Plot, Story, Myth and Real Life

I have been trying for some time to think of an angle for a review of Toby Litt’s Journey Into Space, but could not come up with anything that did not involve massive spoilers. I have been saved by a post on io9. No, Mr. Wheeler, that’s not an April Fool. I shall explain, though this doesn’t really count as a review.

Firstly, however, a few words about the title of the book. Yes, it is awful. Apparently Litt is working his way through the alphabet. His first book had a title beginning with A. He has now arrived at J. I still think he could have done better.

Journey into Space is a generation ship novel – one of those books where the crew of an inter-stellar vessel goes through multiple generations in order to make the centuries-spanning journey to a distant star. It has been done many times before. Gene Wolfe’s Book of the Long Sun is a classic example. Litt appears to be well aware of the issues. He asks what the psychological effects would be on children who are born on board, come to learn about the beauties of planets, but know that they are doomed to spend their entire lives cooped up in a small, metal box. He asks what happens to the mission if significant changes take place on Earth while it is in flight. And I particularly like that fact that the members of the crew are all media celebrities back home, their lives followed as avidly as any soap opera. It is a proper science fiction novel.

But Ursula Le Guin hated it.

To understand why we have to consider Charlie Jane Anders’ post on io9. Charlie is talking about the difference between ‘plot’ and ‘story’. It is a fine distinction, and not one that everyone makes. The way I see it is as follows. The plot is the skeleton on which the book is built. The story is the fleshy covering that turns that framework into a living, breathing, individual book. The body can be gaunt and skinny, it can be toned and powerful, or it can be fat and flabby. But the one thing it has to do is cover the bones. If, when you read the book, you keep seeing those bones poking through, then you know the book isn’t really alive.

Story, however, has a strong connection with myth. If you have Story you tend to expect the book to mean something, at least for some of the characters. It doesn’t have to be the full-blown Joseph Campbell hero myth that you get in Star Wars. There are many different stories to be told. Human beings are forever wondering about the “meaning of life,” and one of the reasons that they love stories is that in stories people’s lives (or at least the lives of the main characters) do have meaning and shape.

Real life, however, is not generally full of meaning. One of the reasons we obsess over celebrities, and tend to over-dramatize every news story, is because of that search for meaning. We think it helps us make sense of our own meaningless lives. Or at least gives us hope that one day we too might have a Story worth telling.

Now think a minute about the literary writer. The whole point here is to reflect real life as it actually is. Mimetic fiction is fiction that mirrors real life. And if real life doesn’t have Stories, well literary fiction shouldn’t have them either. All you are supposed to do is relate what happens to the characters, not dress their lives up with invented drama and artificial conclusions.

Of course the writers who become really popular do have Story in their books: Dickens, for example. But many literary writers tend to shy away from Story, and that’s one of the main reasons why genre readers will look at a literary work and come away saying “meh”. That, I think, is what Le Guin did with Litt. The characters in the book are not heroes. Their lives begin and end. Society on the ship changes, but certainly not for the better. If Litt has any specific inspiration for the book it is probably Lord of the Flies. Journey into Space is a book about ordinary, rather stupid people struggling to cope in an extraordinary environment. It is not uplifting in any way. But it is still, I think, science fiction.

7 thoughts on “Plot, Story, Myth and Real Life

  1. Of course the writers who become really popular do have Story in their books: Dickens, for example. But many literary writers tend to shy away from Story, and that’s one of the main reasons why genre readers will look at a literary work and come away saying “meh”.

    I am a man of simple taste. I want it all. If a writer is going to dig into Story in a big way, then, in the bargain, I want to enjoy the experience while they do it. A novel can have literary virtues enough to make Harold Bloom praise it to the heavens…but if its boring to me, then its not worth my time.

    Life is too short for dull and boring books.

    As far as Plot vs Story and Myth, yes, the books that stick with you have a plot to carry you along into the world of the Story and the Myth. A novel which is solely plot driven is like a piece of sugar candy–good for the moment, but not fondly remembered a year from now, or maybe even a month.

  2. Cheryl: There’s only one problem with this theory. Many genre writers *are* attempting to re-create reality even if they’re transposing reality into the future or an imaginary setting, and many mainstream lit. writers are not trying to replicate reality. In that sense, it doesn’t matter whether there’s any speculative/fantasy element in a story. It matters only what approach the writer is attempting to take: realistic or non-realistic (to become binary for a moment–the “reality” is there are many different permutations of realism/not-realism). I like the idea above about story/plot, but you then apply it to a false paradigm. (But this also begins to touch on why I find Farah’s Rhetorics of Fantasy of limited use: it ignores the true paradigms of fiction.)

  3. Jeff:

    I’m not trying to suggest that all mainstream writers behave in this way, and I’m absolutely not suggesting that any writer should write in a particular way. I’m just looking at a possible reason why Litt’s book (and a number of other “literary” books) come across as “meh” to those of us who are looking for Story.

    More generally I think that’s an issue with all academic research. Academics like to put things in boxes. This is an “X”, that’s a “Y”, and that supports my theory that X and Y are different. But if X and Y decide to breed then any resulting offspring will neither be X nor Y.

    The trick is to use academic theories to help us understand the world without falling into the trap of things that those theories therefore define the world.

  4. I sort of agree with Mr. Vandermeer and even would go further in claiming that the cancer that rendered a lot of modern literary fiction irrelevant and instantly forgettable is exactly this obsession with “mimetism”.

    Life is riotous and varied and people’s lives are full of the fantastic even if only in rituals and beliefs.

    Nabokov is not purely mimetic; Borges is not purely mimetic; many of the “greatest” writers are not – even my limited readings from the latest Nobel prize winner (LeClezio) and they were quite interesting, far from boring

  5. Fascinating reading, and an enjoyable thought-provoking post. A conversation that has people on either side of the fence squarely rooting for their own POV, I would say. Give me SF any day, over literary, author’s of which wouldn’t know story if it leapt up and bit them on their proverbial and collective arses! But then, that’s just my pov! 🙂

  6. Um, reading LeGuin’s piece it seems to me that she has some issues with specific bits of the story not making any sense as well…

  7. I’m not sure that the relation between plot and story is quite as you have it. The difference is not one of essence and execution — skeleton and flesh, as you have it. They are more different in kind than that. Plot is something that a work of fiction has, story is what a work of fiction is about. So, for example, the plot of Hamlet begins with young Hamlet and the ghost — the story begins with Claudius killing old Hamlet. Whodunnits show the difference very clearly: the story is the story of the murder, the plot is the revelation of the murder as it structures the book.

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