What’s The Fuss About Episodic Fiction?

When you are a blogger, you (still) have to put up with an awful lot of old nonsense about how journalists are the prime movers and shakers in the book reviewing world, how they have authority and training that we hapless rank amateurs do not, etc, etc. And so when I come across a careless article like this one by Lee Siegel in the Wall Street Journal that attempts to pit episodic fiction against narrative fiction, I get a tad annoyed. As some of you know, I’ve been intrigued for a while by my sense that American literature is more episodic than British literature, and have been wondering what the wider implications of this might be. Perhaps it’s the approach of term, but my fingers itched for a red pen when I was reading Siegel’s account of the differences, which was an opinion piece designed to provoke an argument. Fine, I was in the mood to give him one. I’m also culturally confused: is the Wall Street Journal supposed to be a quality newspaper or would you not expect much from its arts coverage?

Briefly, Siegel is working on the premise that Huckleberry Finn is the granddaddy work of American fiction, a point at which all things narrative came together in a marvelous way and spawned a series of novels America could be proud of, as opposed to literature post 9/11 which has turned namby-pamby and mutated into a series of bedtime stories for adults full of reassuring character development. Anyhow, I thought I would pick out the main points of his argument and engage in a little critique.

1. In Which I Get Out My Scalpel

Are you a Narrative or an Episodic personality? In other words, do you believe that your life tells a meaningful story? Or do you think that you live, like Huck Finn and every other picaresque hero, from isolated minute to isolated minute—episode to episode—and that far from adding up to a coherent tale, your life is “a tale told by an idiot… signifying nothing”?

If someone should think they were a real wit by approaching you at a party and saying, ‘Do you believe your life tells a meaningful story, or do you just live from minute to minute?’ you could simply throw your drink in his face, or you could answer: both and neither. Experientially we live in a seamless present, but that doesn’t prevent us from continually making and re-making its meaning. And whilst it’s extremely hard to exclude meaning from life, it’s equally difficult to compartmentalise experience neatly into episodes, or figure out life’s grand overarching trajectory. As a way of distinguishing episodic narrative from other kinds, however, this opposition of significance vs. absence of meaning simply won’t wash. Many episodic narratives fondly think they are telling meaningful stories, and many other forms of narrative structure delight in pulling the rug from under the feet of their protagonists as they struggle to make sense of experience. So it’s just not that simple.

Picaresque novels define our national literature: Henry Miller’s “Tropic of Cancer,” William Faulkner’s “The Reivers,” Saul Bellow’s “The Adventures of Augie March,” Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man,” John Barth’s “The Sotweed Factor,” Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road,” J.D. Salinger’s “Catcher in the Rye,” Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five

Hang on a minute, does he mean ‘picaresque’ or ‘episodic’? Whilst the picaresque is certainly an excellent example of episodic narrative, it isn’t its only manifestation. The picaresque is something very particular. Here’s the definition:

Picaresque : Of or relating to a genre of usually satiric prose fiction originating in Spain and depicting in realistic, often humorous detail the adventures of a roguish hero of low social degree living by his or her wits in a corrupt society.

So the classic novel of this genre is Cervantes’ Don Quixote, undeniably episodic but certainly not ‘signifying nothing’. Voltaire’s Candide is another example, a story that loosed a whole series of stinging little arrows at targets near the heart of state, church and contemporary philosophy. If novelists working in this genre claimed that their writing was just a bit of a laugh, it was because they had such subversive things to say they feared the torturer or hit man turning up in the night. Probably not the case in America, but the desire to be satirical and to attack social mores would still have to stand. I haven’t read enough of these novels to know whether they really are picaresque or not. You might let me know.

Our most popular critically acclaimed novels are pure narratives. Their straightforward storytelling style connects events together in one continuous thruline whose fundamental purpose is to reveal the Big Fated Meaning of life. [The examples he cites include: Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, Joseph O’Neill’s Neverland, Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge]

Their purpose is ‘to reveal the Big Fated Meaning of life’? Has anyone else read these novels and considered them to be the answer to life the universe and everything? And since when has ‘straightforward storytelling’ been primarily and solely concerned with solving the riddle of existence? Most stories have far less pretentious claims. Let’s just say that if novels really had cracked the meaning of existence, then maybe things would look a little different here on planet earth.

As for these modern stories failing to reach the heights of good episodic narrative, I realized by the time I reached Olive Kitteridge and Gilead that he must be having a laugh. Olive Kitteridge is as straightforwardly episodic a narrative as I’ve ever read. It’s even written as a series of isolated short stories that have as their sole link the appearance (just about in some cases) of Olive herself. Apparently, Siegel’s accusation here is that it contains character development, ergo the novel cannot be episodic. Oh that’s just too many kinds of wrong for me to face going into.

