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I read your piece in the Wall Street Journal about the return of plot to the novel.

Upfront, I'll say that I read Victorian novels almost exclusively. I'm a pair of spats and a chamber pot from my own case of consumption. Early in your essay, when you say that Modernists "were...the single greatest crop of writers the novel has ever seen" I reminded myself that I'm probably too close to this case, in the parlance of all those cop movies that are set three days before the lead cop's retirement; he will also say, at some point, "I'm too old for this shit" before doing something like chasing down a crazed East German bio-terrorist over rooftops or before donning hooker-drag to trap a weird cartel of Indonesian white-woman sex-slave traders.

But I digress.

However, later, you make this point: "The orderly, complacent, optimistic Victorian novel had nothing to say to them. Worse than nothing: it felt like a lie." I...don't recognize those Victorian novels you're referencing there. Not that there aren't orderly, complacent, and optimistic novels written during the Victorian era; however, the bulk of what's written in the nineteenth century is almost anything but the three adjectives you chose.

Orderly? Have you read Wilkie Collins? Complacent? Have you read Shirley? Optimistic? Have you read anything by Thomas Hardy or George Gissing? (Or, if you're going to ding me for both of those gentlemen being too far removed from the heart of the Victorian era -- and that would be a fine thing to ding me on -- I'll return that volley with Villette.) Heck, even reaching the end of Jane Austen's Mansfield Park (which, I know, isn't Victorian; it is, though, nineteenth century), one isn't left feeling terribly optimistic that the marriage between Fanny and Edmund is going to be a success.

It feels a little as if you're pitting the nineteenth century against the twentieth; however, I don't feel you make a compelling case of this. Put baldly, it seems as if you're saying that the Victorian novel is muzak to James Joyce's Beethoven.

I was also confused by this statement: "Say what you like about the works of Dickens and Thackeray, you pretty much always know who's talking, and when, and what they're talking about. The Modernists introduced us to the idea that reading could be work, and not common labor but the work of an intellectual elite, a highly trained coterie of professional aesthetic interpreters." Not knowing who's talking isn't an intellectual exercise when reading. It's a frustration. It would be like filming a movie with the lens cap on and calling it groundbreaking because the audience isn't sure who is doing what to whom.

I guess, ultimately, I disagree with your thesis -- that "plot" is a dirty word. It's what makes a novel readable. (And by the way, of those in your list of Modernist masterpieces -- i.e. 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 -- it's only the Woolfs that lack anything resembling plot. Even "The Sound and the Fury" is plotted as tightly as a Dickens novel.)

While I disagree with your thesis, I agree with your sentiment: Plot isn't a terrible thing, and we should expect more from novelists than blank experimentation.

(If you've read this far, thanks.)

Regards,

Mike

Comments

( 8 comments — Leave a comment )
sanba38
Aug. 30th, 2009 02:23 am (UTC)
Brideshead Revisited?
britadventuress
Aug. 30th, 2009 02:50 am (UTC)
Are you asking my thoughts about BR? Do you have thoughts about BR? I may need to revisit BR.
sanba38
Aug. 30th, 2009 03:32 am (UTC)
It just has no plot. That's all.
ruby_stevens
Aug. 30th, 2009 06:27 pm (UTC)
I love the attitude of "You filthy peasants expect to know who is talking to whom? Pah, stick to reading Goodnight Moon, reading is work and should not be in the slightest for pleasure!" What an ass.
(Anonymous)
Aug. 31st, 2009 09:45 pm (UTC)
I guess, ultimately, I disagree with your thesis -- that "plot" is a dirty word.

I'm confused -- isn't his thesis that "plot" is NOT a dirty word? Isn't the whole point of his article that plot is a good thing? I think you're tilting at windmills.
britadventuress
Aug. 31st, 2009 10:10 pm (UTC)
Well, his opening paragraph ends with "Plot makes perverts of us all." He then goes on to make a distinction between Modernists, whom he suggests eschew plot, and genre novels, where he sees the future of the novel.

