Lev Grossman’s frantic apologia of mass market fiction in today’s Wall Street Journal is a jumbled argument at best, a misguided set of sentiments at worst. The basic notion that fiction with plot lies antithetical to literary fiction is just wrong. He even implicitly acknowledges this when he recommends The Great Gatsby as an example of good plot, though he listed it as an example of the Modernism that originally "killed" plot in the first place.
Let me state, however, before I move too far, that I believe ALL books have a place somewhere – yes, even the bad ones, like the Twilight series. Who knows when a book like this will get someone excited about reading? However, pitting one type of book against another type is just bad for business – especially when the type of books being championed are the easy, silly ones. I love a great story, but what I love even more is when a great story is told in a smart, unique way. However, let’s have a brief chat about what plot IS anyway – and yes, Mr. Grossman, the modernists did help us to expand this definition - not kill it -much to our gratitude.
The elementary school definition of “plot” is action and it follows a bell curve. A plot is introduced, rises in suspense to a climax, and then recedes to a resolution. Most plot is easy to identify because it takes place as external action. The characters perform action, things happen, things are resolved, the book is over. What the modernists did for us – and the postmodernists expanded upon – is the notion of internal action, the idea that tremendous things can happen in the mind that effect the outside world - or at least the character's view of it. Julia Leigh is a master of such plotting. Nothing much “happens” in her recent novella Disquiet, yet the main character is completely transformed by the end of the book. The small moments – her return to her childhood home, memories of trauma from her abusive marriage, thoughts of suicide while she floats in the lake – transform her just as radically as any major, dramatic event. Leigh’s precision in Olivia’s character allows us see to how these insignificant happenings could change a person. And, actually, this is closer to what happens in real life.
So. We have a new, more nuanced definition of plot, one that allows for a more interesting view of fiction. The best authors are able to manipulate these nuances, add some great language, and create a wonderfully rich novel. Some, like the mass market folks, are not. However, a spade should be called a spade when we see it, and Stephanie Meyer is not a great novelist because her books have sold millions of copies. (Determining the quality of any art through the market is always a faulty business.) Stephanie Meyer could never be Leo Tolstoy – not that she’s trying – and no amount of multiple weeks on the bestseller list makes her such. Let’s not be confused and think that it does.
Lev Grossman argues that because these mass market books are selling so well, they must be quality – or what they represent, plot over non-plot, must be - but one does not always equal the other. He also argues that they’re good because they are not hard. Perhaps they are not hard, but what is hard, and who defines it? I actually find (many of) the mass market books HARD to read because they’re so inane and boring. There is nothing to hold on to, no interesting characters, no unique insights into the human condition. Some people really like these books, and I think that’s fine, but let’s not be obtuse and say that their popularity argues for their quality.
In close, I find all cant like that of Grossman’s to be disturbing and not a little bit depressing. If the Time book critic is not arguing for people to expand their view of literature past the Kroger book section, who is going to make the argument that there are great books out there besides the ones that make big hits with the teens? Who is going to recommend Bram Stoker’s Dracula or Wilkie Collin’s The Woman in White to the person who has “fallen in love” with the Twilight series? If our “plot-deficient” novels of today are hard, then when will Dickens, Thackery, Eliot, Austen, Shakespeare, and Fitzgerald become hard? Oh, right, they have already because people like Grossman believe that reading is only GOOD when absorbed through easily digestible action. The notion of reading to expand a person’s view of the world, themselves, and humanity, I suppose, is too “hard.”