There Is No Plot

And a lot of what I like about Stephen King is not the plot but the way he sets up a scene and plays with the little details. I often read a book once through for plot, and I find myself racing through to find out what happens next, and then reading again to savor the fine texture. As I tossed these ideas around in my head, I decided to make a big, Barthesian (or would that be Barthesesque?) statement: There is no plot. There is no characterization. There is no setting. All of those neat, regimented little categories that we teach in an intro lit course are chimeras.Let’s take a materialist approach for a minute, shall we? A lot of the cognitive psychologists (I think Daniel Dennett falls into this category, but I haven’t read enough Pinker lately to know if he does) argue that there is no such thing as “mind” as a separate entity. The mind is just the function of the brain without any outer existence. There is no ghost in the machine (here I’m referring to Gilbert Ryle, not The Police, but, incidentally, is that a great album title or what?). Plot is what the story does. It is not a separate category. You can’t say, “Let’s cut the plot out.” Well, you can, but to what purpose? I am reminded of Joe Bob Briggs, the drive-in movie critic who used to write (and maybe still does) outrageously hilarious reviews of really bad B movies. He used to complain about some movies that there was too much plot getting in the way of the story, which I am sure he knew was a ridiculous thing to say. Let me go back to the mind thing for a second. If I am engaged in a task that is boring I will call it “mindless.” Of course I am using some part of my mind for everything I do (with the exceptions of blog writing and grading papers…), but there are some tasks that do not really ask enough of my brain’s funciton to be satisfying or interesting. The same thing is true of reading. If I were to read a Robert Ludlum novel (in junior high I was a big Ludlum fan), I would read it very quickly, devouring the pages “for plot.” The story would move swiftly from one explosive event or surprising revelation to another; things would happen. But after finishing it, I might feel as if I had just eaten a huge meal at McDonald’s: full of stomach but still rather empty. In a more thoughtful evaluation of Ludlum, I might think, “Hmmm. That Vasili Vasilovitch was not really that interesting. he seemed to show up just so the bad guys could kill him off in the penultimate chapter.” Now let me move to another book that is often called “plot driven,” but really is not–Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series (I consider the entire thing to be one long novel, but that’s an argument for another day). Master and Commander has events, and lots of them. But they are the things that happen to two very interesting and charismatic characters. I can and will read POB over and over again because the characters are people I want to spend time with.Just as the mindless task did not engage my faculties to their fullest extent, the Ludlum story did not engage my imagination completely. O’Brian does, on the other hand, because he creates a story that is more completely textured. Both stories have plot, both have characters, both have settings. One, though, does everything well, while another is uneven or trite.There is no such thing as a plot-driven novel. Or rather, there is only a plot-driven novel. The phone book does not have a plot, but even the most uneventful novel (think Proust, for example) does, in fact, have a plot. Things happen. Maybe they are not loud things like international espionage and big explosions, but things do happen, even if they are only memories of walking along a path bordered with white flowers.

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