Ultimately, though, I found his piece so muddily argued that I actually am not clear at all what his thesis is. I'm willing to accept your description (whoever you are; do I know you? Is this my mom?), though.

My ultimate argument against Grossman is that he doesn't choose very good examples, and he fundamentally misunderstands the nineteenth century novel (and the eighteenth century novel -- and his suggestion that there was no experimentation going on with fiction until the Modernists come along, because we have Tristram Shandy and Moll Flanders and Wuthering Heights and The Woman in White).

If you felt up to it, how would you characterize Grossman's argument?
tradeshowguy
Sep. 1st, 2009 03:17 pm (UTC)
Wha-?
You must have read a different essay than the one I read! Grossman doesn't say anything of the things you attribute to him. All your quotes are dramatically out of context. He was talking about how the Modernists saw the Victorian idea of plot. I definitely did not get the impression he was saying that "the Victorian novel is muzak to James Joyce's Beethoven." To me it was more like he was saying the Victorian novel was classical music to James Joyce's jazz--a sentiment I can certainly agree with. I think what he was mainly complaining about are the pretenders to the throne; not the original Modernists. To put it another way: Gram Parsons may have been good, but he also was directly responsible for The Eagles. No? :D
britadventuress
Sep. 1st, 2009 04:01 pm (UTC)
Re: Wha-?
I guess maybe we are reading different essays -- which is why discussions like these are good. I'll see if I can better explain my position. No expectations that it will change your mind at all; I think I mostly want to respond to your challenge of taking quotes out of context.

Grossman writes, "But let's look back for a second at where the Modernists came from, and what exactly they did with the novel. They drew a tough hand, historically speaking. All the bad news of the modern era had just arrived more or less at the same time: mass media, advertising, psychoanalysis, mechanized warfare. The rise of electric light and internal combustion had turned their world into a noisy, reeking travesty of the gas-lit, horse-drawn world they grew up in. The orderly, complacent, optimistic Victorian novel had nothing to say to them. Worse than nothing: it felt like a lie. The novel was a mirror the Modernists needed to break, the better to reflect their broken world. So they did."

Here is how I read that:

1) "Let's look back at where Modernists came from, and what exactly they did with the novel." I take this to mean that Grossman is going to give me some historical context for the Modernists.

2) "The orderly, complacent, optimistic Victorian novel had nothing to say to them. Worse than nothing: it felt like a lie. The novel was a mirror the Modernists needed to break, the better to reflect their broken world. So they did." When Grossman gets here, I don't feel like he's narrating the Modernist mind-set. I feel that Grossman himself is calling the Victorian novel "orderly, complacent, optimistic."

At the least, you and I are reading that section differently. If you are correct, then, for this reader, it wasn't clear that Grossman was channeling a Modernist with that description. If I am correct, then my challenge stands: Grossman doesn't understand Victorian literature.

You write, "To me it was more like he was saying the Victorian novel was classical music to James Joyce's jazz--a sentiment I can certainly agree with." What troubles me about that sentiment, and what Grossman also seems to be saying, is that, to use your example, jazz is difficult and classical music isn't.

Grossman even says, "This brought with it another, related development: difficulty." This in this case means the breaking of plot. He then says that once upon a time, novels weren't difficult to read: "Say what you like about the works of Dickens and Thackeray, you pretty much always know who's talking, and when, and what they're talking about." There's plenty wrong with this sentiment. Additionally, though, Grossman glides over the fact that novels like Tristram Shandy exist; or that Emily Bronte wrote Wuthering Heights; or that Gustave Flaubert wrote The Temptation of St Anthony; or that Dickens plays around with point of view and time when he sets up his triple narration in Bleak House. He simplifies too much to make his point, I think, and at the expense of the Victorian novel.

(There's also, as I mention in my entry, the fact that he says "Modernists broke plot" -- but then, he lists a bunch of plot-heavy novels ostensibly written by Modernists.)

Anyway -- mostly thank you for commenting. I've enjoyed the back-and-forth.
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