The Plot (or Lack of) Thickens

Last week I was reading Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea, and my brain was queasy with mixed feelings. The novel is intellectual, philosophical, existential — clearly a great mind was at work there. But I was at times bored along with being impressed, and found myself putting the book down every few pages. Then I started to skim it.

Why the partial boredom? Well, the protagonist sat in cafes, watched people, walked down the street, moped, thought, overthought, etc. There was no dang plot, or very little of one. And a plot-less novel — no matter how well-written and thought-provoking — is going to have a harder time holding a reader’s interest.

Now a brief poetic interlude, sung to the tune of “If I Only Had the Nerve” from The Wizard of Oz:

There are followers or leaders
Who were bound to become readers
They like literature a lot

But they could change that habit
Flee as fast as a rabbit
From a novel with no plot

I’m afraid there’s no denying
If I did I would be lyin’
To adults or to a tot

Authors could show their prowess
(With a touch pad, not a mowess)
If they only had a plot

Oh we’d be in our stride
Book fans to the core
Oh we’d read the way we never read before
And then we’d read
And read some more

If many an authorsaurus
Wrote works that were more for us
More book sales to be got

Yes, we’d gladly read their fiction
And our brains would have less friction
If they only had a plot

I’m exaggerating a bit, because there are a number of novels with little or no plot that I like a lot. It helps if that sort of book has humor (as with, say, John Steinbeck’s episodic Tortilla Flat and Cannery Row), but even plot-challenged books with a scarcity of laughs can merit our admiration and deep respect. The aforementioned Nausea is one of them, as is Evan Connell’s exceptional Mrs. Bridge, which I finished this afternoon (more on that novel in next week’s post).

Yet…a plot is usually needed to activate another “p” word: page-turning.

Take any of Lee Child’s Jack Reacher novels, such as The Killing Floor and 61 Hours. How will the bad guys be defeated? How much damage will they do before that happens? How much damage will Reacher do to them? How will Jack’s latest romance begin, and end? We’re on the edge of our seats.

But a novel doesn’t have to be a thriller or a mystery or another kind of genre fiction to propel the reader along. It can be literary fiction, or a popular/literary hybrid like Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo. Will Edmond Dantes escape from prison? Well, it’s pretty obvious he will. But how exactly will he exact his epic revenge on the various people who framed him?

Other classics are also full of plot lines, even as they can be brainy, too. For instance, we wonder what will happen to Crime and Punishment‘s double-murderer Raskolnikov even as we are awed by how Fyodor Dostoyevsky wrestles with all the important questions: psychological motivations, guilt, nonconformity, and more. Nearly as propulsive and thought-provoking is Richard Wright’s Native Son, which also stars a murderer whose fate we very much wonder about. Or Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, in which an innocent man is put on trial. The last two novels have the added dimension of gruesome racism.

A fictional crime doesn’t have to involve real or alleged physical violence, of course. Donna Tartt keeps the suspense going for hundreds of pages after her protagonist takes and hides a priceless painting in The Goldfinch.

Another compelling plot line focuses on whether characters will survive a war (Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, Erich Maria Remarque’s A Time to Love and a Time to Die, etc.) or survive a hostage scenario (Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto) or survive other life-threatening situations. It’s hard to top death, or the threat of death, for drama.

And will courageous political activists — such as those in Julia Alvarez’s In the Time of the Butterflies — survive opposing a despotic government?

Then of course there is the age-old and frequently fascinating plot line involving relationships, married or otherwise. Will two people get together or not? Will they stay together or not? How lovey-dovey or stormy is the relationship? So many examples: Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda, Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady, D.H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers, W. Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage, Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, L.M. Montgomery’s The Blue Castle, and thousands of other novels.

And there are all kinds of other plot variations, including whether characters will finally achieve a non-romantic goal — as with the protagonist in Lionel Shriver’s So Much for That, or Dorothy, The Scarecrow, The Tin Woodman, and The Cowardly Lion in L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.

How important is a plot to you when reading fiction? Do you like some novels that mostly lack a plot? If so, which ones? Also, what are some of your favorite books with compelling plots?

