Plot Genre and the Pulp Fiction Boondoggle
Apparently yet again the mainstream critics have gotten it wrong, and not surprisingly it came out of Northeastern literary circles, whose stable of critics includes such dim luminaries as the functionally illiterate Michiko Kakutani and the it-would-be-funny-if-it-weren't-so-tragic-how-completely-wrong-she-always-is-about-everything-she's-supposed-to-be-an-expert-on Helen Vendler, and need I mention N+1?
This latest, as Matt Cheney rightly points out, is an attempt to elevation to "serious literary discourse" the old straw man that's been kicked around in genre fiction and fan fic circles for at least a generation now, namely that genre fiction is somehow superior to literary fiction because it has a plot and literary fiction is just a bunch of navel gazing character study nonsense couched in mandarin language.
Other people have done a very thorough job of dismantling Lev Grossman's "Good Novel's Don't Have to Be Hard" essay, so I'm not going to go into the details of that here. What I would like to point out, however, is that part of the reason that "hard" novels are "hard" is not because they don't have plots, they do, but rather because you have to do some work to understand what's going on. This is different from bad genre fiction because with bad genre fiction, you know what's going on before you even pick the book up. With the best of genre fiction—Philip K. Dick, Michael Moorcock, Dashiel Hammett, HP Lovecraft, etc—you still have that difficulty. There is a departure from the one dimensional plane of the stock plot into other areas. Certainly the cliché plot may function as a sort of anchor, but the books are good despite the predictable plot, not because of it. Usually they succeed because there is a conscious recognition of the stock nature of the plot and the need to dress it up in prettier clothes in order to disguise it's familiarity from the reader. And this is part of the joy of fiction. The best books convince us that it is telling us a new story; there's a degree of unpredictability and while there are elements that are universal, we are compelled to dash for the last page to find out what happens. With the vast bulk of genre fiction, that simply isn't present. This is why it is bad. The plot is not an anchor holding the structure together but rather a weight around the neck of the story. With these books you get what you expect get, a little bit of candyfloss and more or less a very conservative approach to the basic story found in any other mediocre book of that genre. This is also true of the literary fiction genre, which, as it's not much more than a marketing device rather than a true descriptive, is just as good or bad as any other genre.
For those who don't believe me I present her an authoritative, definitive list of the master plots to be found in all genres of fiction. People who champion this plot over substance approach are really just championing the dumbing down of it. They want cookie cutters and they enjoy bad fiction because it gives them that cookie cutter with littler or no effort on their part. Such people have no place in the discourse. They do not understand that part of discovering whether a book is any good or not is determining to what extent it expands the genre formula in its particulars. One of the reasons that work in all genres is bad, including in literary fiction, is that there just isn't that much divergent thinking. Authors and publishers are far too content to keep cranking out the same garbage over and over again, so when one buys a book, any book, it's just another bad rip off of the bad rip off you saw before. Not surprisingly, each genre formula is easily incapsulated in a single sentence. My guess is this has to do with the fact that so many publishing decisions are made based on query letters rather than manuscripts, but that is a topic for another time. On point here is this: think about some of the great works of any genre and consider what it does with its sentence belo, and compare that to the run of the mill and you will see that yet again this is just some knee jerk anti-intellectualism parading a false dichotomy between bread and circus and the rarified air of the academy...
I.) Adventure Fiction - Bad Asses Kicking Ass
A. Thriller - Bad Asses kicking terrorist/commie ass.
B. Legal Thriller - Bad Ass Lawyers kicking ass of well funded dark mysterious power.
C. Spy Thriller - Bad Asses kicking terrorist/commie ass using ninja skills and being all tight lipped about it afterwards.
D. Eco-Thriller - Bad Asses kicking ass for the environment.
E. Western - Bad Asses kicking ass with six guns while wearing dusters and on horseback.
F. Classic Adventure - Bad Asses kicking native ass for the glory of the queen.
II.) Science Fiction - Ass kicking with a technological twist.
