Fifty-plus years ago, when the vogue for “narratology” was at its peak, Roland Barthes published a book called S/Z (the English translation appeared in 1974), devoted to “Sarrasine,” an obscure story by Balzac (sometimes described as a novella) first published in 1831. Barthes’s book bristled with the absurd pretensions of its time, analyzing Balzac’s tale according to “the five major codes under which all . . . textual signifiers can be grouped.” (Yes, really.) Yet even as Barthes carried out this project with a methodical madness, something else was happening, as if the fearsome machinery of his “semiology” existed only as a pretext, permitting him to indulge in a deliciously slow and preternaturally attentive reading.
I don’t think “narratology,” which retained its influence sufficiently to leave its mark on Peter Brooks’s widely used Reading for the Plot: Design and Intention in Narrative (1984; 2d ed. 1992), can be entirely blamed for the desuetude into which talk about “plot” has fallen, not only in formal “literary studies” (now a shrunken domain) but among Ordinary Readers. Cognitive science has a certain cachet, and books such as Angus Fletcher’s Wonderworks: The 25 Most Powerful Inventions in the History of Literature, published earlier this year, frame “plot” in those terms. I find some tasty bits there along with a lot of huffing and puffing.
What I offer below is an entirely unsystematic list of three essays and one long book touching on “plot” in ways that have been energizing to me, including some touchstones to which I have returned over the years. It is not a comprehensive list; it does not add up to a unified theory.
James Matthew Wilson, “The Law of Art”
In this short essay from 2019, Wilson writes,
Aristotle’s Poetics tells us that poetry is philosophical and deals in probabilities. We approve a story that unfolds in a likely way, and we dismiss those that do not, and that is just to say that we know already that stories have a law to themselves that neither we nor the artist get to decide.
Evelyn Waugh once wrote of his characters, “I really have very little control over them. I start them off with certain preconceived notions of what they will do and say . . . but I constantly find them moving another way.” Telling, writing, and reading stories is a way of discovering the laws that govern not just the craft of story but the actions those stories recount. The nature of reality governs the law of art, and the artist’s work helps us to discern the laws of reality.
Muriel Spark, championed by Waugh at the launch of her career, would (rightly) have scorned his assertion about his characters, but the deeper truth Wilson asserts here is as energizing as it is unfashionable.
Hugh Kenner, “Learning”
This essay appeared in Inward Journey: Reflections on Ross Macdonald by 25 of America’s Most Distinguished Authors, edited by Ralph B. Sipper. In it, the polymathic literary critic acknowledges his debt to Macdonald (aka Kenneth Millar), whom he met in Santa Barbara in 1950 (Kenner, fresh out of grad school, had taken a job in the English department at the university there).
“We could make,” Ken said in his level Lew Archer voice, “a Revenge for Love sandwich.” He meant, we could move my discussion of a 1936 novel by Wyndham Lewis into the center of the larger presentation, something unobtrusively three-parted. Parts I and III—the bread—would have humbler business. Ken’s novels had often employed “sandwich” chapters, three main scenes with the meaty one in the center, and since the craft I was trying to learn was a kind of narrative, his experience had every chance of being helpful.
Later in the essay, Kenner notes that “I’d not even known it was narrative I was attempting. Exposition, I had been taught, was one thing, but narrative was something else. Ken was quietly persuasive. All was narrative. When hard to follow, it was bad narrative. Narrative meant no more than serial revelations in time.” You know when people say (or used to say) “such-and-such made my hair stand on end”? That happened to me the first time I read this essay. And speaking of Macdonald, both from his novels and from his own essays, you can get a bone-deep sense of “plot” that rhymes with James Matthew Wilson’s manifesto: “The nature of reality governs the law of art, and the artist’s work helps us to discern the laws of reality.”
Viktor Shklovsky, Energy of Delusion: A Book on Plot
First published in Russian in 1981, this magnificent and wildly digressive book, a book of old age, was translated into English by Shushan Avagyan and published by Dalkey Archive Press in 2007. I could quote from it all day and all night for a week. Throughout, Tolstoy gets pride of place (the title is taken from a letter of his), but Shklovsky touches on other Russian writers (he’s very good on Chekhov) and occasionally looks further afield.
The search in literature is the search for new meaning in life; old interpretations recede, a new one comes forth that seems will last forever.
The foremost prerequisite for this search—disenchantment with old forms—is basic to the progress of art.
And yet, as Shklovsky shows again and again, the “old forms” aren’t really lost: “A phenomenon in art never fades away.” And “the new” becomes old-hat.
(A footnote: Throughout his career, Shklovsky was particularly aware of the way in which plot and parody are often intimately entwined. How fitting that this late magnum opus should so unmistakably invite parody itself!)
Michael Chabon, “Fan Fictions: On Sherlock Holmes”
This essay appears in Chabon’s Maps and Legends: Reading and Writing Across the Borderlands; it started life in two installments in the New York Review of Books. I remember first reading it there, giddy with delight, astonished (as a lifelong fan of Sherlock Holmes) that Chabon could take up a subject written about and written up from seemingly every conceivable angle and treat it with such insolent brilliance, mixed with deep affection. And the essay belongs on any shortlist devoted to “plot.”
Nearly all the Holmes stories . . . are stories of people who tell their stories, and every so often the stories these people tell feature people telling stories (about what they heard or saw, for example, on the night in question), and if this sounds like a dubiously metafictional observation, then we may have forgotten how fundamental such stories-within-stories have always been to popular art, from Homer to Green Acres, and how lightly worn. . . .
Writers and storytellers had been nesting their narratives for centuries . . . in an effort to approximate the networks of story that ramify and complicate our experience of everyday life. But until Conan Doyle, no one had hit on a way, or even seen the need, to ensure that the gears of each nested story were fully engaged with those it contained and were in turn contained by.
Brain, exploding (that was me, taking this in for the first time).
John Wilson is a contributing editor for The Englewood Review of Books and senior editor at The Marginalia Review of Books.
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