Plot…is that all there is to fiction?

Laura Miller of Salon is the last of a long line of ‘I know best-ers’ to throw the tired old crumbly stones of  ‘writing commandments’ from the journalistic mountain top http://www.salon.com/books/laura_miller/2010/02/23/readers_advice_to_writers/index.html :

  1. Make your main character want something.
  2. Make your main character do something.
  3. The components of a novel that readers care about most are, in order: story, characters, theme, atmosphere/setting.
  4. Remember that nobody agrees on what a beautiful prose style is and most readers either can’t recognize “good writing” or don’t value it that much.
  5. A sense of humor couldn’t hurt.

Anyone who champions rules of commercial fiction risks sinking creativity to the lowest common denominator in the reader’s mind. It is so easy to force feed unknowing audiences junk culture, just as easy as it has been to promote junk food. And where has junk food got us? If Laura or anyone attacks quality or ‘difference’ be it in art, commercial fiction, food or politics, in the end, logically, it leads to totalitarianism. Commercial control of a cultural market, or political control of a society have similar roots.

We are not animals tethered to a plot line only – sophisticated readers want more than plot. If anyone reads War and Peace (a great read by the way, easy to read and enjoyable) it is a long time before any one character assumes ‘the what’s going to happen to me next driver’ aspect to his or her role, but it is there – but it is always there as part of ‘the life’ in the novel – what will happen today? It is part of all of us – but there is much more to enjoy in Tolstoy’s novel, as there is in reading Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, The Outsider, As I lay Dying, and A Hundred Years of Solitude – all examples of novels and narratives that are far more mysterious and compelling than commercial fiction that obeys these silly rules. Laura speaks of The Great Gatsby, what do we ever discover really of Gatsby? – very little, more than half Fitzgerald’s point. Nick, we get to know. He is the character we are engaged in, the thinking centre of the novel. Hamlet was introspective and procrastinating and one of the greatest characters of all time. Just because LCD is now the major dollar driven factor in contemporary culture doesn’t make it good or good to read.

The only comment I agree with is the last – laugh while you write and hope like hell the reader laughs with you!

“Naturally, writers of genius have broken these “rules” as well as every other rule ever conceived. But, let’s face it, geniuses don’t need lists like this and couldn’t follow them even if they tried. Most writers are not geniuses, and most readers would be exhausted by a literary diet that consisted only of the works of geniuses.”

Laura’s ‘a genius can do it but the rest can’t argument’ is in effect: shut down all experiment, close the door on dissent. Who knows what genius is? It was 200 years before the Romantics woke up and declared Shakespeare a genius. All we can hope for is that creativity in whatever form excites us, takes us somewhere we haven’t been, surprises us in some way. ‘Only a genius can break the so-called rules’ is another way of saying we need more gatekeeping. This ‘we know the rules’ is nonsense. And even if someone like Laura could for a moment make a good fist of why she subscribes to the genius theory, very few of the ‘genius writers’ she’ll choose will surprise even her all of the time. No book or writer is untouchable. Everybody can be criticized, even Shakespeare. Logically, if anyone follows these or any rules they will become slaves of a market mechanism. Rules for fiction or any other art form only end up filling the pockets of a few promoted sorts. Rules lead one way – to homogenization (though that doesn’t mean you can’t have a little fun with them while you’re doing other more interesting things …go-go genius go).


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2 responses to “Plot…is that all there is to fiction?

  1. ahh yes the perpetual face-off between popular fiction (plot-driven) and literary fiction (character driven)

    Donald Maas wrote its not so much the dynamics of plot but most novels these days lack narrative tension

  2. Tension can help and it can come from many things – come and go. I prefer cohesion, a narrative scenario, to a linear thread. Perhaps we use different language to describe the same thing, but, jargon aside, for many years I have heard it is either this or that, A or B. Why can’t we have A + B + C + Z? Better still Z + B + A + C…Anyway talking of breaking rules, striking out on your own way..go see Micmacs – Great film and such a breath of new spring air to see something truly creative arrive on this culturally disenfranchised island filled with cultural police. Hearing Saturday Review, Louise Doughty saying she didn’t like it – I almost ran to the Rio Cinema in anticipation. Micmacs is superb. And you know what – that ‘all important narrative drive’ that Laura Miller talks about, is simply there to hang a brilliant piece of film fantasy on – character desire is just something a writer/director uses for his/her creative purposes. Well, I never!

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