Episodics do seem to have a firmer grasp of reality’s fluid nature. Rather than experiencing life as a continuous thread of related experiences, Episodics consider their “self” to be in a state of continuous flux.

Forget star signs! Forget numerology! Clearly the way to get deep into personality structure is to figure out whether you are an episodic or not, and if you are, good news! You are morally superior to all other readers, having a firmer grasp of life’s realities and a weaker grasp on your own identity. You know, I’ve been having a great time with my son this summer holiday, watching Desperate Housewives on television every morning. Now there’s a bunch of women who know how to live life episodically, and I can’t tell you how often a chill has gone down my spine in recognition of their surer grasp of reality’s fluid nature. That’s a programme whose verisimilitude has left me gasping.

Well, evidently this is pure nonsense. Just because a plot structure is episodic, it doesn’t mean that the story will be more realistic. Rabelais’s Gargantua, anyone? About a fifty foot giant? Episodic simply means ‘separated into a series of episodes’, and it refers to comedy shows as much as to experimental novels.

2. In Which I Stitch It All Back Together Again

So, it strikes me that the problem at the heart of this article is that the terms of the argument are very unclear. There’s episodic narrative, which may or may not be confined to the picaresque in Siegel’s understanding, and there’s a nebulous mass of other stuff, lumped under the heading ‘pure narrative’ but left unexplained and vague. I think it actually means all the other novels that he doesn’t really like.

It might help, then, to be clear on just what we mean by ‘plot’. Plot in a story is when a problem is posed: something is posited as lost, missing, enigmatic or uncertain and narrative works to restore order and bring closure. Over the course of this process, meaning usually emerges. So the classic plot-driven narrative is crime fiction, which begins with a rent in the heart of a stable community, a murder or a crime that places its members at risk because the community no longer knows or understands itself. Narrative then has a rescuing function; it isolates evil in one individual, excludes him or her and restores harmony. One way of looking at it, is to consider that stories begin by breaking or destroying something, and then they work to put the pieces back together again in better ways. (And if those pieces don’t get fixed, what’s often at stake is a critique of society and a suggestion for what needs to change if harmony is ever going to be attainable). This is narrative in its healing function, rehearsing options, choices, patterns, that might make life more amenable to the reader once he or she has put the book down and is forced to deal with breakages in real life. It reassures us that all will be well, eventually. And frankly, Huckleberry Finn is a classic example of a story that wants to insist that all will be well, no matter what occurs. Episodic narratives are not necessarily in opposition to the spirit of plot; they might just embrace a series of problems that the story poses and then solves, repeatedly destroying harmony and then reinstating it in ever more creative ways.

But there’s another kind of episodic narrative that isn’t like the satirical picaresque, or the series-of-adventure stories at all, and which seems to get overlooked. And that’s the kind where it’s difficult to figure out what the main problem is that the story wants to tackle, or indeed, whether there is a central problem at all. Dawn Powell’s Dance Night was written in this mode; a narrative that seeks to evoke a place, an era, an atmosphere, and to explore it in all its nuances and paradoxes. A few things happened in the novel, but they weren’t enough to provoke harmony or closure, and in any case, that wasn’t what the novel was interested in doing. It was about conjuring up out of words an experience that felt vivid and authentic. It was a celebration of narrative voice, the eerie capacity of the human imagination, harnessed to the power of language, to create a world just like the one we live in, but condensed, crystallized, sharper, clearer, fiercer, its internal contradictions, its pleasures and its pains brought deftly out into the light. The situation is the story.

Now there is no moral high ground to be won here: it’s not possible to say that the episodic narrative, either in its picaresque or exploratory mode is quantifiably better than a story that takes one central problem as its organizing force. That would be to turn narrative structure into some kind of battle that required resolution – which would sound an awful lot like the basis for an adventure novel in itself, with the critic as Indiana Jones (ha!). And many novels aren’t easily classifiable in terms of structure in any case. No, but to write a really good novel, either by creating a voice so flexible, so compelling, so hypnotic that we can’t drag ourselves away from it, or to create a plot so neat, so intricate, so plausible, that we follow it with the fascination of an unfolding magician’s trick, well, that’s a beautiful achievement and one that should be applauded and held far away from the clumsy hands of newspaper journalists who want to pick a fight.

