05 September 2005

Mieville, Metaphor, and Mood; or, The Plot to Plot

Via the new and final third installment of an interview with China Mieville at Long Sunday, we learn that China is doing some political blogging (mostly about the hurricane) over at Lenin's Tomb. Here's a link to what is, as I write, the most recent post.

The third part of the interview at Long Sunday is worth attention, too. (Links to Part 1 and Part 2.) I've just begun reading China's new story collection, Looking for Jake, and reading the first few stories, which I hadn't encountered before, I began to think that what he uses the short story form for is the exploration of how mood and metaphor can work together, and that a basic plot is there only as a way to keep the reader reading when not more interested by other things. Thus, I was heartened to see him confirm this idea in the interview (because I'm generally paranoid that I'm reading things entirely wrong, and therefore Missing the Point ... which would be a good alternative title for this blog, now that I think about it):
...one of the things you have the opportunity to do in a short story is to indulge a mood, an idea, a sensibility, rather than worrying too much about plot. So that makes it feel more 'literary', because you have the surreal/strange/dreamlike, but without the necessity of shots-ringing-out and the cavalry riding in. Then the next thing you know, people are comparing you to Borges. Cool.
Borges seems to me to be the wrong comparison, but critics often have rather broad templates by which they create analogies, and it's certainly true that "surreal/strange/dreamlike" with less overt plot manipulations does cause a lot of readers to file something in the category "literary" rather than "popular", at least these days.

China then offers a quick equation for discussion, but it doesn't get much, and deserves a bit more: "Fantastic + plot = pulp. Fantastic - plot = literature". Here's where Borges becomes a propos, because much of his fiction is laden with plot, though seldom in an entirely linear way (there are some basically linear stories, though; for instance, "The Dead Man"). It's easy to forget how plot-heavy Borges's stories are, because the stories' tones, structures, and subjects often encourage us to see the plots as philosophical arguments rather than as clear routes to the basic pleasures of entertainment. They are plots that create intellectual entertainment more than the traditional sort of suspenseful, emotional entertainment. The same is true for very many stories that are highly regarded as works of literature: they have plots, and sometimes lots of plot, but the reader's attention is shifted toward other elements as well, or the enjoyment of the plot as an element in and of itself is obstructed through any number of techniques. China's equation is, I think, more about perception than about reality -- it's an illusion that comforts both the lovers and haters of this thing we're calling "plot" (but which may, in fact, be something entirely else).

The misunderstanding of plot and its use in what, for lack of a better term, I'll call self-consciously literary fiction, extends not only to people who think that such fiction is pretentious and dull (plotless), but also to many aspiring, and even published, writers of literary fiction. But it isn't the lack of plot that causes much good literary fiction to seem different from much good popular fiction -- it is the strength of other elements along with the plot. One of the most popular books for young writers with literary aspirations is John Gardner's The Art of Fiction, which contains such pronouncements as, "At least in conventional fiction, the moment we stop caring where the story will go next, the writer has failed, and we stop reading" and "any narrative more than a few pages long is doomed to failure if it does not set up and satisfy plot expectations" and "Though character is the emotional core of great fiction, and though action with no meaning beyond its own brute existence can have no lasting appeal, plot is -- or must sooner or later become -- the focus of every good writer's plan."

Certainly, Gardner was writing in response to the approaches of such writers as John Barth and William Gass, who downplayed the value and meaning of plot, but Gardner's ideas of fiction seem to have held strong in most of the venues fiction gets talked about, and in the majority of writing workshops. There are writers who seek to get rid of plot altogether, but few of them are in the mainstream of the literary world, and so trying to define "literature" by them would be like trying to define "science fiction" using only the writings of, say, R.A. Lafferty.

I might quibble with some of Gardner's formulations, but I think the key to the difference between what tends to get labeled as "literature" and what tends to get labeled as "pulp" lies in his phrase "action with no meaning beyond its own brute existence" -- "brute" is an unfortunate word there, and I might substitute something like "raw", but action-for-its-own-sake versus action-in-the-service-of-something-else gets at some of the trouble between the two sorts of writing. It's difficult to read Borges and think the events are there just to be events, the causal relationships created purely for their own sake; its difficult to read Robert E. Howard and think much else. I don't necessarily mean that as an insult -- someone who is reading Howard for all sorts of reasons other than plot is likely to be missing any of the pleasure such writing can offer. Indeed, one of the common complaints of fans against critics is that they read too much into actions. It seems absurd to put too many interpretive tools up against the shallow actions of plotting-for-its-own-sake, where the purpose is either so obvious as to defy contemplation, or it's a failure.

"Plot", like most terms for literary elements, is useful only up to a certain point, after which it falls apart in a cacophony of contradictions and muddled meanings, because there's only so much you can abstract and generalize. I'll try to use the word less, or else nothing I say here will make the least bit of sense.

The trap many aspiring literary writers fall into is in mistaking static situations for dramatic situations. Most people who are drawn to writing literary fiction have a particular love for language, metaphor, imagery, and small moments of psychological revelation. It's a rare writer who can create anything particularly satisfying from those elements alone, however. (I recently described a book I found unreadable by saying that somebody must have told the author he wrote beautiful sentences, and so he decided to run out and fill 450 pages with them.) If a writer wants a narrative to be compelling, if they want a reader to feel a certain need to continue to read it, then they should try to make change central to the story rather than try to make a story that is a portrait of a few moments, a setting and characters caught in amber, a collection of moods. What has been written could be sensitive, it could be lovely, it could even be evocative, but it's unlikely to be compelling, and unless a story is either very short or a work of genius, it's going to need to compel readers to keep reading it instead of reading something else.

On the other hand, the trap many aspiring writers of popular fiction fall into is mistaking lots of action for a story. Lots of action might be compelling in video games, where the audience participates, but it's monotonous in a narrative unless it is linked to other elements, because there's just no reason to keep reading it when there are plenty of other stories that offer something more than just a bunch of titillating events.

Which brings us back to China Mieville. I find him a particularly interesting writer to think about, because his work so often, and so consciously, dances between all these tendencies (sometimes with more success than others, of course, but watching the dance is as provocative as evaluating it). His short stories show this even better than his novels. Stories like "Looking for Jake", "Foundation", or "Reports of Certain Events in London" come close to being little more than a situation, a fun idea, a concept. Except, because they are written by someone well-practiced at creating suspense, they hang their situations on a basic what's-going-on mystery/quest structure, just enough plot to keep the reader's interest moving toward an ending that provides its satisfactions through the evocation of a mood or image. These aren't ambitious or thought-provoking structures -- certainly not compared with a writer like Borges -- but they are effective at doing what they set out to do, and I find such stories more rewarding to read than stories that are nothing but mood and imagery, or action for its own sake, because they provide mood, imagery, and action together. It's not a transcendent formula, but it's satisfying.