Plot is Dead? Fiction and Reality Hunger

Manifestos are meant to provoke, and David Shields doesn’t disappoint. I wrote about Reality Hunger in an earlier post that focused on his views of reality-bending “non-fiction” and the collage-inspired appropriation of work by other writers. I have to say, I’m not ready to abide deliberate fabrications in what are purported to be factual accounts.  And though artistic creation is certainly colored by influence and tradition (that may include stylistic borrowing, derivation, satire and parody, etc.), I am uncomfortable with Shields’s view of carefree artistic appropriation. But in regard to fiction, the most astonishing claim Shields makes, in my opinion, is the idea that plot is dead. The future of fiction, as Shields sees it, is in fragments, collage, and the blending in of factual and essayistic elements.

Shields may be bored with plot, but the appeal of a good story continues to determine the reading choices for the majority of readers. Plot is of central importance in much popular fiction, and it is practically definitive for adventure stories, mysteries, and thrillers. Romance readers require happy endings, and plot-driven quests are common in science fiction and fantasy. It might even be argued (as Shields does) that some memoirists give in to temptation and introduce fake events in order to create a captivating story line. Storytelling has very deep roots, and I think plot-based books will continue to dominate the offerings of the major publishing houses.

But publishing trends and popularity aside, I would love to see more interest in the type of fiction Shields is espousing.  I’m glad for the passages in which he makes direct reading recommendations, and for the reluctantly supplied footnotes – both of which may help steer adventurous readers to deserving authors. Among the many rewarding though hard-to-classify writers Shields has singled out are: Lydia Davis, Jorge Luis Borges, J. M. Coetzee, Nicholson Baker (especially The Mezzanine and U & I), and Fernando Pessoa (for his The Book of Disquiet).

Just as Shields will occasionally spit out lists of books in support of his manifesto, I thought I’d add to his suggestions some titles I’ve enjoyed that use collage, fragments, ancedotes, restless inquiry, the prose poem, or essay-like explorations: Bluets by Maggie Nelson; The Bathroom by Jean-Philippe Toussaint; The Interrogative Mood: a Novel? by Padgett Powell; Most of It by Mary Ruefle; and Bartleby & Co. by Enrique Vila-Matas.

The links above will allow you to read reviews or summaries of the books in the library catalog, or to place titles on hold for easy pickup. David Shields has thrown down the challenge. Take a deep breath and crack open his book. Or step into the brave new world of fiction offered in the links above. Getting started is as easy as the click of a mouse – what have you got to lose?

Scott