Monday, June 6, 2011

Is Plot Passé?

Famous Modernist author, T.S. Eliot, called plot out of date, out of style, a remnant of a bygone era, or as he liked to put it…passé. Of course, the guy was practically a Fascist and a snob to boot, but that didn’t stop him from writing tours de force like The Lovesong of J. Alfred Pruefrock and The Wasteland. Did this avant-garde guy know what he was talking about (yes, I’m using French words today), or was he just puffing smoke?

He and many of his contemporaries emphasized form over the general story-line, as anyone who has read through James Joyce or Virginia Woolf knows. But today writers seem to have rebelled against this concept, including everyone from Thomas Pynchon to J.K. Rowling. However, I’m not debating whether plot sells, it always has in bookstores, but whether it still provides the primary means of conveying a novel in terms of art for art’s sake.

As time goes by I find myself believing less and less in the difference between high art and low art, but that’s another topic for perhaps another post.  In terms of plot, what do you think? Is it truly as passé as Eliot says or have we got some romantics out there still willing to defend the role of plot in the books we read today?


  1. I'm in the middle. I think plot/narrative is one of the most powerful tools available to an artist.

    But I also think the mentality of "it's all about a good story" can be really limiting.

    So I tend to defend whichever side is being picked on.

  2. Well, since one of the things I hear most often is "be sure you have a strong plot!" and since many of the writers I know are bored to tears by some of the plot-weak classics, I'd have to say that plot is most certainly NOT passe.

    That's not to say that trends won't shift again and we'll be back in Eliot's world. However, even if it does, I think writers need to do what works best for them and their particular story. For some stories, form over plot works and works well. Others, probably most others, truly depend on the plot.

    I gotta say, I like plot :) Plot will never be passe in my world :)

  3. I'll answer your question with a question: Is there a single critically acclaimed piece of contemporary literature that does not have a plot?

  4. 'No plot' might be a little strong, but there are a lot of works where the plot is pretty secondary (or at least less prevalent than it is in Woolf or Joyce):

    David Markson, Fernando Pessoa, Surrealism, Roberto Bolano, Cesar Aira, Thomas Bernhard, William Gaddis, Michal Ajvaz. I know there have been other French and S. American movements that fit, though no specific names come to mind.

    Most contemporary poetry isn't narrative-based. (Eliot was a poet, after all.)

    There's a lot of SF where the plot is so hard to follow it could practically be considered plot-less.

    It's definitely not dominant, and it's a very hard sell in the US, but there is a lot of 'experimental' literature out there.

  5. Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad (which won the Pulitzer) also violated plot expectations by telling each chapter in a different style from a different character's perspective.

    Kevin Brockmeier's The Illumination was told from five (loosely connected) perspectives.

    Neither is no plot, but they do diverge from standard story structure and plot expectations.

  6. Michelle - Definitely some very good points and good dose of common sense:) Although I enjoy both popular and classic lit, I can see where people would find difficulty with the "modernist" era writers.

    Nick - Nice question, but it's a bit of a trick questions. You can argue anything technically has a plot, but with something like James Joyce's Finnegan's Wake I have difficulty finding much of it ;) Nonetheless, I think you have a very valid point:)

    Hektor - Alright, lots of feedback (I like):) Good distinction between poetry and prose, that's something I forgot to bring up. Also, I'll have to check out some of those surrealist authors. Perhaps it's not so much the presence or absence of plot, but the way we play with its expectations that really effects a story-line. Now you got my brain going :)

  7. If there's no plot, there's not much of a book. Granted, a good book has many more elements than just a killer plot, but without one you're basically baking a cake without flour. (Although that can be done-flourless chocolate torte-yum!)

  8. I think plot and art can still go together. However, I don't think 'form' alone will go very far in today's world.

  9. Something has to happen in a story. Period. But it doesn't have to be all blockbuster-y and contrived. How's that?

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