unlike any of the "real," artsy literature produced of late.

It makes me wonder if the way to intice students to read is to give them more access to books like these, which can lead in directions which point directly to the classics. If a student enjoys Twilight, introduce him/her to Dracula and other, older vampire literature. And Bray's Trilogy is ripe with literary allusions, poems, and quotes that should draw a young reader toward more established works with more developed plot. Yet part of me feels guilty, like I should reread Ulysses or pick up a translation of Derrida and deconstruct each book as I go. Part of me doesn't feel sophisticated enough when I read, but deep down, I will always love a good story. It's not a matter of lowering the standard of books, but rather about making them accessible to readers, not a dumbing down, but ridding literature of its pretentiousness and allowing books to once again be judged by the masses.

1 comment:

Rebekah said...

I agree with the "if you like (blank), then you might like (blank)" approach as a way to expand the horizons of young readers. I'm kind of the same way. I tend to look for new (or new to me, anyway) material that is similar to the books that I already love. Which means I wind up reading (or listening to on Librivox) a lot of Regency-era stuff, but I'm fine with that. So help me, I like a happy ending, and modern or contemporary literature seems to scoff at that. Yeah, life is hard but I don't need to read a novel to know that. When I read I prefer to see things turn out okay in the end. If that makes me an escapist, sue me!

I discovered recently that the Penguin Classics website has a radio section with interviews about literature- most of which was unfamiliar to me- and some video, as well, but I haven't gotten into any of that yet. I've enjoyed listening to discussions about literature there, particularly because I don't often have the chance to have those kinds of conversations myself these days.