That’s a lot of questions, but at least I didn’t post a second Wizard of Oz parody…

(The box for submitting comments is below already-posted comments, but your new comment will appear at the top of the comments area — unless you’re replying to someone else.)

I’ve finished and am now rewriting/polishing a book called Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Writers, but am still selling Comic (and Column) Confessional — my often-funny memoir that recalls 25 years of covering and meeting cartoonists such as Charles Schulz (“Peanuts”) and Bill Watterson (“Calvin and Hobbes”), columnists such as “Dear Abby” and Ann Landers, and other notables such as Coretta Scott King, Walter Cronkite, and various authors. The book also talks about the malpractice death of my first daughter, my remarriage, and life in Montclair, N.J. — where I write the award-winning weekly “Montclairvoyant” humor column for The Montclair Times. You can email me at dastor@earthlink.net to buy a discounted, inscribed copy of the book, which contains a preface by “Hints” columnist Heloise and back-cover blurbs by people such as “The Far Side” cartoonist Gary Larson. 

106 thoughts on “The Plot (or Lack of) Thickens

  1. On the other hand—

    I stopped reading Henry James’ The Wings of the Dove not because he was forever waxing on and on and in successively interconnected clauses about the finer inner workings of every character, but because the plot contained coincidences that would have had the audience of a farce groaning for being unable to suspend disbelief.

    But then, James is an author that I find it is possible to love by the sentence, yet not so well by the book, at least this one, as well as his travel tome The American Scene. Both, I would note, are later items in his oeuvre.

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    • Later-career Henry James CAN be a struggle, jhNY. I haven’t yet read 1902’s “The Wings of the Dove,” but I did get to 1903’s “The Ambassadors” last year, which was “slow” but ultimately well worth reading — and it even had a bit of a plot: trying to get someone to return to America from France.

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  2. “Well, the protagonist sat in cafes, watched people, walked down the street, moped, thought, overthought, etc.”

    In other words, Sartre described (in intimate and exhaustive detail, perhaps) the daily activity of an urban dweller whose activity is more or less indistinguishable from that of millions of others likewise trapped in their own heads. Bet that was the point, or one of the big ones, he was trying to make literature out of.

    I still found new things in the book, mostly in the replication of thought processes, though I haven’t read it in decades, and recognized in several folks therein, bits of myself.

    But its also hard to invest oneself, as a reader, in the ordinary, even if meticulously catalogued– or maybe especially if.

    The philosophical action novel, which featuring so much inaction, Nausea is not– my candidate would be Lermontov’s A Hero for Our Time.

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    • jhNY, I think you’re right that that WAS Sartre’s point (or one of his points) — and it’s amazing that he forged a novel out of that as interesting as it was for at least some of its pages.

      “The philosophical action novel…featuring so much inaction” — loved the way you put that!

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  3. Sometimes partial boredom could be a mistake as I started the first book of the The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo the first book of Millennium Series the thought crossed my mind . I realized I am really torturing myself with utter boredom reading first 50 pages of this Epic novel. I returned the book to the Library.
    Much later a patron convinced me not to give up , if I do I will be missing something spectacular. I paid attention to her and read through all 3 books.
    Toward the end I din not want the book to end. Wish Mr. Stieg Larrson was alive and have written the 4th and the 5th book.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, bebe, some books/series start slow and then pick up — while some start slow and then get slower. 🙂 Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy turned out to be amazing — what a plot! Actually, plots! Plus those memorable characters. I also wish he were alive to continue the series, and to enjoy the money and renown his posthumously published trilogy brought.

      Thanks again for recommending the trilogy to me a couple (or is it three?) years ago!

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      • Then there are that ” 50 shades of Grey” series , I was thoroughly bored by that poorly writing skills of the author and stopped after 50 pages . Later I understand the books was trash fillers but the author laughed all the way to the bank.

        Then ” Lost Memory of Skin ” by Russell Banks was so difficult it is about the underworld of sexual predators and the Professor who was the worse kind yet was married with children until the world caved in.
        As I was reading so many time I was having mixed feelings about why I am reading this ?
        The reason could be the author “Redemption, in Banks’s America, is harder won than ever” ( last line from nyt review)

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        • Thanks, bebe!

