Warning: Don’t buy James Scott Bell’s Plot & Structure: (Techniques And Exercises For Crafting A Plot That Grips Readers From Start To Finish)

I bought Plot & Structure because the issue of how a novel’s narrative moves seems to be understudied by academics, who tend to produce jargon-laden, overly analytical nonsense, and by novelists themselves. I’d really like an equivalent of How Fiction Works, but for an important matter that James Wood disdains (“the novel soon showed itself willing to surrender the essential juvenility of plot”). My ideal book would, as Wood says, ask “a critic’s questions and [offer] a writer’s answers.”

Unfortunately, Bell asks few questions and offers fewer answers. This is frustrating to me because, when I started writing, plot was a major weakness. The first two novels I actually wrote to completion had no real plots and thus weren’t very good novels (my Dad pointed out the former and let me infer the latter). Since then I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about plot, and being dissatisfied that I’ve never seen it addressed well elsewhere. Self-consciously literary writers and critics tend to discount it (as Wood does), sometimes to the detriment of their own work.

Genre writers tend to understand plot but either aren’t known to me, critically speaking, or write so poorly on a sentence-by-sentence level that their work isn’t interesting. To me, the best novels combine plot/story and language in a single, cohesive package. That, however, is difficult to do, and the difficulty may explain why we see so many arid academic-feeling novels about, oh, I don’t know, language and pure consciousness and What It Means To Be Alive Today, while so many genre novels with ticking bombs and handsome heroes and buxom heroines who put out surprisingly easily and simple words laid out in simple ways that won’t confuse anyone.

Not only is this dearth annoying because of my own flaws, but because I can’t point aspiring writers to a particular book and say, “Read this.” I can talk about some of my own techniques—I’ve written plot outlines for a number of books I admire, like an artist tracing his favorite paintings in order to imbibe their spirit and technique. With scenes, I’ve learned to ask what each character wants, what stands in his or her way, and why he or she is doing to overcome that barrier. I don’t always have answers—the characters often don’t have them, either—but at least asking the questions provides some structure to what might otherwise be a misaligned mess.

One can’t, of course, separate plot from character, setting, narrating, and other technical features in a novel. It would be stupid to try. But plot is a great blindspot in Wood’s criticism, and it’s a blind spot I aspire to see, or to see someone else seeing.

Bell, however, is blind.

Anathem — Neal Stephenson

I read Anathem when it came out and tried it again recently because I’m a literary masochist. It concerns a giant graduate school/university where really smart people gather in seclusion from the rest of humanity, who are busy running around distracted by cell phones (now called “jeejahs”), futuristic TV, and religious-style demagogues. Erasmus (get it?) is in the middle of this and realizes something bad is going to happen. He’s a low-ranked “avout” who lives in one of those cloisters, which demands an kind of autarky of ideas, a bit like Vermont without Internet access. There are a lot of passages like this, taken from the beginning:

Guests from extramuros, like Artisan Flec, were allowed to come in the Day Gate and view auts from the north nave when they were not especially contagious and, by and large, behaving themselves. This had been more or less the case for the last century and a half.

It’s unfair to take this out of context and not explain what the hell is going on. But for the first quarter to half of the book, there is no context until you’ve created your own.

Confused yet? Hopefully not too much; if you pick up Anathem, you will be further. The novel famously comes with a glossary, which reads like code with too many GOTOs in it. And if I make the novel sound ridiculous, I’m doing so intentionally and picking up the flavor of those lofty New Yorker reviews whose greatest tactic against the manufactured noise and lights that sometimes pass as popcorn movies is ridicule. In Stephenson’s case, the noise is highbrow and intellectual, or maybe pseudo-intellectual, but noise nonetheless, regardless of the number of philosophic references put in it.

The biggest problems with the silly vocabulary is that it a) makes the the novel harder to take seriously, even in a humorous way, and b) make it more likely that readers will abandon the novel before reading it, and in turn badmouth it to their friends (and on their blogs, as I’m doing). I wanted to like the novel, but Neal Stephenson is beginning to feel like Melville: someone who peaked before he stopped writing novels, to the detriment of his readers, but who nonetheless still writes a lot of unconventional and interesting stuff. Stephenson’s Moby Dick is Cryptonomicon, a novel still justifiably beloved, and his earlier novels The Diamond Age and Snow Crash are both unusually strong science fiction.

By now, one gets the sense no one restrains Stephenson’s grandest impulses: the long well-done novel is a unique beauty, but the poorly done long novel is more likely to be abandoned than finished, and one could say that all the more of a poorly done series of long novels like The Baroque Trilogy , which is destined not to be a collected in a single physical volume thanks to its heft.

In Further Fridays, John Barth writes of great thick books that “One is reminded that the pleasures of the one-night stand, however fashionable, are not the only pleasures. There is also the extended, committed affair; there is even the devoted, faithful, happy marriage. One recalls, among several non-minimalist Moderns, Vladimir Nabokov seconding James Joyce’s wish for ‘the ideal reader with the ideal insomnia.’ ” Neal Stephenson answers this call for heft and then some: Cryptonomicon is a marvelous book that would demand more than a single night of insomnia to read, and yet none of it seems extraneous, or at least not in a way that deserves to be cut. Even the several page description of how one should eat Captain Crunch seems apt to the mind of the hackers and proto-hackers Stephenson follows. So it is again with Anathem, a novel whose demands are much greater.

