The Next Word, and the Next

Continued from the previous post.

Perhaps the strangest element of John Mullan’s essay on the pleasures of plot is the way in which Mullan identifies as ‘plot’ all those aspects of literature from which he derives pleasure, even when the pleasure demonstrably does not come from the sophistication of the plotting. He finds, for example, a “pleasing moment in the very first instalment of Bleak House when Dickens uses a parenthesis to hint at his buried design.” Dickens introduces “Lady Dedlock (who is childless), looking out in the early twilight from her boudoir,” and, as Mullan writes, the words in parentheses “turn out to be untrue” so that “[w]hat is treated as though it hardly matters is in fact a clue.” That’s a fair enough assessment of the significance of Dickens’ aside, but while Dickens’ sleight-of-hand with regard to Lady Dedlock’s parental status might well be an issue of plot, the effects of his use of parenthetical remarks are arguably an issue of style. And since these sorts of remarks don’t fall within the aesthetic capabilities of artforms other than literature, the real source of Mullan’s pleasure here lies in Dickens’ use of an aesthetic resource that is particular to the artform in which he is working.

All of this is to say that the pleasures of literature owe much more, I think, to things like style and structure than to secrets concealed, motives revealed, sudden betrayals, uneasy alliances, moral epiphanies, and other twists and turns of plotting. Funnily enough, Mullan would seem to agree with that, even though he still credits plot for the resultant pleasures. “Plot is not just a sequence of connected events,” he writes, echoing E.M. Forster’s distinction between a story as a sequence of events and a plot as a sequence of events that obtain meaning by way of their causal connections. “Plot,” he insists,

is… the unfolding of a hidden design. Plot involves the laying of clues, the implicit promise to the reader or viewer that the true significance of what we read or see is not self-evident, but will eventually be revealed. A good plot exploits not just suspense, but also a kind of retrospective curiosity. When we know that a story has a plot we find ourselves asking not so much, ‘What will happen next?’ as, ‘What has already happened?’ The hidden design has, we trust, been contrived by an author, so when we enjoy a plot we are enjoying being manipulated by him or her.

No disagreement from me. How could that not be the case? A work of literature is essentially a bundle of information. In places, the information it contains is quite simple. It might be, for example, information about a particular event: where it took place, who was involved in it, what caused it to happen, and what its consequences were. In other places, the information can become much more complex. It might involve exploring how somebody responded to something that happened to them, how the emotional aspects of their response conflicted with its psychological aspects, and how their response as a whole evolved and changed over time. It might involve information about things of a scale far larger than that of an individual life or a single moment in time, or it might involve information about a multitude of things that interact and intersect in countless ways that are significant but not necessarily causal in nature. Whatever the case, the totality of the information is there inside the work of literature, contained within its pages, and the work serves to transmit the information to the reader one piece at a time, one word at a time.

But I could say pretty much the same thing of my MacBook Pro setup guide, couldn’t I? What exactly is it, then, that might distinguish a work of literature from the corporate publications of Apple? What is it that makes one of them capable of giving pleasure and the other one virtually incapable of it? Does it really just boil down to a difference in the interest level and the emotional depths of the information that is disclosed in words? Or is it a difference in the means by which, the ends towards which, and the effects with which each written work approaches the task of disclosure in words? If, say, Bleak House were to be rewritten from top to tail, to have every sentence reworded, without altering a single plot point or changing any of its narrative information, would John Mullan derive precisely as much pleasure from it as he does at present? Or is it rather the case that Dickens has chosen to transmit the information to his readers through a selection of stylistic and structural devices that work in concert with the information itself in order to produce the unique pleasures of Bleak House?

Words possess properties beyond those of direct and literal reference for the purpose of disclosing information. They possess prosodic qualities, tonal qualities, connotative meanings, and multiple meanings any one of which may be suppressed or called forth by the surrounding words and by the place of a particular word within a broader context. Stylisation involves, among other things, the purposeful exploitation of these and similar properties of words. Since these properties are precisely the sorts of things that the writers of MacBook Pro setup guides don’t exploit — not least because they’ll leave the readers of those guides confused and irritated — it’s fair to say that the particularities of style are part of what make a written work identifiably literary.

Information, too, is unstable. A work of literature may be essentially a bundle of information, but as readers we can’t and don’t receive the information in a bundle. As above, the work transmits information to its readers one piece at a time, although to phrase the situation in that way is to combine and simplify three important points that warrant a little elaboration. First: that, without exception, every work of literature has been structured so as to keep some information concealed while allowing some to be disclosed. That’s just the nature of the beast. Second: that every work of literature adds to the totality of its disclosures and subtracts from its concealments as the pages turn. Obviously, though, there’s no guarantee that cumulative disclosures entail a clearer or more coherent understanding of the information as a whole. Third: that the process of writing a work of literature involves deciding, on a word-by-word basis, which information to keep concealed, and why, and which information to disclose, and how. In other words, it involves decisions about the perspective from which to make disclosures and the order in which to make them, as well as assessing the effects of every possible variation in the sequence of the disclosures. Structure is a reflection of the sum of those decisions. If you’re writing a MacBook Pro setup guide, you probably want to structure your disclosures in the way that most clearly spells out, in order, the key steps in setting up a MacBook Pro. If you’re writing literature, however, you have an effectively unlimited range of possible effects to produce in your readers, and an unlimited range of possible ways in which to structure your disclosures, and each possible structure will of course produce its own unique effects. Structural particularities therefore make a written work identifiably literary just as much as do particularities of style.