          As we’ve discussed, I haven’t read “Fifty Shades of Grey,” but I imagine the plot in it and its sequels is not exactly riveting.

          From my one experience reading Russell Banks (“Rule of the Bone”), I could see how that author would be well worth the time even without a fantastic plot. Compensating for that are memorable characters, intense situations, sympathy for the downtrodden, etc.

          BTW, I just returned from the library. Lots of Walter Mosley books there, but not “Devil in a Blue Dress.” 😦 Will hope it’s there next month before deciding on a different Mosley book, if necessary!

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  4. Dave what a great topic and love the poem now all you have to do is have musical notes added to it so we all could learn.

    Did I hear Jack Reacher by Lee Child and I was going to say if you know his next one should be coming out in October as her writes one each year around that time. And as I see you beat me to it..” Night School” ?

    “LEE CHILD: It’s a prequel set back in 1996 — Reacher is still in the army, age 35, and he’s moved to an emergency task force because the intelligence services in Europe have plucked a menacing phrase from the air: “The American wants a hundred million dollars.” For what? ”

    I am looking forward to the younger Reacher..so good news no way Tom Cruise could play that. 🙂

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    • Wow, bebe! Didn’t know “Night School” was a prequel! Like the excellent “The Affair,” I guess. I greatly look forward to it. The prolific Lee Child does seem to write one book a year, like clockwork.

      If there’s ever a “Night School” movie, I totally agree that Cruise shouldn’t play Reacher. But one never knows… 😦

      Glad you liked the post and that parody poem! Thank you!

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  5. Dave, I hope you don’t mind if I commit the number one sin when discussing literature, and talk TV for a while instead? As you know, I’ve been watching “Star Trek: The Next Generation” and really enjoying it. The characters are so unique and nuanced that it’s impossible not to fall in love with every one of them. Usually, I don’t get too swept up in the alien of the week story lines, however last night I watched an episode where the crew of The Enterprise had their memories stolen, and I was on the edge of my seat waiting to see what happened next. I was even talking to the TV, telling Captain Picard what to do! Sadly, he didn’t listen 😦

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    • Ha, Susan!

      All topics, including TV, are welcome here. 🙂 And I LOVE “Star Trek: The Next Generation.” Such great characters — and plots. I’m sure I must have watched the one you just watched, but it has been a few years…

      As for literature, Capt. Picard was a reader — of PRINTED books! (As you know.) Plus there were episodes featuring Mark Twain, a Sherlock Holmes scenario in the holodeck, etc.!

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      • I love the literature references on “Star Trek”. I recently re-watched “The Wrath of Khan” which you may recall includes the opening sentence of “Tale of Two Cities” very early in the movie, and then quotes the last sentence of that novel towards the end. And Khan himself has copies of “Paradise Lost” and “Moby Dick” on his shelf. And yes, even though the crew of The Enterprise had kindles before they’d even been thought of in realty, Jean-Luc definitely loved his hard copies. I don’t think I’ve got to Mark Twain yet, but I’m looking forward to it 🙂

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        • Thanks, Susan! I haven’t seen “The Wrath of Khan” in years, so I had forgotten those Dickens, Milton, and Melville touches!

          The Mark Twain episode is a GREAT two-parter in which Twain sneaks on board the Enterprise. (The one word he says when first seeing the Klingon Lt. Worf is hilarious!) If I’m remembering right, there’s also a Jack London cameo before Twain goes into space.

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  6. A novel with little or no plot can be challenging but rewarding. I think of Joyce’s “Ulysses” and Woolf’s “Miss Dalloway” as novels with little plot to speak of. They are both stream-of-consciousness works that follow a main character during a “day in the life” (both novels take place in a single day). Neither one of these is a page-turner.

    However – I can think of one novel with little plot that was an enjoyable page-turner and not-at-all challenging (but, nevertheless, rewarding)– Kurt Vonnegut’s “Breakfast of Champions”. I guess there was a very thin plot in this book. The main character suffers from a mental illness that convinces him that Sci-Fi author Kilgore Trout is writing the literal truth to him. Trout – a recurring character in many Vonnegut novels – later meets the narrator/author (Vonnegut) as a character. But it is filled with many observations, comments on the human condition, and a multitude of non-sequiturs. Vonnegut himself said that he wrote the novel in order to “clear his head of all the junk in there”. Many of the chapters end with the phrase “And so on.” But this is certainly not a difficult read – I think I read the whole thing in a single sitting.

