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.