Like anyone else who constantly reads and has read hundreds or thousands of books (I never began to count them, but surely I've read thousands by now: fiction, nonfiction, poetry, plays, art...), I sometimes find myself in a reverse 'Buridan's ass' dilemma resulting from my disposition toward hypercriticism. I begin reading, say, a novel by William Gass, but the author's pathological hatred of narrative turns my reading into an arduous drive up a rocky mountain, so I jerk on the parking break and turn to a genre novel--Ursula Le Guin or Stephen King, let's say--only to be repulsed by the stylistic anemia of generic prose. I usually end by reading neither book and scrawling a few lines in my notebook about the null place where constant criticism has stalled me, all the while still intensely desiring that mindblowing experience of fiction, that nearly ideal novel that marries prose of Gass-level beauty and intelligence to the ineluctable structural logic of the best genre fiction.
Why has this become an either/or in our literary world? Why can't the plot/prose duality be a both-and? Why can't we have both witty, beautiful, lyrical prose and a cracking good story? Why can't a literary novel also be a page-turner, and vice-versa? The combination of artful prose and tight plotting (even melodrama) is certainly not a new idea. Dickens did it, and Nabokov, Faulkner too, and Fitzgerald. The 'new' and bad idea is the notion that these two things mustn't go together, that a tightly-plotted, swiftly-paced work must be written in stripped-down sentences (or Ellroyan fragments) while lyricism is expected and permitted only in 'serious' novels written by people who live in Brooklyn and/or teach 'creative writing' (a phrase that should be redundant, like 'leggy pants' or 'well-hung pornstar'). Writers today need to break down the imaginary wall between plotting and lyricism and rediscover the old synthesis, not as nostalgia but as rejuvenation. This seems urgently necessary today, as genre fiction hardens into pared-down repetitions of structural formulae and 'literary' fiction, that ostensible game reserve for stylists, is often blandly written, with little or no attention to the music of words. Too much of our 'art prose' is being written silently, whereas prose should always sing.
That last sentence brings me by a commodious vicus of recirculation back to William Gass and environs. Call him Bulbous Bill, Big Billy Boy, the Alliterative BHG (his rap name), just don't call him a plotter of plots. He loves sentences, hates plots. Plots make him plotz. But this wasn't always so. Witness his first published fiction, 1958's "The Pedersen Kid" (collected ten years later in his essential book of short fiction, In The Heart of the Heart of the Country). This 80-page story is one frozen hell of a debut, an instant American classic. It's a brilliant, gorgeously written exploration of the homicidal hatred that festers inside families, and it boasts an ending even more "zero at the bone" than its wintry setting. And it is also a 'story' in the traditional sense of the word, a deliberately (even elegantly) plotted work of narrative fiction. This story and parts of Omensetter's Luck mark the young Gass as a direct descendant of William Faulkner and suggest that he might have become a more Cormac McCarthyesque kind of novelist had he not fallen under the baleful influence of the stony Stein sisters, Gertrude and Wittgen, and metamorphosed into the postmodern wordplayer who's still playing even now (and beautifully) as ninety nears. If Gass hadn't made a 'linguistic turn' down the tunnel to Academic Ghettoland--and if he hadn't grown to despise narrative with the same superflux of spite with which Ruskin roared against the Renaissance or divines denounce the devil--he might have become, well, John Hawkes... But we already had one of him, and he did the job well enough for two, so Gass went digging elsewhere and turned up what is surely the strangest and most unexpected oeuvre of his literary generation.
But in this post I'm supposed to be opposing Gass, not burying him with blurbs. It's time to go contra on Gass's ass. Contra Gass (sounds like a 1980s CIA-owned Central American petroleum company, n'est-ce pas?), yes, contra Gass (who, I suspect, was attempting to elevate a personal weakness (the inability to plot at novelistic length) into a prescriptive law), yes, yes, contra Gass, narrative, that old inextricable intertangling of story and plot, and character, those bugbears of psychological complexity and realistically multiple motivation, should be valued at least as highly as the linguistic fabric of a work. When either side of this supposed duality is overly privileged, the novel will either freeze in a frost of 'white writing' or fizzle out in wordy displays of narcissistic fireworks. Instead of seesawing overcompensations, we require Hegelian synthesis and Aristotelian balance. The errant Clement Greenbergism that prescribes a medium's material as its only valid message (an aesthetic ideology for which Finnegans Wake and The Tunnel might stand as the defining Pollocks and De Koonings) is already the dustbreath of ghosts and deserves to be blown away by books that are elegant in both prose and plot. The works of Annie Proulx, Cormac McCarthy and Michael Chabon are fine examples of such syntheses in the American grain. We need more books and writers (and readers) like them.