In Defense of Plot

Last weekend, I had a conversation with someone about Flannery O’Connor. I said that I had read A Good Man is Hard to Find a couple years ago, and while I appreciated her insight in a general way, I didn’t find her way with words particularly stirring.

The person I was talking to seemed disappointed, and the conversation moved on. However, the conversation was enough for me to bump Everything That Rises Must Converge to the top of my “To Read Next” stack.

I’m blown away.

It took one sentence on the second page of the first story–“He decided it was less comical than jaunty and pathetic.”–for me to realize that I had had no idea what I was talking about. Who could possibly have thought to rub “jaunty” and “pathetic” against one another like that? I’ve spent the last few years worshiping at the altar of Amy Hempel.  It’s hard not to marvel at the subtle, delicate flavor of her sentences, which comes from so many words, clauses, and thoughts being patiently boiled off like excess sherry.  A sentence by Amy Hempel leaves you with the essence of each thought on your palate, wanting more but having more than enough to know what a great meal you’re having. However, “less comical than jaunty and pathetic” is a marriage of words that I would never have expected–a truly surprising moment of language that, in context, feels inevitable.  What other pair or trio of words could possibly evoke what the active words in that sentence evoke? 

I don’t know exactly where or when it happened, but somewhere over the last few years I came to believe that good short fiction with elegant, powerful language and true depth of insight did not deal with plot.  I felt that in the 21st century, short fiction had moved beyond plot.  Maybe it was Amy Hempel and Jane Avrich’s statements that they start with voice (and Hempel’s confession that plot is the least element she thinks about).  Certainly Gary Lutz’s declaration that film was the perfect story-telling medium and so short stories should now be about psychology and syntax contributed to the prejudice. Plot was now the stuff of low-brow short fiction. If you wanted a gripping plot, read a novel or go to a movie. (Because he is a satirist, George Saunders was allowed to use plot in his short stories and still be taken seriously. But no one else. Just him.) And, to be honest, some of the contemporary short stories I had been reading lately reinforced that opinion–they were plot-driven and bad.   

O’Connor, though, has washed away my ability to hold that prejudice. Her stories are rich, full-bodied, and intricately textured.  True, they were written some seventy years ago, in the same half-century that yielded the work of Hemingway and Fitzgerald, but reading these pieces, it’s impossible for me to delude myself into considering the possibility that short fiction has lost its claim to plot as a central story-telling element.  In true O’Connor fashion, it was a prejudice I wasn’t even fully conscious of possessing.  

It’s been said that when we read something that excites us, it doesn’t feel like we are being moved with a new idea or insight so much as it feels like an idea or insight we never realized was in us was being dislodged and brought into sight.  O’Connor’s collection, though, does something entirely different: it dislodges and drags into sight the things in us we had hoped to keep safely locked up and hidden. Petty bitterness, hypocrisy, dehumanizing prejudice, deluded superiority–this is a fearless collection of fiction. Fitzgerald may have lamented what he saw the generation around him doing, but O’Connor lamented what the people around her were on a fundamental level.  And not just the people around her, but herself, as well.

It has to be debilitating to look not only at the inner failings of those around you but of yourself as unflinchingly as these stories indicate O’Connor had.  To be able to accept that we are all that vile, that wretched–more wretched than we could ever admit or imagine–you would need some kind of external assurance that you were more loved and accepted than you ever dared hope.

I wonder where O’Connor got that affirmation from?

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