A. Hard Sci Fi - Nerds getting their asses kicked by advanced techonology interspersed with digressions about science that isn't really science.
B. Space Opera - Bad Asses kicking ass in outer space.
C. Military Sci Fi - Bad Ass Army dudes kicking ass with ray guns, and maybe in space.
D. Cyberpunk - Bad Asses with good fashion sense getting their asses kicked by corporations, most likely in Tokyo.
E. Steampunk - Nerds and Bad Asses with weird fashion sense getting their asses kicked by steam powered robots in Victorian England.
F. Post Apocalyptic Sci Fi - Bad Asses Kicking Ass after the bomb goes off.
III.) Fantasy - Mythic Ass Kicking
A. Sword & Sorcery - Bad Asses kicking ass in the past with swords, and, um, sorcery.
B. High Fantasy - "Let's see how much we can plagiarize from the Lord of the Rings without getting sued by the Tolkien Estate!"
C. Dungeons & Dragons - Book length advertisement for a TSR/Wizards of the Coast roleplaying game product featuring Bad Asses kicking ass in such a way as to adhere loosely to the rules of that TSR/Wizards of the Coast roleplaying game product.
D. Urban Fantasy - "I bet the Tolkien Estate won't catch on that this is copyright violation if we set it in a modern city!"
E. Alternate History - Wouldn't it be weird if the [fill in the blank] war had been won by [fill in the blank with the name of the side that lost]?
F. Modern Supernatural Fantasy - Werewolf/Ghost/Vampire badass kicking ass in the contemporary world and whining about their lot in life.
G. Medieval Fantasy - King Arthur changes his name to something that sounds made up and then kicks some ass in a country that is definitely NOT Great Britain, like, at all.
IV.) Detective stories - Kicking some criminal ass
A. Basic Mystery - Bad Asses figuring shit out then kicking some ass.
B. Cozy - Bad Ass middle aged or elderly women figuring shit out then kicking some ass.
C .Police Procedural - Bad Ass Cops figuring shit out with science then kicking some ass.
D. Suspense - Bad Asses figuring shit out, then getting his ass kicked, then kicking some ass.
E. Hard Boiled - Bad Ass Private Detective getting his ass kicked, then figuring shit out, then kicking some ass, then figuring some shit out that kicks his ass, then drinking some whisky.
F Crime - Bad Ass Crooks kick some cops' asses.
V.) Romance - Love kicks ass
A. Basic Romance - Two hot people fuck.... eventually.
B. Tragic Romance - Two hot people fuck.... eventually. Then one of them dies.
C. Shakespearean Romance - Two hot people want to fuck, but can't, so they and all their family and friends die.
D. Supernatural Romance - A vampire wants to fuck an innocent young girl, but can't, but he really really wants to, but that would be wrong, but he really really REALLY wants to, but no he's cursed and damned and ought not soil her purity, but dammit he wants to get it on because being celibate for an eternity of night when you're constantly surrounded by goth chicks in tight leather is a real bitch, and then he finds a loophole and fucks her then fade to black while the opening chords of "Moon Over Bourbon Street" swell in the background.
E. Erotica - Mary Sue has an Orgasm, oh, and she's also super hot.
F. Supernatural Erotica - Mary Sue has an Orgasm with Lestat, um, I mean, some vampire who is definitely NOT Lestat.
A. Realistic - Normal people get their asses kicked by lunatics.
B. Supernatural - Normal people get their asses kicked by monsters.
C. Lovecraft - Normal people get their asses kicked by crazy shit from outerspace that no way could you ever comprehend it so I'm not even gonna bother trying to describe it to you 'cuz dude you'd seriously just lose your shit if I did.
VII.) Literary Fiction - Micro and macroscopic ass kicking.
A. Modernism - The World Kicks some solitary badass's ass.
B. Postmodernism - A million badasses kick the world's ass.
C. Minimalism - A Day in the Life of some loser.
D. Contemporary Literary Fiction - Some Normal Guy has an epiphany while looking at something mundane.
E. Postcontemporary Literary Fiction - All of the above and then some.