This week I heard a review on NPR of a new novel by Michael Cunningham (The Snow Queen), in which the reviewer said of the book, “His writing is captivating, even if his plot isn’t.” Apparently a captivating plot did not matter in this case, as the book was published and being reviewed on a national radio program listened to by millions of people.
People sometimes refer to the elevator speech, a metaphor of riding in an elevator with someone for, let’s say, one minute, and clearly explaining your idea to them in that minute*. I admit I find this concept repellently trivial. I like to think about things and discuss them, which takes time. I may be wrong, but I feel this way.
Imagine how difficult it must be to guess what people in the future will want to read. Even if we define the future as starting today, so that we have a little knowledge, it still must be hard to do. We can know what people are reading at the moment, but what if tomorrow we all change our minds?
In large part, predicting the future is the job of literary agents and publishers, but how can they know? How indeed? In fact, of course, they can’t always know. Some books are accepted and published and then go nowhere. And once in a rare while, we hear a story of a book that was rejected 30 times, yet the book somehow survives and is published, and people love it.
But if agents can’t get it right at least a certain amount of time, eventually they quit being able to pay rent, and then they quit being agents. One way they might guess what will sell is to look for trends that, while temporary, may run for a while to come (say, kindly vampire nurses who only drink the blood of the terminally ill). Another approach to finding books that will sell is to look for things that seem universal and therefore always popular, like a strong story line, or “plot”.
A couple of weeks ago Gabriel Garcia-Márquez died, so at the moment we are occasionally hearing talk of his most famous novel, One Hundred Years of Solitude. What is the plot of that book? I would maintain that there is no plot in the strict sense of the word. The novel moves from generation to generation, but it is really a book about ideas. Or in the novel If on a winter’s night a traveler by Italo Calvino, there is also no strong plot. The book is certainly about something, a book with depth, but the purpose is not to entertain with a catchy story.
Also within the last few weeks I’ve read two modern American novels that similarly do not display a strong plot. One was A Collection of Beauties at the Height of Their Popularity by Whitney Otto (2002, Random House). This book is a series of unconnected chapters, or at best very slightly connected, with a changing cast of characters. There is not the slightest hint of a plot. The other book is White Noise by Don Delillo (1985, Viking Press). There is also no real plot here, either, though there is a chemical spill that occasionally (but only occasionally) affects the action. This book won the National Book Award for Fiction.
Does every novel need to have a strong, compelling plot? A detective novel, yeah. A romance novel, of course. But what about literary fiction? From what I have picked up in various ways—from blogs and interviews with literary agents, from conversations with people who have met agents, or from my own conversation with an agent two weeks ago, the idea of a compelling plot seems to be extremely important to agents.
In my conversation with the agent, I presented this book: A father and teenage daughter are traveling simultaneously east and west across the United States in two different time periods (they are moving back and forth through space and time), having a series of adventures. They are working toward a goal in the past, with quite a bit of struggle and danger to attain it.
I was told that it would be impossible to sell such a book. The characters are traveling because they want to do it, but the agent said that something must force them to make this trip. I don’t know that the agent is wrong about the book, but I do know that the book already has as much “plot” as any of the four books I named above, and far more than some of them.
Well, you might say, I’m not Garcia-Márquez. I’m not even Whitney Otto (who had a previous book made into a movie). No, I’m not. The question then arises as to whether a new writer would have been able to publish any of the books I named? Or would a literary agent have said, “What is your book about? Give me your elevator speech. No, no, no, I can’t sell something like that.”
Is there space in our culture for thoughtful novels that stretch the genre? There does seem to be. But do they only exist in spite of literary agents and publishers?
War and Peace—Napoleon invades Russia. Moscow burns down. He leaves.
Les Miserables—A poor man steals apples, and endless bad shit happens . Also Paris builds a complicated sewer system.