So what did I get out of all of this? Remember I came into it interested in American fiction and its episodic tendencies, and it does seem feasible to argue that there is indeed a distinct preference for the episodic. My question then is what this might imply for national literary tastes. What do readers like to see in their tales that can be readily found in the episodic? Or to look at concrete examples, what do we notice if we put Huckleberry Finn and Dance Night side by side for comparison? Well, we find in both cases a resistance to the notion of change. No matter what the protagonists of these novels do, no act has profound, far-reaching, quantifiable consequences. Instead there is an excessive insistence on continuity, on the same old same old, on everything reverting back to the norm. What if these novels had been written by a plot driven author like Thomas Hardy? Just imagine it; Morry and Jen in Dance Night would have undoubtedly had an illegitimate child, Jen would have been cast out of the community, she would have died in horrible suffering, the child would have returned years later to avenge its mother, etc, etc. And Huck Finn would have ended up on the gallows before thirty pages had passed. The difference between plot driven and episodic narratives lies in the embrace or rejection of the phrase ‘and nothing could ever be the same again….’ The more I think about this, the more curious it becomes. Could it be that the really intriguing questions about episodic narratives and American fiction are bound up in the relationship between story-telling and the possibility of envisaging deep and meaningful consequences? And if there really has been a tangible shift in narrative recently in the aftermath of 9/11, could it be that the issue of consequences, of cause and effect, has become more confusing, more pertinent and more urgent to American writers?

32 thoughts on “What’s The Fuss About Episodic Fiction?

  1. This is a beautiful post of breathtaking clarity–a pleasure to read. I have not thought a great deal about episodic fiction in contrast to other kinds of fiction, except to note that fiction for young children tends to be very episodic but then shifts decisively to highly plot-driven in the middle grades and beyond. Perhaps related to ideas about stages of psychological development? I don’t know what if anything that signifies in relation to the diversity of forms of adult literature. Anyway, you’ve got me thinking! And laughing at the idea of “Huckleberry Finn” or “Dance Night” as penned by Thomas Hardy!

  2. What a fascinating post! The Wall Street Journal isn’t exactly known for its cutting edge art commentary and is also a very conservative paper. I think you did a fine job of metaphorically throwing your drink in Siegel’s face 🙂 I can’t say that I have noticed the tendency to episodic fiction in America. I’m not sure it can be connected to the possibility of envisaging deep and meaningful consequences though because there is another tradtion of American lit that aims for controversy in order to affect change. But I don’t know if these tend to be episodic or narrative in structure and maybe since it is not the dominant tradition it is an exception? You certainly have got me thinking!

  3. Wow! Litlove, I’d give just about anything to be able to attend one of your classes. I’ve had to read through this post twice to catch all of it (due only to my limitations, not to your narrative); but, you are an awesome teacher. I guess I’m a “Narra-sodic” personality, which sounds quirky enough to fit.

  4. What a fascinating and thought provoking post. I so enjoyed reading it and the lucidity with which you poked a zillion holes in the Wall Street Journal article.

    I’m not sure though that episodic means same-old and that plot driven is the opposite of episodic.

    As you said earlier in your post, meaning and episodic aren’t opposites. And I think that meaning itself changes same-old to something new.

    Episodic, as you say, is a style that has lots of little bits instead of a long extended narrative. Each bit may be about setting or character or plot. An extended narrative is a united whole, but does it have to be united by a plot problem or can it be united in other ways?

    My first two novels were more episodic in nature but both had an arc of character development and meaning. Not same-old. My current novel is the first I’ve written that is an extended whole, more like the crime novel you describe (and a wonderful description that was).

    Your post gave me much food for thought on that. Maybe that’s why it’s taken me longer than expected, revisioned, rewritten, umpteen times. I’ve had to learn how to write this type of novel, as opposed to the more episodic ones. Hmm…

  5. I tend to think of books as being like theater–I happily watch the play but don’t always know or pay attention to what happens behind the scenes (maybe not the best example, but I don’t always consider the inner workings or technical aspect of something I’m reading–but doing so is really very interesting). I’m happy to read either type of novel as long as it’s well done, but this has me thinking of a couple of books I’m reading or have just finished–both by Americans–William Maxwell’s The Folded Leaf, which is somewhat episodic–the story was told in short chapters that were related and brought the story forward, but the ending was a little like Dawn Powell’s in that you had to imagine what happened to the protagonists–nothing was necessarily ever solved. And I’m also reading Scott Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise which has an unusual structure with songs and poems interspersed and seems much more episodic than a straightforward narrative. I see I’m going to have to read some post-9/11 lit now to compare! As always lots to think about.

  6. Kate – thank you so much! I had never considered the issue in relation to children’s literature but what you say seems perfectly correct. I really must read Bruno Bettelheim’s The Uses of Enchantment, which may have something to say about psychological development. And I’ve got Jacqueline Rose on Peter Pan somewhere, which might also shed some light. Thank you – you’ve given me lots to think about, too!

    Jenny – It’s just something I’ve noticed since I started reading American literature – which coincided with the start of blogging. It could just be coincidence, and the books I’ve read have tended towards the episodic – John Irvine, Kaye Gibbons, Carson McCullers and Richard Russo spring to mind. But then I also read Anne Tyler and Alison Lurie, and they have more plot-based narratives. It’s just something I’m finding intriguing.

