It’s not easy to put your finger on what exactly is so disgraceful about our attachment to storyline. Sure, it’s something to do with high and low and genres and the canon and such. But what exactly? Part of the problem is that to find the reason you have to dig down a ways, down into the murky history of the novel. There was once a reason for turning away from plot, but that rationale has outlived its usefulness. 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.
Where did this conspiracy come from in the first place—the plot against plot? I blame the Modernists. Who were, I grant you, the single greatest crop of writers the novel has ever seen. In the 1920s alone they gave us “The Age of Innocence,” “Ulysses,” “A Passage to India,” “Mrs. Dalloway,” “To the Lighthouse,” “Lady Chatterley’s Lover,” “The Sun Also Rises,” “A Farewell to Arms” and “The Sound and the Fury.” Not to mention most of “In Search of Lost Time” and all of Kafka’s novels. Pity the poor Pulitzer judge for 1926, who had to choose between “The Professor’s House,” “The Great Gatsby,” “Arrowsmith” and “An American Tragedy.” (It went to “Arrowsmith.” Sinclair Lewis prissily declined the prize.) The 20th century had a full century’s worth of masterpieces before it was half over.
Read the whole thing. I’m drawing special attention to it because there are few essays I’ve read recently, or maybe ever, that I agree with more, ranging from Grossman’s analysis of the current situation to its historical roots to his call for future action.
The next step is B.R. Myers’ A Reader’s Manifesto.
EDIT: See also Jeff’s excellent comment.