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.

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