Plots that were never there in the first place

SHE had written her first novel but it had not been published.

Her friend, Anita, visited her and said, ‘That new dress you have on suits you.’

‘Thanks,’ she said.

She went for a walk alone and sat in a coffee shop drinking two coffees. The caffeine made her head spin. She gazed out of the window at the flats across the street.

She went to work each day, where she was accepted as just another one of the girls. Every Saturday evening she went to the cinema with them.

She had a boyfriend for several months so she stopped seeing her girl friends, but neither she nor her boyfriend was very committed to the relationship and they drifted apart.

She wasn’t very good at cooking and never had much food in the house, but lived mostly on coffee and cigarettes.

One day Anita came and told her she was leaving her job because she wanted to make more of her life. ‘I wasn’t destined for life as a typist,’ she said.

‘So you do believe in destiny, then?’ she asked.

‘I believe in a higher power, and I can’t imagine life if I didn’t exist,’ Anita said. 

Months passed, and she kept trying to get her book published until one day she realised it was pointless and gave up.

NOT very good literature, is it? Diabolical, in fact. It consists of random things happening one after the other to the main character, who experiences events more or less passively.

But it’s an utterly flippant distillation of several books I’ve read that frankly leave you wondering whether the writer has a clue about plot.

You can accept some plots are slower than others to get going – a bit like a dropped intro in a news story – and that’s fine.

Your can also accept that a cracking plot is not vital to good literature: many outstanding novels – John Updike’s Rabbit series, for example – have plots that are only subtle, but the novels are brilliant because the characterisations or the quality of the writing are so exceptional.

Anne Tyler you can sort-of forgive because while the storylines rarely produce great shock waves, there’s something about her style and level of detail that keeps you folded in.

Yet debut novelists are constantly told how a good plot is the key if they want to be considered publishable. Huge numbers of ‘how to’ books on writing, magazine articles, online articles, talks by agents, blogs and Q&As all stress that to succeed, your book must be a page-turner, and then analyse what that involves.

Most agree that plot means a chain of causal events, involving one or more big conflicts, with results that build to a high-stakes climax, leading to further final consequences.

It’s the only formula for a novel that stands any chance, aspiring writers are told. Add in characters, settings, time eras and situations to taste, the more imaginative the better.

So when you read an award-winning novel or one by a widely acclaimed author that appears to show few of the traditional characteristics of a plot, it’s no wonder you feel a little put out.

Colm Toibin’s Brooklyn is a gentle, enjoyable read, not dressed up in fancy language, and no doubt is an accurate social portrayal of 1950s emigrants from Ireland. But that’s all it is. Until at least half-way through, every new event leaves you wondering whether this is the one that will link with earlier events to create some clever previously undetected plot structure – but each one leaves you disappointed. The series of unconnected events may be realistic but unknown writers would be laughed out of class if they produced a string of happenings without a plot.

I like the novel but in my view it could hardly be classed as a worthy Booker nominee or Costa award-winner.

As for Alan Hollinghurst’s Booker-winning The Line of Beauty – and I should whisper this because it’s sacrilegious in Britain to say so – but it’s hard to think of a finer example of social attitudes and moral issues blatantly taking precedence over storyline.

And need I mention Joyce’s Ulysses, the focus of so much celebration this weekend (and which, to be fair, I haven’t read so my judgment is merely honest prejudice)?

Maybe I’m just become grumpy as a reader, but I come across more books now than ever that I dislike. When I was young I used to adore and worship nearly every new book I read. Each new one was the most thought-provoking, profound or gripping work ever; now, though, many new works simply irritate me, often either because an abundance of hype almost inevitably results in disappointment or because the writers have tried to be too clever.

I’ve become convinced lately that there’s something of the emperor’s new clothes syndrome going on. Could it be that the reputation of certain books is dictated more by perceptions of quality, by the author’s reputation as a heavyweight, by reviews by intellectuals in the world of fiction or even by fashion than by the genuine admiration of ordinary readers?

There is the now-famous story of when a Sunday Times reporter, posing as a debut novelist, submitted to a literary agent the initial chapters of a respected classic novel to a literary agent, under a different name and title, asking for representation, only to have the work rejected. Many aspiring novelists must take comfort from this, knowing how today’s market is more competitive than at any time in history.

You can imagine the same happening time and time again if the same were done with certain famous plot-less works, and the chapters being firmly turned down on the grounds that the writer had failed to follow the fundamentals.

The days are gone when manuscripts by first-time authors were accepted because amazing characters and stunning writing was sufficient to compensate for a thin plot. The bar is higher than ever now, and writers are producing fantastically creative material.

It’s not that agents and publishers are by any means getting it wrong, but the next time I come across a novel by an established literary figure who has done less plotting than I have, please forgive me for feeling a slight sense of injustice.

Or maybe it’s simply sour grapes. After all, without conflict there’s no plot.

PS. Please note I’ve linked to Oxfam’s online bookshop here in preference to Amazon. If you want to know why, just ask.

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2 thoughts on “Plots that were never there in the first place

    • Hi, No – it’s not a stupid question. I have to be careful with what I say but I’m just inclined to shop positively. There have been reports in the past about worker-unfriendly practices (although that may have since changed, of course). Because they are so huge they dominate the market, and I think it’s good to buy through smaller businesses that need all the support they can get. And finally I once had a dispute with Amazon when they accidentally sent me an item I’d ordered twice, and I had a huge struggle to get a refund on one of them.

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