I had an interesting and somewhat disquieting insight yesterday.
Wife and self, coming back home too late in the night, in a near empty metro train. Wife spots a studious, young, 'I-don't-need-to-dress-up-because-I-know-I-am-pretty' college-student type reading 'The Elegance of the Hedgehog'. Wife recognizes cover.
Wife: Hey! Isn't that the book you were reading at home?
JS: (nodding abstractedly) Mmm-hmm
Wife: Well ... if she can read it, I can read it too.
JS: (not quite knowing the right answer) Mmm-hmm
Wife: OK, tell me in short what the story is.
JS: (not turning out his most eloquent performance) Mmm?
Wife: (with some exasperation) The story, the plot ... what is it?
JS: Well ... there is this intellectual girl who lives in an apartment building in Paris ...
Wife: Paris? I love Paris! We should go there one day. But I hear it isn't very child-friendly. I wonder where we would leave N (our daughter) ....
JS: (back in comfort zone) Mmm-hmm
Wife: (breaking her reverie) So there is this girl?
JS: (sigh) Yes, this girl. And in the same apartment building the concierge is also a very intellectual woman, though she hides it from everyone.
Wife: That sounds weak, but go on.
JS: Well ... there isn't much to tell from there. The story is about the two of them. Their thoughts about people in the building, their views on art and philosophy ...
Wife: All that is fine. But what is the story? What happens?
JS: (now really confused) Well, nothing happens really. That is not the point.
Wife: What do you mean that is not the point? Isn't this a novel?
JS: (Starting to realize even as he speaks that this isn't making much sense) Ye...ssssssss, it is a novel. But this is literary fiction. It doesn't necessarily have a story or plot.
Wife: (with admirable decisiveness) I don't think I will like it then. What is a novel if it doesn't have a plot?
Which brings me to my disquieting insight - Modern literary fiction doesn't have a plot anymore!
Somewhere along the way, literature stopped being about pure and simple storytelling. Having a plot somehow became bourgeois. Writers of literary fiction got all caught up in characterization, language, and structure. The storytelling became incidental to the whole exercise. Literature became, in large part, worship at the alter of language.
Somewhere along the line, in other words, the 'plot' died.
It didn't start this way. The origins of literature are firmly in the traditions of storytelling. Dickens was primarily a storyteller. And so was Tolstoy. And Jane Austen. And Shakespeare. I don't think they would have even understood "But this is literary fiction. It doesn't necessarily have a story or plot." I am sure Shakespeare would have gone - "Quit thy prattle forthwith!"
Now, I do love my Rushdie, and Ishiguro and Roth and multiple other proponents of this 'no plot' or 'low plot' literature. In their capable hands, language and structure and characterization are putty that can make the most glorious art. But sometimes I do wish there were more literary writers of who just told a good tale. Like Rushdie in East, West. Or John Irving. Or (reaching back a bit) Roald Dahl. Or (on a tangent) John le Carre.
Now that would be literature. With a story. Something my wife would like to read too.