Saturday, November 05, 2011

the plot-subtext continuum

Recently I was talking with a reader-friend of mine (reader=one who reads for entertainment, as opposed to one who reads for information or criticism) and I related once again the story of my college Creative Writing professor and how we butted heads over the importance of plot in a story.

The professor, whom I'll call Mark because that was his name, would quite cheerfully admit that he considered "plot" a dirty word. He thought plot was an artificial structure for a story--that authors who had to rely on plot were lacking in depth. He was all about "subtext" and "transcending the literal" and he force-fed us all this contemporary navel-gazing crap from the New Yorker and the Atlantic monthly--the kind of fiction that writers write to impress other writers with their mastery of creative writing skills. These kinds of stories tend to follow slice-of-life or day-to-day or even stream-of-consciousness storylines. Sometimes they're not even linear: flashbacks and flash-forwards and flash-sidewayses are popular in that genre. But every one of those stories filled me with frustration because nothing ever happened. Nothing seemed interconnected, there was little cause and effect, and it always seemed that the author was one of those circular thinkers whom you thought was getting to a point, somewhere, but he was too embarrassed or refined to come right out and say it.

As I've gotten older I've come to think that the points these authors are making are not really that grand or shocking or even particularly poignant; after all they're dealing with sex and death, just like the hacks. There's only so many grand human experiences to work with, after all. I think instead the contemporary authors realize that it's all been done before, and to simply state "love sucks and then you die" would reveal them for the banal egomaniacs they are. So instead they write these grinding depressing explorations of stupid people with grand plans that fail, and no one will help them so they die wretched deaths under the gaze of an uncaring world. (This is the plot synopsis of "Midnight Cowboy," by the way, as related to me by the afore-mentioned reader, to which I replied, "No wonder it won Best Picture.")

However, as I've gotten older I've also come to understand why Mark the College Professor scorned plot: how many Michael Bay movies have been foisted on us in the last ten years--chock-full of plot and events and chain reactions and countdowns but sadly lacking in any transcendence or lingering meaning? I'm not saying every novel and movie has to be a life-changing experience, but as a consumer of entertainment I want to be engaged on multiple levels--viscerally and intellectually.

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