Plot and the novel

From Julian Evans’ review of Christopher Booker’s The Seven Basic Plots, on which I plan to go halfsies with Emma:

The histories of the novel and of storytelling ran together until the early 20th century; since the 1920s, that history has been one of formal drift, away from the novel as a social form that described how characters live in relation to others, a drift that gathered decisive momentum in the 1970s, as self-consciousness was joined to irony. You may object that the novel, as a result of the century’s bitter fragmentation, is no longer required to satisfy EM Forster’s tentative claim that “Yes – oh dear, yes – the novel tells a story”; that Joyce’s linguistic pile-ups have embarrassed us out of anything so simple; that readers are too aware to acquiesce any longer to the novelist’s authority to tell them that, “It was a snowy Sunday afternoon in February,” and that Charles and Emma Bovary have gone with Homais and Leon to see a new flax mill near Yonville.

The first of these objections assumes the novel is a vulnerable form, easily manipulated and destabilised. That assumption is hardly borne out by its tumultuous 400-year history. The final objection, that it is no longer as easy to hoodwink readers as it used to be, is simply a slur on our grandparents. And a further obfuscation has grown up: the notion that there is a difference between novelists and storytellers. The assumption here is that the novelist is a creature of form and language, while the storyteller is occupied with the lesser act of narrative. There are several possible rebuttals to this distinction, depending on your literary tastes, but it is salutary to quote a defender of the contemporary literary novel, Fiammetta Rocco, one of this year’s Man Booker judges: “Reading 132 books in 147 days… you learn a great deal about why so many novels – even well-written, carefully crafted novels, as so many of those submitted were – are ultimately pointless.”

I have no desire to sound like the second of EM Forster’s imaginary readers in Aspects of the Novel (“What does a novel do? Why, tell a story of course, and I’ve no use for it if it didn’t”). Like Forster, I detest this little Englander. But where today is the “high storytelling” of Fitzgerald or of Robert Louis Stevenson, who, beyond his well known juvenilia, wrote in The Beach of Falesa one of the best modern stories in English? No division existed in Stevenson’s lifetime between literature and storytelling; Henry James, that subtle critic and literary snob, would not have been his admiring friend if one had existed.

Storytelling’s golden age is not, of course, the 19th century. Storytelling has no golden age. It has stirred us since the first creation myths, and continues to do so in the guise of modern cosmology: what else is big bang theory but a story?


You might want to subscribe to my free Substack newsletter, Ancestor Trouble, if the name makes intuitive sense to you.