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I read an article this week (available here -- yes, it's from 2009, which in my mind is like two months ago) whose author, Lev Grossman, made the claim that "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." I give Grossman some cred for acknowledging the apparent prevalence of strong plot elements in contemporary stories, and I really appreciate his concise summary of the Modernists of the early 20th century. Those are the writers largely responsible for the idea that "good literature" should be somewhat difficult to read, and its plot should be far from primary (if there at all). Those are also the writers in whose shadow every genre writer, every commercial writer, every plot-conscious author has written for the last hundred years or so.
Yes, plot is making a comeback of sorts, in that it's pushing aside much of that highbrow "literary" fiction. But doesn't something have to go away in the first place in order to make a true comeback?
Sure, the Modernists contributed to the 20th century some of its greatest literature. But they didn't contribute its only great literature. Plot-based (not necessarily to mean plot-centric) fiction was still there through it all. It mutated and evolved as much as any other type of storytelling in the last century; it gave us modern fantasy, science fiction, and the hard-boiled detective.
Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep, the first of his Philip Marlowe novels, is one of the great books of that century rife with good books. It's a mystery, so of course plot is critical. But can the Modernist-influenced among us truly sneer at it simply for having a plot?
It's not a great novel because it has a plot; it's not even the plot that makes the novel memorable. I would argue that Chandler's style, his voice, those elements oh-so-important to the Modernist gang, are what make his stories great. He feeds us the Los Angeles of the 1930s and makes it Marlowe's own, simply through his use of the language. Marlowe is blunt, straightforward, and yet also lyrical. His descriptions make the world, make it pop from the page as much as Anne Shirley's descriptions make Anne of Green Gables so cherished.
Yet a book full of a detective's wise-cracks without a plot -- without a sphere for the shamus to move around in and make his own -- would be a pretty hobbled effort at storytelling. The plot may not be central here, but it sure is necessary. Isn't that true for most stories? For most readers?
I have to say that plot's always been important to readers as a whole. Some folks decided in the early 20th century (and, sure, with good reason) to eschew plot, and it was a worthy experiment. But plot's not making a comeback so much as the elevation of plot-less storytelling appears to be declining. The task that awaits the 21st century's best writers is not to fall into the trap that plot is everything: plot must be populated with real characters and with language that goes pop! in the reader's imagination.
And readers must shoulder their share of the burden: they must demand quality not just in what happens, but in how it happens. In that combination, rather than in some Modernist ideal, might rest the key of classic writing. After all, what is the Great Novel of the Century if no one cares to read it in the next century?