    Stefanie – lol! When we finally get to meet in person, you will see that I could never tip a drink over anyone, no matter how annoying, so I have to do it this way! 😉 Thank you for explaining the WSJ to me – I have it in my mind now. And I’m very interested in the genre that uses controversy to provoke change – which authors would fit into that category? Is this the sort of thing that Michael Moore would do? I’m most curious to learn more.

    Grad – and I would love to have you there. I do miss teaching literature. There was nothing more fun than having a student turn up, all confused by the reading, and helping them get their thoughts in order. I love the idea of a narra-sodic personality. That’s wonderful, and I’m certainly one, too. 🙂

    Lilian – I absolutely agree that plot-driven is not in opposition to episodic narrative – those episodes are often all examples of self-contained mini-plots. And I do agree too that meaning transforms, although often by illuminating events in retrospect rather than motivating further events (although not necessarily, not as a matter of course – there are so many possibilities). When I first started noticing the difference between episodic and plot-driven narratives, I described it as an opposition between stories in which character development predominated and stories in which events and their consequences dominated. Of course, none of these oppositions works reliably for the entire field of literature, books so often resisting easy classification and seeking to break the rules, (for which we love them).

    As for the same old, well, that again is certainly not a necessary and inevitable consequence of the episodic, but it might be a tendency, as a tendency towards coincidence might, for instance, be more prevalent in the plot-driven. And in any case it wouldn’t necessarily be pejorative, more the relief or reassurance of being returned to safe ground. That’s a very interesting question about what unites an extended narrative, though, and one I’ll probably need to think about. Thank you for having so many intriguing points to make!

    Danielle – I couldn’t agree with you more – I’m happy to read either type so long as it’s well done. We’re both narra-sodics (Grad coined the term and I like it!). But I did get into picking narratives apart and finding it fascinating. It’s not something I do all the time, and fortunately for me it usually only enhances my enjoyment of a book (I’m pretty sure I’d have given it up smart-ish if it had had the opposite effect!). Those are really interesting examples of the episodic. Maxwell’s The Chateau is split into two parts, the first which takes up four fifths of the novel is the episodic story, and the second is like an extended coda in which he presents the readers with the ‘answers’ to what happened, and the meaning, and ties up the plot, as if it just wouldn’t fit in any other way. That’s a really interesting variation on the theme. I have read very little post 9/11 American lit, and I should do something about that too!

  7. The Corrections not episodic? Did I miss something? Not quite sure I agree with this American-British divide, but I’m going to be more attuned to it as I read in the future to see what I think. Since I am in the midst of reading Hardy, I can’t help but be particularly pleased with your brilliant assessment as to what those books would have been like in his hands.

  8. Oh, I will have to think about this one. You were right to throw your metaphorical drink into Siegel’s face (and Stefanie is absolutely correct about The Wall Street Journal and its arts coverage). But I need to be able so say why without ranting. You do so beautifully. Thank you (and keep that scalpel sharp!).

  9. I haven’t noticed this divide between American and British fiction at all. But I’m glad you took on this argument! The Wall Street Journal is a conservative paper, but it used to have surprisingly decent coverage of non-business stuff, especially their profiles of people in the news, but maybe since Rupert Murdoch got ahold of it, it’s gone downhill. Can’t say it’s something I’d pick up unless stuck in an airport with nothing else to read 🙂

  10. That’s interesting about children’s fiction. I spent a couple of months volunteering in my younger dtr’s grade 2 class last spring. The class as a whole made up a story together (during the hour and a half I was there once a week). And I typed it into a portable keyboard (to be printed up later for them). My role was as a facilitator, providing some info about different kinds of stories, and making sure that everyone got a chance to contribute. What I found really interesting was that at first the stories were entirely episodic and disconnected, but as the weeks went along, the kids became able to connect from one sentence to the next in a much more coherent narrative, with some guidance in terms of thinking about what had just come before. They were very excited about this. Remember these were very short–just a couple of pages. I’d planned just to do it once, but they kept asking to do it every week until school ended.

    I noticed that some kids have a much more developed narrative sense earlier, while other kids read stories episodically, whether they’re written that way or not, until they get closer to middle school age. I think for those kids, the emphasis on reading longer narratives by grade 4 is too early. I notice among my older dtr’s class that kids benefitted hugely from reading shorter chapter books for a longer time to develop their understanding of narrative.

  11. I like that distinction between episodic and plot-driven and all the implications that go with that. Narra-sodic works for me. Thanks for this.

  12. Litlove, would you mind if I took this up and did a post about what is coming out here on children’s stories? I did my M Litt on this and then had to go on and re-write the accepted wisdom for my PhD because of what I found. That would make a very dry post, but I do have a sad little story to tell that came out of it.

