Back in the 1980s, when I was a lowly editorial assistant by day and trying to be a novelist by night, no god reigned so supreme as the god of literary prose. Lovely, image-laden sentences, paragraphs and pages of verbal music -- these were considered far more laudable than a good story. Back then, in fact, my fellow aspirants and I found something unmistakably smarmy, almost anti-art, about a novel that relied too heavily on plot. We were Writers, after all! Any dolt could weave a yarn, but only Writers could set prose aloft on gossamer wings. Back in those days, my most cherished ambition was to have one of my novels published by an established literary house with a print run of a couple of thousand and a respectable advance tipping four figures. Novelists who had achieved such heady heights were my idols; I met them at parties and summer artists' colonies, and was appropriately envious of them -- so serene in their literary credentials, so confident that those few thousand of their readers (myself included!) recognized their literary purity.
I never did publish those early novels. They received the usual ecstatic rejection letters and were put away where, perhaps, most first novels belong, in that box at the back of the closet. But I didn't stop writing, either. Instead, I did something that, even seven years later, still surprises me. I wrote a thriller. About a lawyer. Who investigates a seemingly random act of violence. And stumbles, gradually, upon a vast conspiracy. Which leads to revelations, twists and ultimately resolutions.
In other words, it had a plot.
Now, I worked hard on the writing in that novel, it's true, but the plot was the unchallenged star of the piece, and when the book, "A Jury of Her Peers," was published in 1996, reviewers did not dwell on my deathless prose.
You'd think that, somewhere along the line of this career readjustment, I would have stuck my head in the ground for shame and perhaps left it there, but a funny thing happened to me in the course of plotting my thriller.
I discovered that I liked it.
Like a classical music snob with a secret Barry Manilow stash, I liked it.
What's more, the experience of conjuring a plot that would both entertain and surprise made me recognize and retroactively applaud the plot-driven novels I had loved (but perhaps failed to truly value) as a reader. I remembered, for example, the sublimely plotted "Presumed Innocent," the only novel that has ever made me actually scream out loud in shock when its final secret was revealed (this occurred on the subway, which was ... problematic), and my secret longtime favorite, "The Odessa File," with its astonishing, troubling, final twist. I thought of Shirley Hazzard's "The Transit of Venus," whose entire plot is unlocked by two separate, easy to miss sentences (on pages 296 and 336 of the Penguin edition, if they passed you by), and found new respect for Dickens' frenetic, shuttling and altogether wonderfully messy story lines.
When you get right down to it, there's something uniquely satisfying in being gripped by a great plot, in begrudging whatever real-world obligations might prevent you from finding out what happens next. And it is especially satisfying to surrender to an author who is utterly in command of a thrilling and original story, an author capable of playing us like fish, of letting us get worried, then riled up, then complacent and then finally blowing us away when the final shocks are delivered. Because, in the end, isn't that what we're really after when we choose a work of fiction -- this temporary, benevolent loss of autonomy, this oddly satisfying sense of dislocation?
Working on my own plot, I was increasingly irritated with myself for not having given this element of fiction its due -- after all, it's a lot harder than it looks. My late cousin, the writer Helene Hanff, once described, in her 1961 memoir "Underfoot in Show Business," the task of conjuring an original plot each week for the early television series "The Adventures of Ellery Queen." "The budget ... was so small that the cast of each script was limited to five characters. Since two of them had to be Ellery and his father, it left you only three characters for the murder plot: the character who got murdered (known as the corpse) and two suspects, one innocent and one guilty." Making it both plausible and genuinely surprising? This is the essential challenge of a good plot.
If it were a simple task, there would be far fewer predictable thrillers, far fewer by-the-numbers coming-of-age novels and virtually no generic Hollywood buddy pictures. Moreover, if enthralling plots weren't so tough to come by, why would Jane Smiley revisit "King Lear" in her novel "A Thousand Acres" or Charles Frazier transmogrify "The Odyssey" in "Cold Mountain"? And there's no shame in retelling, as long as the story is made new in the process. A good story, a story resonant and remarkable, can be remade endlessly, to tell new sides of itself for new generations of readers.
Now I can't quite say that my own snobbishness about plot has entirely abandoned me. How could it, when I hear my own former views parroted so frequently by (probably) well-meaning acquaintances when they ask me whether my novel in progress will be "another mystery" or "a new detective story"? (For the record, first: I dislike mysteries, never read them and wouldn't dream of writing one, and second: My 1996 novel did not feature a single detective character.) That I have left the literary fold is the implication here. I have traded my early promising credentials (those ecstatic rejection letters! those summer artists' colonies!) for the cheap thrill of a snappy story line, a move somewhat akin to having forsaken Italian cinema for "Dumb and Dumber." And I won't be allowed back across the great plot divide, no matter how finely wrought the prose in my current novel, "The Sabbathday River" -- which its publisher calls "a literary thriller" -- is considered to be. Forevermore, my Amazon.com designation will be "Mystery/Thriller."
Well, I'll live with that, I suppose. There are worse fates, and to complain unduly would be to deny the fact that, as a reader, I have myself gotten old and cranky. The truth is that I simply have little time to spare for fiction that eschews the plebeian "story" in favor of prose sent jumping through hoops, and not much more to spare for the sensitive drama of a youth coming to terms with his/her alcoholic/schizophrenic/anti-intellectual/homophobic/abusive parent/town/suburb as he/she contemplates and finally departs for the wider world, no matter how beautifully written. When you get right down to it, I've learned more about human nature from Scott Smith's "A Simple Plan" and Peter Hoeg's "Smilla's Sense of Snow" than from a whole raft of evocative autobiographical first novels. Moreover, though I never stopped reading those novels praised for their prose, imagery and characterization, I have developed a tendency to hurl them across the room with increasing velocity. If nothing has actually happened after a hundred pages or so ... whomp! Some of those flung opuses, moreover, are by authors I had previously esteemed for their writing; but their writing alone, alas, is no longer enough to hold my esteem. Harold Brodkey? Beautiful writer. Whomp! Louise Erdrich? Beyond compare as a crafter of sentences. Whomp! After all, I think, life is short: TELL ME SOMETHING.
Writers of plot-transcendent literary fiction may trace their lineage back to James Joyce, but who was Joyce if not a raider of Homer? I say that glorious prose is a fine and laudable thing, but without an enthralling story, it's just so much verbal tapioca. Simply put, the best books have both, and the best writers disparage neither.