“When we know that a story has a plot,” writes John Mullan, “we find ourselves asking not so much, ‘What will happen next?’ as, ‘What has already happened?’.” I think that’s fundamentally right, but it’s also much too restrictive. Actually, I think it’s more that we ask some version of those two questions in combination: “What has already happened, in the sense that the information is predetermined? And which piece of it will I receive next, and in what words, and how will all of that resonate or clash with what I have received so far?” And when readers begin receiving answers to those questions from a work of literature, whether or not the answers relate to a plot is entirely incidental to their potential for producing pleasure. They might produce pleasure as successfully, and they often produce it better, if they exercise a range of literature’s other, less cinematic aesthetic resources. That way, the disclosure of ‘what happens next’ involves not just using words to record events involving characters, but using the purposeful selection of words as an ongoing event that involves the reader in a particularly literary experience.

Plotted Pleasures

This weekend’s Guardian Review features an essay by John Mullan on the pleasures of a good plot. “How we love plots,” he begins, “and how we look down our noses at them. … [P]lot lovers who are also novel readers might think that [the excitements of a plot] are guilty pleasures.” Mullan encourages his readers not to feel guilty about enjoying novels that place a premium on plotting, and instead to see the orchestration of “a good plot” as “one of the highest arts.”

On one level, at least, this reader needed little persuading. I’m one of the umpteen million people who binge-watched The Wire and Breaking Bad, and like so many others I remain addicted to House of Cards and Game of Thrones. With religious fervour I also bow down at the altar of Marvel Studios, heading to the cinema on opening day to pay the extortionate price of admission to every new superhero brawl, and I don’t feel the slightest pang of guilt about admitting any of this. On another level, though, I found it hard to follow Mullan very far into his argument. Halfway down the first column, he swerves off in an absurd direction. In pursuit of a tussle with critics who fail to see the brilliance of contemporary novels that invest heavily in plot — novels by the likes of John le Carre, Michael Frayn, Sarah Waters, and Ian McEwan — Mullan points out that those novels share a kinship with other, more celebrated works that are neither contemporary nor novels at all. Let’s slow down right there. The particularities of both historical context and use of artform are not incidental to the ways in which we might appreciate the contemporary novel, with or without a plot. It’s worth taking a little time to think about the way they shape what we think we want from a novel, and how we respond to what we actually get.

Here’s exactly what Mullan writes in that opening column:

No longer satisfied with the mere whodunnit, the prime-time [television] audience can satisfy its plot hunger with the elaborate conspiracy narrative of the BBC’s Line of Duty or the psychological indeterminacy of ITV’s Marcella. … TV drama, especially the one-off mini-series, is where we can go for the special pleasures of plot. …

In the Victorian age, novelists such as Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins treated the compulsive powers of plotting as fiction’s strongest resource. The most literary novelists respected the engrossing powers of plot: even George Eliot’s Middlemarch has at its heart a secret tale of seduction, larceny and hidden identity waiting to be discovered.

How to diplomatically recap the logic underpinning all this? Novelists working in the nineteenth century ago expended great energies on the intricacies of their plots. Popular television series continue to do so today. Contemporary novelists who neglect plot are therefore betraying both the innate desires of their readers and, worse, their artistic heritage. If I managed to get the gist of it right, colour me unconvinced.

Here’s a question to be answered in all seriousness. Why would someone who cherishes reading novels not read a novel for the plot? Far from being ignorant about how the typical novel was read in the nineteenth century, I do it precisely because of what happened to the novel and its capacity for plot in the two hundred years between then and now. Circa the 1850s, literature began to encounter rival artforms. Photography came first, then cinema, broadcast radio, comic books, and television. Each of these artforms brought with it a set of aesthetic capabilities that overlapped with those of the nineteenth century novel. Among the most notable of these capabilities were the representation of the real world and the narrative sequencing of events. Yet each of these artforms also brought with it new aesthetic resources which allowed it, in its own particular way, to realise those same representational and narratorial capabilities much more fully than literature could.

What aesthetic resources were those? I’m thinking especially things like photorealistic mimesis, by which photography was the first to diminish the success of literary attempts at verisimilitude, as well as scene cuts and shot-to-shot cuts, by which cinema and television have diminished literary efforts at managing narrative causality, tempo, and overall pace. I’m also thinking of the simultaneous transmission of verbal and visual narrative information. That’s an aesthetic resource by which cinema, comic books, and television have created complex new narrative structures that aren’t possible in works of literature with their commitment the singular focus of the written word. It’s also one of the aesthetic resources that Mullan praises for its effect on plot, without pointing out that literature can’t replicate it. Writing of Bryan Singer’s film The Usual Suspects, Mullan points out that its “surprising success stemmed from its devotion to plot and its willingness to deceive the audience quite as comprehensively as its villain was deceiving the detectives. Certainly the means by which it did this was postmodern: the film broke with old cinematic conventions by showing on the screen events that had not happened. What the trickster narrated (though untrue) was turned into images on our screen.” I wouldn’t dream of denying the validity of the observation, but Mullan argues in bad faith when he calls for contemporary novelists to play these sorts of game with plot. As well demand that airplanes be built to sail the seas and paraplegics take the stairs.

To put all this another way, new and emergent artforms have, over the last two hundred years, encroached upon and constrained the supremacy of literature as a vehicle for an immersive plot. You’d be crazy to say that literature can’t do plot at all, but literature in this day and age simply isn’t the best available artform for making plot convincing and compelling. That’s why I find I’m not able to read a novel for its plot without wondering, every step of the way, why the author didn’t decide to let the plot unfold someplace other than on the page. I can’t read a novel for its plot when I know I could see the same plot executed more realistically and at a better pace on television or in the cinema. To use literature as a vehicle for plot is to not make use of the aesthetic resources that are particular to the artform, and a novel that results from this use therefore fails to answer the fundamental question of why it might be something worth reading.

Continued in the following post.