Anne Enright on plot and writing

by on January 15, 2014 at 2:01 pm in Books, The Arts | Permalink

 AE: Plot is a kind of paranoia, actually. It implies that events are connected, that characters are connected, just because they are in the same book. I like the way Pynchon exposed the essential paranoia of plot in The Crying of Lot 49. When I read that book as a student, I realized that if you bring coincidence or the mechanics of plotting into a book, it begs all the questions about who is writing this book and why, or why you’re making this mechanical toy do these things. That, to me as a reader, is slightly alienating. But, you know, things do happen in real life. People die in car accidents. There are connections and coincidences.

She is an Irish writer, there is more here, interesting throughout.  I also liked this sentence:

The unknowability of one human being to another is an endless subject for novelists.

And this bit about writing:

It’s like getting a herd of sheep across a field. If you try to control them too much, they resist. It’s the same with a book. If you try to control it too much, the book is dead. You have to let it fall apart quite early on and let it start doing its own thing. And that takes nerve, not to panic that the book you were going to write is not the book you will have at the end of the day.

Hat tip goes to The Browser.

William McGreevey January 15, 2014 at 5:21 pm

The not-so-long-ago Shiller/Akerlof book, written when George already had his Nobel but Robert was still awaiting his, refers to plots that a writer should consider. I ask our students in health economics always to identify which of the plots informs their 20 or so page empirical reports written for the course. That requirement helps focus their mind. Here are the
Twenty fundamental plots
Adventure
Ascension
Descension
Discovery
Escape
Forbidden love
Love
Maturation
Metamorphosis
Pursuit
Quest
rescue
revenge
Riddle
Rivalry
Sacrifice
Temptation
Transformation
Underdog
Wretched excess

Tobias, Ronald B. 1993. Twenty master plots and how to build them. Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest.

Akerlof-Shiller notes

ohwilleke January 15, 2014 at 5:38 pm

That kind of take on what writing is about is why I became a math major instead of an English major.

Finch January 15, 2014 at 5:59 pm

I think it just shows that novels are relatively simple creations. You could imagine someone saying something similar about, say, a smartphone app they had created. But it would be ridiculous to say it about Lockheed’s Joint Strike Fighter, Intel’s i7-4770R, SpaceX’s Falcon 9, or Ford’s F-150.

A Definite Beta Guy January 15, 2014 at 6:07 pm

You could say that exactly about the F-35, which is probably why we do not yet have any combat ready F-35s.

Finch January 15, 2014 at 6:09 pm

I don’t mean to put those forward as examples of great success. I mean to put them forward as examples of things that are complicated.

Translating her statements into modern English, she wrote “I just sat down and started coding. I really don’t like the part where you have to plan everything out.”

RM January 15, 2014 at 9:46 pm

All most all–and some would argue every–great machines are built on incremental improvements or the putting together of things made through incremental improvements. Every great book was built from scratch.

I hung out with a number of non-math folks in grad school and among some there was math/physics envy. On this site I notice frequent dismissals of people who don’t do math. I suspect that this is actually arts envy wrapped in righteous indignation.

WRT the coding example, you might have a good instance: think of the ACS website. And no, this is not a government thing: the first coders of the internet also had to follow the code where it took them.

Willitts January 16, 2014 at 1:03 am

I think her point is that you seldom have an interesting story if you plan it out from the beginning. She begins with an idea for a story, but then keeps an open mind and allows her imagination to keep it flowing. She is precisely saying that a well written novel doesn’t have the formal structure of a research paper, and novels written with plots have such a structure – they are formulaic.

Finch January 16, 2014 at 8:43 am

I don’t think I’m anti-art. But I am feeling pretty negative about fiction these days. And flowery, but ultimately vacuous, statements about how you just need to throw the book together and it will be great, are not exactly encouraging. They show that Ms. Enright doesn’t know the factors driving her own success. The first quote seems to be getting at verisimilitude – if the plot is too contrived, it’s not going to work because real life isn’t like that. The second is a clear refutation of the statement “Every great book was built from scratch.” She’s just chosen a trope. If she was writing for another audience she could have said “The lost object is an endless subject for novelists.” The third is pure rubbish that gets right to my criticism. This is a couple of years effort by one person without any real need for collaboration. It’s just not that complicated a thing. When we imagine it’s more complicated and that it means more than that, we are over-concluding. At least in general. I don’t deny that a couple of years labor by some people is worth more than a couple of years labor by others.

Finch January 16, 2014 at 9:06 am

> if the plot is too contrived, it’s not going to work because real life isn’t like that.

She should also tell that to John Grisham. This might just be her choice of genre or market.

RC January 16, 2014 at 7:57 am

It’s peculiar to compare the creation of a single individual with something created by hundreds if not thousands. How many individuals working on the F-150 contributed anything as complex as a novel? Not very many, I’d wager.

Finch January 16, 2014 at 8:20 am

Huh? Surely most of the engineers did, right? I think you’re suggesting a novel is more complicated than, say, a fuel pump because one tingles your emotional buttons and the other doesn’t. The novel is designed to do that. There’s less there than you think.

Ryan January 15, 2014 at 5:44 pm

Ahh, the beauty of an industry without cost estimates.

Thor January 15, 2014 at 6:31 pm

I wonder, is this why so many writers are utopian thinkers? (But, happily, the minority who are dystopian tend to be better writers.)

Adrian Ratnapala January 15, 2014 at 7:56 pm

What?

Alan January 15, 2014 at 9:59 pm

Couldn’t the same thing be said of managing governmental “management” of economies?
It’s like getting a herd of sheep across a field. If you try to control them too much, they resist. It’s the same with a book. If you try to control it too much, the book is dead. You have to let it fall apart quite early on and let it start doing its own thing. And that takes nerve, not to panic that the book you were going to write is not the book you will have at the end of the

Roy January 15, 2014 at 11:25 pm

+1

Shane M January 16, 2014 at 12:11 am

re: “it begs all the questions about who is writing this book and why, or why you’re making this mechanical toy do these things”

Stephen King talks about this a bit in his book “On Writing.” Paraphrasing, his method is to put characters in situations, but have them react naturally – have them try to figure their way out – having a road map but not having their destiny predetermined. He gives an example if his initial unfortunate plan (seed idea) for the main character and plot in “Misery” – but found that the character was more resourceful than expected as he wrote the book.

dan in philly January 16, 2014 at 10:06 am

Much of the discussion here illustrates why I dislike fiction. It’s too predictable.

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