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    • You’re right, drb — a novel with little plot CAN be “challenging but rewarding.” And “Mrs. Dalloway” (which I’ve read) and “Ulysses” (which I haven’t but of course have heard a lot about) are excellent examples. In the case of those two novels, it might have helped that there was a structure in which things took place in one day (as you noted). “Nausea” sprawled over a number of days.

      And thanks for the great description of, and thoughts about, “Breakfast of Champions”! I’ve “plotted” more reading of Vonnegut for my future. 🙂

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    • Now THAT’S versifying, jhNY! Terrific! The brainy Scarecrow could do no better…

      (Not sure you saw the first comment under this blog post, but I wrote: “Thanks to jhNY for mentioning “Nausea”! I really AM glad I read it.”)

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      • I did see it, and I hope you really ARE! (If I’d really wanted to set you adrift among the plotless, I’d have recommended Robbe-Grillet! (It’s been years, but I remember reading a short book of his that has scenes only…)

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        • “Nausea” is one of those novels that, despite dragging for me at times, was very memorable and had some amazing moments — including a couple of them with “The Self-Taught Man” of reads-authors-alphabetically fame. There are certain books one has heard of for decades, and it’s VERY satisfying to finally read them and see firsthand whether they deserve their iconic-ness!

          I’m assuming Robbe-Grillet wasn’t Robert Goulet’s French cousin… 🙂

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  7. When you write about plotless novels, the first one that comes to my mind is that great, massive naval-gazing classic, Marcel Proust’s ‘In Search of Lost Time’. Most people never get past the first novel, ‘Swann’s Way’. Did you ever get through that first volume, Dave? The opening section, ‘Overture’, tells you write off that you’re embarking on a large scale symphony. It’s a beautiful evocation of a child’s state of mind and plants the seeds in the issues the character deals with throughout the rest of the novel. The cliche about the madeleine and how it suddenly brings to life all the details of childhood is fresh in this novel as it had never been done in such a way. Of course, the issue about the child not wanting to go to bed without his mother’s goodnight kiss and how the denial of that is something that has launched the careers of many Freudian psychologists. It’s plotless in that the action of it is primarily internal. Of course, in flies in the face of any writer that wants to grab a reader’s attention and keep turning the page unless it’s the kind of reader that knows that this IS the action and it’s very important action. The next section, ‘Swann in Love’, which actually takes place years before Marcel is even born, is the one that’s often published separately as well as being filmed as a self-contained story. Swann is caught in a drug of lustful obsession for the loose-living Odette. There’s a bit of a sadomasochistic game going on here in which Odette knows exactly what Swann is feeling and intentionally tortures him. If this was the only thing one read by Proust, the overall endeavor might not seem so intimidating. I mean, a 1,267,069 word novel, even though it’s broken down in seven volumes, is a major undertaking. Proust was as obsessed as any of the characters he wrote about and he was obsessed at capturing sensory detail as well as subjective perception of sensory stimuli. He was like a scientist in some ways and he held a microscope up to life. So it’s no surprise with that in mind that he spends 50 pages on analyzing a flower or a seascape. The majority of readers (probably) have much shorter attention spans and lose patience. So in essence he flies in the face of most conceptions of plot.

    You mentioned ‘Mrs. Bridge’ in your post, Dave. It too is not filled with any pulse pounding action although plenty is happening. Compared with ‘In Search of Lost Time’, however, it’s a fast-paced thriller.

    Anyway, just wanted to throw Proust into the discussion heap. After all, he’s one of the patron saints of the plotless novel.

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    • Thank you, Brian! Proust is a GREAT mention in this context.

      I did get through “Swann’s Way,” but barely, when I read Proust about a decade (?) ago — and decided not to continue with “In Search of Lost Time.” For me, the lack of a scintillating plot was among the factors overweighing the beauty and evocativeness of Proust’s amazing writing.