  13. Emily – I know! Surely The Corrections… well, anyway. Having been annoyed with Siegel for so much black and white thinking, I can hardly indulge in it myself, so it’s only a tendency I’m noting here (Barbara Pym is very much an episodic UK literary writer, for instance), and definitely one that’s confined to more literary fiction. And it could just be coincidence. I would love to hear from American bloggers titles of plot driven works of literary fiction so I could even up the score a bit! I’m glad you liked the Hardy – that bit made me laugh when I was typing it. 😉

    ds – you are a sweetie. I think it may just be a very polite rant! If you do come up with plot-driven literary fiction from the states, I’d be very interested indeed to know about it.

    Gentle Reader – well thank you for that useful explanation! I have a clear image in my mind of the journal now! I might have known that Murdoch had a hand in it somewhere. As for the divide – or rather the different tendencies, it could just be coincidence that what I’ve read has leaned in that direction. I was thinking of Richard Russo, John Irvine, Kaye Gibbons, Elizabeth Hardwick, Elizabeth Strout, Henry Miller, and Garrison Keiller. But then I have read Alison Lurie and Anne Tyler and Marianne Wiggins who fit in the other category. On the British side I can think of Barbara Pym who’s really episodic, but beyond that, my memory fails me. This could be me! I’m on the hunt for episodic British fiction and plot-driven American literary fiction now, to see whether this is a reasonable assumption to make or not.

    Lilian – now how fascinating is that? I’m trying to think back to my son’s early reading. He just loved the plot-driven stories, and found the episodic ones taxing. He used to say ‘When is the thing the book is about going to begin?’ I knew what he meant. The only episodic writer he loved was Frank Cottrell Boyce, and indeed his book Framed is just a pure and unmitigated delight. I never got to hear much about what he was writing in school, and only wish there’d been someone like you who could have come in to help his class!

    Pete – welcome to the happy band of narrasodics!

    Ann – I’d be delighted if you did. I’ve been so interested by the comments so far on children’s fiction, which is not my area of expertise at all, and I would love to hear what you have to say about it. I’m sorry in advance that the tale is a sad one!

  14. So you made me have to do a little research, but authors and/or works that generally fall under what is considered protest literature include Harriet Beecher Stowe, John Steinbeck, Jack London, Upton Sinclair, John Dos Passos, Ralph Ellison, Alice Walker and Barbara Kingsolver. Mark Twain is sometimes included too. Oh, and the Beats. I think protest literature in the U.S. has, over the past decade or so, come to be looked down on, as though writers should not concern themselves with politics, and so it has been forced to the margins of genre or made to become more satirical (or turned into a nonfiction expose) for fear of being labeled. There is also a strong tradition of protest poetry and I think that continues unabated, but who reads poetry anymore? Too few, so it isn’t seen as threatening.

  15. Gee, I just read the books I don’t analyze them to death. The article and its arguments would have been a lot more meaningful for me if I had actually read more of the books listed. Maybe I need to read more. Maybe I need a library that has more books in it.

    Something I have noticed about my local library and also my local bookstores is that the authors that I find mentioned in blogs that originate in countries other than this one (US) are noticeable by their absence. It’s extremely frustrating. I can BUY the books on Amazon, but I don’t have the funds necessary to buy everything I read and I certainly don’t have room. so I find myself reading critiques and thinking “What book? Who is this author?” and then feeling terribly ignorant. I have pretty much given up on trying to get things on interlibrary loan, as our library is so self-absorbed and navel gazing they do not have ILL agreements with any libraries outside their immediate counties. Very frustrating.

    Guess that is why I come over here to read your posts, so I can become educated. Or at least more educated. And so I can long for “other books” to read.

  16. Litlove, another very good post. Please, make it an article and send it somewhere as notable as the _WSJ_. Lee Siegel – who ought not to be confused with the novelist Lee Siegel (whose novels are more episodic than not) – has a bit of a bad reputation that can be discovered through a Google search. I won’t get into it here. Nothing worth jail time, just a bit of dodgy behaviour.

    _Tropic of Cancer_ does have most of the qualities of the picaresque; William Gaddis’ _The Recognitions_ is a narrative. Neither is episodic, as there are clear through lines in each. The lines don’t have to be plot; they can be theme, imagery, etc. Both would be considered experimental for their time, and now, and not traditional. It seems that Siegel is creating a binary absurdity similar to the one that Franzen invented with his Status/Contract divide (modernists and postmodernists are status – written by the elite, read by the elite – while someone like Dickens can be said to agree to provide the reader a payout of pleasure [thus the contract]).