Stephenson has made steadily greater demands of his readers, and I wonder if those demands were most justified for Cryptonomicon. Midway through Quicksilver I gave up, and what The Baroque Trilogy demands in sheer length, Anathem demands in depth. As has often been mentioned in reviews, it has a glossary, and the dangers of it are well-expressed by this graph:

(I will note, however, that one of my favorite novels of all times has not just made up words, but an entire made-up language embedded: Lord of the Rings. So it’s important to note that the probability of a book being good descends but never reaches zero, at least as far as we can tell from this graph.)

One other point: as Umberto Eco said of The Name of the Rose:

But there was another reason [beyond verisimilitude to the perspective of a 14th C. monk] for including those long didactic passages. After reading the manuscript, my friends and editors suggested I abbreviate the first hundred pages, which they found very difficult and demanding. Without thinking twice, I refused, because, as I insisted, if somebody wanted to enter the abbey and live there for seven days, he had to accept the abbey’s own pace. If he could not, he would never manage to read the whole book. Therefore those first hundred pages are like penance or an initiation, and if someone does not like them, so much the worse for him. He can stay at the foot of the hill.
Entering a novel is like going on a climb in the mountains: you have to learn the rhythm of respiration, acquire the pace; otherwise you stop right away.

Or, worse, you might think you get to the mountain’s summit and then intellectually die during the descent (and yes, the link embedded in this sentence is highly relevant to the issue at hand).

In the novel, Stephenson is dealing with the potential for an increasingly bifurcated society with supernerds on one side and proles on the other. You can see the same ideas in 800 words instead of 120,000 in his essay Turn On, Tune In, Veg Out, which I assign to my freshmen every semester and which almost none of them really get.

Still, the concern that smart people are going to rule others does have a certain pedigree, and the idea of a cerebral superclass detached from the material world is hardly a new one; monks were an expression of it in a religious context for centuries if not longer. H.G. Wells thought of something not dissimilar in his idea of an “Open Conspiracy,” through which leading scientists and philosophers would form a benevolent world government. In Richard Rhodes’ The Making of the Atomic Bomb, he describes physicist Leo Szilard similar conception of an improbably super-competent elite ruling the world:

[…] we could create a spiritual leadership class with inner cohesion which would renew itself on its own.

Members of this class would not be award wealth or personal glory. To the contrary, they would be required to take on exceptional responsibilities, “burdens” that might “demonstrate their devotion.”

Sounds great. Keep them away from me.

People who like second-hand philosophy and who need a superiority complex or to feed one that’s developing might like Anathem. Mastering it is perhaps as esoteric as being able to quote at will from Hegel The Phenomenology of Spirit and about as fun. I’ve barely talked about the novel, the text, and the story because the story feels like a skeleton for the novel’s concerns. Again, like Melville, Stephenson seems to have forgotten about the pull of story in his later.

Umberto Eco, in contrast, is another writer of enormous books filled with ideas, and his two best—The Name of the Rose and Foucault’s Pendulum contrast with weaker efforts in those others—like The Island of the Day Before and The Invisible Flame of Queen Loanna—become obsessed with how story is told rather than the story itself. The “how” is a fine subject to address in novels, as many postmodernist novels do, but it can’t be subjugated to the what—otherwise one isn’t writing a novel; one is writing literary criticism. Trying to shoehorn the latter into the former isn’t going to create anything but boredom, with characters who aren’t characters but Vessels of Great Meaning. Erasmus in Anathem isn’t a person—he’s a convenient way to explore ideas. I’d like a character who explores the idea of why idea must be integrated into characters rather than vice-versa.

Is there something wrong with story? For a novel to work, its meaning has to be at most equal to, but more likely subsumed beneath, its story and the language used to convey that story. But Anathem is too busy preening to let that happen. I’m reminded of something Philip Pullman said regarding the His Dark Materials Trilogy: for every page he wrote he threw five away, and he concentrated ceaselessly on moving it along. That has our hero, Lyra, in a closet, where she’s hiding because she’s broken a rule and sees someone attempt to poison her father, a returning hero. The novel moves ever faster from there.

It’s a beginning so forceful that I’m recalling it by memory. Where does Anathem begin again? I can’t remember, and I look at the tome on my desk and considering finding out. If I were to force myself to remember, it would be doing so with all the joy of memorizing for school. His Dark Materials, in contrast, I remember for pure joy, and for its impact.

This is, to be sure, an overlong post, but it suits an overlong novel. Let this serve as a warning regarding and substitute for Anathem.

New look

Regulars might note the snazzy new look, consisting of an image underlying “The Story’s Story.” Rest assured that the picture is not stock corporate clipart, but rather a genuine section of one of my bookshelves. I chose part carefully using a single criterion: how convenient was it to take the picture as quickly and with as little effort as possible? What you see best fit my requirement. I did have to monkey with a few spines in Photoshop because they were too light for the text—sorry, Proust!—but the books are genuine.

%d bloggers like this: