Form and Function, Emotion and Idea

Serdar Yegulalp had a great post a few weeks back over at Infinimata Press in which he explored the idea of SF as a progressive social force. In doing so, he drew on a work of SF literary criticism called Structural Fabulation by Robert Scholes, one which I acquired about two years back and, as I mentioned in a comment on that very post, had unfortunately not gotten around to reading. I promptly pulled it from the shelf and added it to my stack of books.

Structural Fabulation is a quick, dense read. There are number of productive lines of discussion I could draw out of it, but the one I’d like to address today draws on this segment in particular:

[T]o the extent that the dominant realistic novel has abandoned the pleasures of narrative movement for the areas of psychological and social analysis, a gap in the system has developed which a number of lesser forms have sought to fill. All the forms of adventure fiction, from western, to detective, to spy to costume—have come into being in response to the movement of “serious” fiction away from plot and the pleasures of fictional sublimation. Because many human beings experience a psychological need for narration—whether cultural or biological in origin—the literary system must include works which answer to that need. But when the dominant canonical form fails to satisfy such a basic drive, the system becomes unbalanced. The result is that readers resort secretly and guiltily to lesser forms for that narrative fix they cannot do without.
In a previous post I wrote about my experience with Classical literature, I made mention of having wrecked my undergraduate English literature degree. Scholes has articulated here exactly the point I had sensed as young adult and pushed back at within my literature department—there was something in works of SF, in fantasy, in video games, and in television series that was compelling in a way that what my professors were presenting me with—specifically at that time, James Joyce and Virginia Wolff, weren’t. That something, Scholes argues, is “narrative movement,” also referred to as “plot.”

Scholes’s statement is decisive. Human beings are drawn to stories possessing narrative movement, no matter how hackneyed their other elements may be. The dominant literary culture can try to cast it as a “less worthy” literary structure, but this is ultimately counterproductive. To understand why, we first need to get inside the motivations of those who created such divisions in the first place.

Why did plot come to be looked down upon in the literary circles of the early twentieth century?

The biggest difference that sets apart “narrative movement” from “psychological and social analysis” is that the former draws largely on emotion and the latter on intellect. Plot requires no concerted mental work to pick up. It is the feeling of being immersed in a text. In contrast, analysis requires careful attention to detail and a mind that is actively working to connect the pieces of the narrative to the rest of the human experience. This is the feeling of being engaged with a text.

This difference makes plot vulnerable. Because it stimulates a core human desire, it can be exploited. Each of us has certainly experienced at least one movie, television show, or book, in which the sole purpose of the fiction seemed to be for a sequence of exciting events to unfold one after the other with little chance for the subject to even catch their breath, let alone have a thought or appreciate a particularly well-wrought detail. Within months or sometimes even weeks, we discover that a new installment in the series of such a work is available, or that some economically savvy creator has found a way to reproduce the plot line of an already-popular work with different characters and setting. With such works, the “appreciator” becomes a “consumer.” Rather than fulfilling an innate psychological desire, the work (and, by proxy, its creator) become exploiters of that desire instead.

The solution of the early twentieth century was to cast plot into the abyss. If plot can be exploited, the reasoning went, it cannot have anything to do with what is considered “high.” This merely created other problems. The first was that members of the literary establishment still needed to find a way to fulfill their desire for narrative movement somehow, since they were no longer getting it through their daily work as academics. Scholes goes on to cite an example in which Y. B. Yeats begrudgingly admitted to enjoying detective stories. The second was that, when plot was cast out by the literary authorities, non-authorities, genres such as westerns, detective stories, and SF, began providing it instead. This isolated those genres from the richness and complexity of social and psychological analysis. The isolation hurt both sides of the divide. Both become impoverished in different ways.

A better configuration, it seems, would be to construct a work that integrates both—one which fulfills the human desire for narrative, but rather than exploiting it to make a quick buck, integrates narrative seamlessly with psychological and social analysis. Serdar Yegulalp comes to a similar conclusion in his recent blog post High and Low:

Popular stuff gave me the form, and high stuff gave me the content. I saw no reason why I couldn’t write stories that were adventurous and fun, and yet at the same time overlaid and undergirded with things that meant something to me.
What we should celebrate as “high” is not story that rejects plot, but which integrates it constructively with complex characters and sophisticated ideas. That is what I strive for, although I make no claims to ever having achieved it to any level of satisfaction, particularly my own.