    The other day I read an article by a novelist, Lev Grossman, and he says: “If there’s a key to what the 21st-century novel is going to look like, this is it: the ongoing exoneration and rehabilitation of plot.” [http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970203706604574377163804387216.html] He blames the Modernists for ‘breaking plot’ and focusing on other things because “[t]hey drew a tough hand, historically speaking. All the bad news of the modern era had just arrived more or less at the same time: mass media, advertising, psychoanalysis, mechanized warfare. The rise of electric light and internal combustion had turned their world into a noisy, reeking travesty of the gas-lit, horse-drawn world they grew up in. The orderly, complacent, optimistic Victorian novel had nothing to say to them. Worse than nothing: it felt like a lie. The novel was a mirror the Modernists needed to break, the better to reflect their broken world. So they did.”

    And what about writers now? “But we don’t live in the Modernists’ world anymore. We have different problems. We’ve had plenty of bad news of our own. Some of which has to do with the book business itself—sales of adult trade books declined 2.3% last year, compared with 2007. Should we still be writing difficult novels? Isn’t it time we made our peace with plot?” Now, don’t you just love that skipping over the bad news? In the u.s., the recent times include economic collapse (with the current one being the most severe), two wars in persia, and one global religious guerilla war on terror, the diminishment of civil rights and liberties, the dumbing down of education (such as the not teaching evolution without teaching intelligent design), Hurricane Katrina, 9/11, and so on. And yet Grossman can move from the current “bad news” – which he implicitly equates with what the Modernists went through – to… the state of publishing, i.e., his own field. His own field. This is the argument of a spoilt child crying in the middle of the room for attention.

    Grossman sees good things coming from the actions of not even a handful of plot-ters: “The novel is getting entertaining again. Writers like Michael Chabon, Jonathan Lethem, Donna Tartt, Kelly Link, Audrey Niffenegger, Richard Price, Kate Atkinson, Neil Gaiman, and Susanna Clarke, to name just a few, are busily grafting the sophisticated, intensely aware literary language of Modernism onto the sturdy narrative roots of genre fiction: fantasy, science fiction, detective fiction, romance.”

    So we have the Modernists and all those who eschewed plot, and then we have those who are hybridizing at their desks, snips of Modernism merging with snips of the traditional good book. It’s as if those who don’t use plot are simply stupid for not giving up their interest in form, sentences, how words sound, memorable phrases (can anyone quote anything from Chabon, say, that will last 20 years?). Coming up with plots is what novelists are obliged to do, now: “This is the future of fiction. The novel is finally waking up from its 100-year carbonite nap. Old hierarchies of taste are collapsing. Genres are hybridizing. The balance of power is swinging from the writer back to the reader, and compromises with the public taste are being struck all over the place. Lyricism is on the wane, and suspense and humor and pacing are shedding their stigmas and taking their place as the core literary technologies of the 21st century.” I can’t even get into the phrase “literary technologies” without laughing at the yoking of these two fields.

    It’s as if Grossman has ignored what has been written in the u.s. for so many years. Hierarchies have been rising and falling intermittently, such as traditional novels being replaced by the Beats, by Pynchon-Gaddis-Barth, then that white male dominance (as the myth, which contains some truth, goes and which Grossman must have heard about somewhere) was overthrown by women’s literature, then by writers of colour, and writers of ethnicity, and the rise of memoir and self-help books capturing more of the declining reading market. (Is there any review publication in the u.s., or anywhere, which specializes in discussing non-plot books, that has mass appeal and a sizable readership?) There are so many books filled with plot, and always have been, but the existence of those that turn on something else brings out a violent reaction in him, as with Siegel. When the latter says that the u.s.’s most acclaimed narratives are so because “[t]heir straightforward storytelling style connects events together in one continuous thruline whose fundamental purpose is to reveal the Big Fated Meaning of life,” then you have to think that he wants the equivalent of intelligent design in literature. That is, a good plot with some frills.

    Grossman’s article in _The Wall Street Journal_ is another very fresh example (29 August) of the us-versus-them mentality found in some people (found on the experimental or exploratory side too). So _WSJ_ is using him and Siegel to launch an attack on the freedom to write what one wants. There is a declining number of people who read fiction, and there are those who are embracing Kindle, and yet there is the belief that the “balance of power” is swinging to this declining readership base. If it’s all about power, then that’s another part of the combative rhetoric found in the writings of Siegel (with his wonky word painting of the current literary scene) and Grossman, and is not so very different from the us-versus-them rhetoric of Bush II. Soon there’ll be axis of evil authors.

    Something has scared them, or they feel this is their moment. Something’s going on that we don’t have the picture of yet.

    Apologies for going on and on. I’m riled.

