Friday, October 31, 2008

It's Halloween: Do You Know Where Your Plot Is?

In the interest of transitioning from MFA neophyte to world weary, published author, I have been reading agent blogs and “straight shooting from the editor” type articles. I recommend this practice to anyone who thinks a love of Borges will translate into a three book deal. To elaborate: I have encountered (more than once) the criticism that MFAers tend to overwork language at the expense of plot. For the last day of October, I’d like to indulge full Libra mode, where I agree and disagree with both sides.

I agree!

In my MFA workshops, I read many (bottom line) boring stories. %90 of the stories in Best New American Voices are boring. Most of my stories are boring! (Note: code for "boring" in the industry is "pacing"). Often the culprit is lack of plot. You can include the best description of grandpa’s golf bag ever, but what’s the point if nothing ever happens with it?

John Irving’s lecture at the last AWP focused on plot. Plot, he said. My novels are all built around a plot. Then he stared everyone down, daring them to argue. I agree with Irving in that plot is often treated like the KY Jelly of literary techniques, this dirty little secret, because if you were a real writer, everything would develop “naturally.” In my MFA program some writers treated plot with an air of disdain. As though artists shouldn’t have to sully themselves. Not my instructors, though. They seemed pretty intent on reminding us that as fiction (or nonfiction) writers our job is to tell stories, not describe grampy’s golf bag.

I disagree!

Wait, did I just hear that correctly? Editors and agents are saying writers shouldn’t overly concern themselves with language.

Those boring stories I read in workshop? Many of them were boring because sentence by sentence, nothing intrigued me. And as for writers I admire, what I admire is the language. Yes, MFA programs emphasize literary fiction, not popular fiction. That’s why we went! If we wanted to write popular fiction we would have hunkered down with How to Write A Damn Good Novel. Instead we read Borges.

Plot and language? Language and plot?


Monica said...

Borges is infinitely more fascinating than 99% of anything I've seen in literary journals. Because the literary fiction world has not only forgotten Plot, but any ambition whatsoever for Ideas.

My two cents. :)

Beth Staples said...

Both! Both!

As a literary journal editor, I can absolutely say: I have not forgotten plot. Honestly, I'm pretty tired of reading stories that aren't actually stories.