  17. Stefanie – you are a star! you are a marvel! and you are clearly a magnificent librarian! Thank you so much for that most interesting information. I’m really intrigued by what you say about political concern being pushed to the margin of literature. It seems to me (from standing outside and having this point already in my mind) that this might be another way to discourage the contemplation of profound change through the arts, as if it wasn’t something writers should concern themselves with. I will readily admit it’s a tricky area for writers as polemic and propaganda are always lurking when an author gets political, but their reflections on culture, and their implicit critiques are essential if any society is to keep a grip on itself and its inherent excesses. This could be a global feature of literature, however, when entertainment sells in a way that hard appraisals and disquieting novels do not. But I still think that if a book is good and clever it will win its audience, regardless of commercial rules. Anyway,much for me to think about and explore there, so thank you.

    Ms Healingmagichands – you do know I’m a literary academic, don’t you, and that it’s the day job to analyse things to death? 😉 I promise you I only do it cos it’s fun, and don’t expect others to follow suit. Each to their own with books. It’s also funny how all nations have blinkers when it comes to literature. The UK is very open to American books, but we hardly see any Australians over here (except Peter Carey), and there are plenty of European books that sell well, but we rarely read the French in translation. Are you near a library that’s open to suggestions for new acquisitions? Sometimes that can help you get hold of the books you want. Or mooching is another option. But I sympathise – it’s frustrating not to be able to get hold of what you want, and there is a big world out there full of wonderful stories. But you may still be able to get hold of some of the big names – Forster, D. H. Lawrence, Katherine Mansfield, Eliot, Hardy, Trollope, A. S. Byatt, William Trevor, Julian Barnes, Kazuo Ishiguro, and I’m not sure I’ve read all of those! 🙂

    JB – in all honesty, I think your comment would be far more suited to an article than my post! Thank you for leaving such a heartfelt defence of literary freedom. What your comments brought to mind was an essay by Krishnamurti about the river of life, and the fact that there is a marked human tendency to want to live in the stagnant pool alongside it. Critics can all too easily fall into the same difficulty with literature, I fear. There’s an urge to intervene in the dynamic process of creation and try to call a halt, or construct a dam; good books this way, this is how we should write now, this IS the way we write now. Of course, you’ve seen what happens to the dams children make in rivers; no matter how high they build them, the river still manages to maintain its course, and eventually the twigs and pebbles are swept away. No critic’s voice has ever managed to make an intervention in literature so powerful that it has actually had any marked effect, and that’s just as it should be. The dynamism is the truth, and anything else is just stagnant-pool-sitting. So no, no one can tell authors how to write, and authors need only be concerned with identifying their unique voices and working as hard as they can to perfect them. It IS all about power, I agree, but in truth, no one has it. Not authors, not readers, not publishers. It’s far more complex than that, although anyone in any of those categories is capable of succumbing to the delusion that they possess it, every so often. Events always prove them wrong. And for me, that’s another reason why the internet is important – it democratises the media, which is in sore need of it. I’d seen someone mention that Grossman article when I was reading about the one by Siegel (and about Siegel’s misdemeanors, too), although I didn’t follow the link at the time as their opinion of it was identical to yours. I don’t think you should have any sense that you are alone in feeling as you do – it seems to me that the failings of these articles are quite plain to see and the internet is working to provide a platform for dissenters to express their views.

  18. Very interesting! You explain the differences between plot-driven and episodic fiction very well, although I have to say my tendency is to take definitions or oppositions and want to break them down, and I think I’d have trouble classifying a lot of books as one or the other because there are elements of both in them. Perhaps we are talking about a continuum here instead of two poles? Anyway, I’m seeing that my preference is for episodic fiction. I like plot-driven novels, but the ones I really love I love because of their voices, not because of their stories. The Moonstone, for example — surely it’s plot-driven as it’s all about the central problem of what happened to the diamond, and yet the plot isn’t all that exciting, really, and what matters are the character’s voices. And how about Clarissa? It’s 1500 pages and surely it’s plot-driven, as it’s all about the problem of who Clarissa will marry and what Lovelace will do to her and that problem runs through the whole book, and yet if you read that book for the plot … well, you won’t get very far. That book is plot-driven, and yet it’s expansive enough to have an episodic feel to it, if that makes sense.

    Another reason I prefer episodic fiction is that while I do believe in change, I think it often happens slowly and haltingly, with lots of back and forth. Yes, people’s lives can be transformed instantaneously, but the most common form of change I see is of the slower sort, and episodic fiction seems to capture that best. The characters in Dance Night DO change, just in smaller ways.

  19. Dorothy – as I hope I made clear in this post, I’m not writing this to suggest in any way that one kind of fiction is ‘better’ than another – in fact that’s one of the big problems with Siegel’s analysis that I’m taking issue with. I also say that episodic narratives and plot-driven narratives are by no means mutually exclusive – as Huckleberry Finn shows. But that’s only one example and there are many variations on the theme. I think of plot and episode as tendencies, and most of all I think literature is wonderful in the way it always undermines any neat categories that we attempt to place around it – that’s just as it should be.

    However, I do think that the study of literature is enriched if you have both an awareness of possible underlying structures and an acknowledgement of the singularity and subversiveness of the text. Theory only makes sense when squared up against a poem or a narrative that repeatedly challenges and stretches it. And a text can be more graspable, more ready to give up its secrets, if the reader has some structural principles to measure it against. You sound kind of defensive in your comment, which is probably the fault of my post and the inevitable flippancy and lack of nuance its (relative!) shortness tends to produce. But really, I’m not suggesting that this is an answer to anything, just a perspective among many ways of approaching a text that may or may not be useful, depending on the story, depending on the reading. It’s Siegel’s black and white thinking that I didn’t appreciate myself. So I certainly wouldn’t wish to fall into the same sort to trap.

  20. Oh, I wasn’t feeling defensive in the least, and I apologize that my comment sounded that way. I was just exploring the ideas in your post a bit and expressing a personal preference for one kind of fiction. I understand that you don’t think one kind is better than the other, and I fully agree, even if I’m drawn to read one type of book more so than the other. I didn’t read Siegel’s argument, but I’m sure I would have been annoyed by the black and white thinking too. Thanks for giving us a useful set of terms to think about literature with!

  21. Dorothy – I’m truly relieved if the post didn’t annoy you! 🙂 But then I’m chagrined to have misread you! If I read your comment back again, I can see you are just following your line of thought – so I apologise to you, too. Sometimes, I really wish commenters could leave voice messages – I think that would prevent eighty percent of misinterpretations!

  22. Once again, late to the party…fabulous post, superb comments, causing so many tiny explosions of illumination to go off in my head that I fear for my wiring 😎
    When I sold books, customers who asked me for advice would hear two questions: “What kind of language do you like?” and “What kind of plot structure?”. Actually, I often just asked which books they’d loved, and what sort of mood they were in. Many people winced if I got too technical about it; don’t bludgeon me with the mechanics, just sell me the magic!
    I also told them that if they were uncertain about a book they’d picked up, then to read the first couple of pages, and provided them with a chair. It was amazing how many people looked up at me nervously afterwards, and said “I don’t…it’s not really…” and I would smile, hand them something else, and eventually kazam! Magic. Even at the filthy commercial end of the process, enchantment is possible; for every writer knows, there has to be the invisible snagging trick at the beginning, a kind of promise to their reader. What the writer does after that, the deep structure – well, I think you’ve done more to demonstrate how it works than I ever could. I’m working at a ‘pace’ level at the moment, slogging at steadiness, paragraph to paragraph, trying to learn the craft. This post just let me look up and see the mountains; intimidating but exhilarating. Thank you.
    PS HealingMagicHands, “analysing to death” is just what Litlove doesn’t do; she actually enlivens and refreshes how we all think, which is the hallmark of a born teacher and now blogger. Sorry if that sounds sharp, but I’ve dragged myself through too many mind-numbing literature analyses not to appreciate the contrast. (Now I have a nasty feeling that I’ve just made Litlove sound like Heineken: “refreshes the parts that other beers cannot reach…” but I hope she’ll forgive me?!) Here in the Reading Room, it’s not about jerry-rigged polemic (Lee Siegel, take note), intellectual preening, or alienating readers with arcane language that makes them feel dumb. Many books in this post, I haven’t read either. There are always too many books I haven’t read; I’ve given up waiting for the sensation that I’ve cracked it. ‘Clarissa’ has been a handy doorstop for some time now. Sorry, Dorothy.
    But HealingMagicHands, big sympathy over the library issue. That would drive me nuts. Have you tried bookswapping – just Google “bookswap” ’til you find a system that would work for you? (I don’t know if there are international systems, but the cost of postage would probably make it impractical.) Gardener that you are, I can’t help thinking it’s a perfect fit for you, all that recycling and cunning use of resources…

  23. ‘That would be to turn narrative structure into some kind of battle that required resolution’ – *exactly* the way it feels to me right now!! A fascinating, thought-provoking post and discussion, LL. I agree with Lilian that episodes don’t necessarily impede progress and change, but I have to say, this experience I am having – having written a draft soaked in the episodic mode – and its problems, highlights for me the power of narrative structure when it comes to harnessing these points of progression, giving the whole a cohesion that was otherwise entirely lacking, and which left most early readers disturbed and dissatisfied.

  24. Pingback: Tailfeather » Blog Archive » Olive Kitteridge and looking at someone aslant

  25. Pingback: A couple notes « Of Books and Bicycles

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