      You’re absolutely right that the action being “primarily internal” in “In Search of Lost Time” (or other mostly plot-less novels) can make for a slower read even as the book(s) might be fascinating at the same time.

      The fact that you read through Proust’s opus is impressive, as was your description of it and its appeal!

      I’ll talk about “Mrs. Bridge” in my next column, and give you credit for recommending it (as I did in the first comment under this column). An understated novel, but I was totally blown away by its ultra-skillful depiction of, and quiet satire of, the emotionally repressed protagonist and her “milieu.”

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  8. Hi Dave. ❤ I'm back from a computer crash Friday–Win10 sux!
    Must say "thanks bunches" for that poem. 🙄 Any suggestions for how to get your little ditty out of my head?! 😉

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  9. I love your poem, Dave 🙂

    I feel so blessed to have read things like “Crime and Punishment” that are obviously well-written, but also have the wonderful characters, AND the page-turning plot!

    For me personally, it’s all about the characters, which is why I love Stephen King so much, even though he’s not technically the greatest of writers. And I can happily spend weeks with Elizabeth and Darcy, even though they don’t really do very much (and I’m already well aware of what they will do!) My heart breaks for them when it goes badly, and (spoiler alert) I feel like singing when it ends happily ever after. In fact, I think that some books can have too much plot. I realise that I’m in the minority here, so I’ll try not to be too critical, but I don’t get Jack Reacher. I understand that Lee Child tells a riveting story, but I just don’t believe the character, so I don’t really care what happens.

    The book that I’m currently reading was described as “overwrought and 500 pages too long” which I found strangely enticing. About 150 pages in, I think I’ve found my next tiny piece of perfection. If it was any other book, I’d be more than happy to talk about it, but as well as it being beautifully written, it has this ‘who’s in the attic?’ kind of plot, and I’m terrified of spoilers! But will be more than happy to post about it when I’m done.

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    • Glad you enjoyed the poem, Susan!

      Yes, some novels have it all — and “Crime and Punishment” is one of them. Iconic page-turners… 🙂

      Stephen King DOES often create great characters. Perhaps he’s a little underrated in that respect.

      And Jane Austen’s novels indeed are not heavily plot-oriented, though I suppose there’s the plot of how certain relationships will end up (often in marriage). But Austen makes up for that with her interesting characters, excellent writing, wit, social observation, etc.

      I hear what you’re saying about Jack Reacher. No real human being could do all the things he does, and any person who came close probably wouldn’t survive. Still, I was addicted to Lee Child’s novels. Couldn’t put them down (perhaps the glue on my fingers didn’t help).

      I look forward to hearing more about that “overwrought,” too-long book!

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      • Hi Dave … In terms of plot, I have to thank you for recently recommending “Harbor”. I’m almost finished with it, and that book has a very fine plot indeed. I’m interested to see how the author handles the ending.

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    • Oh, my gosh, Susan, I so agree with you — about Stephen King and Jack Reacher (with apologies to all the Lee Child fans here, and, especially our dear Dave). Stephen King’s books draw me in, absorb me, and leave me practically oblivious to my surroundings. I read Lee Child’s “The Killing Floor” and, the majority of the time, I was acutely aware I was reading. I was noticing Child’s ability to turn a phrase, describe his surroundings, and/or describe a physical altercation. I often found myself thinking, “He writes very well’. At no point, however, do I recall getting lost in the story. Also, I found it hard to really care about any of the characters in that book. Stephen King makes you care about his characters, or at least identify with them somehow. Of course, after you come to care about them, he often kills them off, but still, 🙂

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      • Oh, I much prefer a dead character that I love, than a live character that I don’t care about. Do you have favourite King stories? Have you read his “Dark Tower” series?

        I am so SO glad to finally hear someone else say that they didn’t like “The Killing Floor”. In fact, I’m so glad, that I might get carried away in my response, so Dave, bebe, all the other Reacher lovers, feel free to stop reading. I’d heard all about Lee Child’s novels long before I read one. I’d heard how great the writing was, and how terribly mis-cast Tom Cruise was because Reacher is 6 foot 4. I NEVER got a sense of how tall Jack Reacher was. Yes, the numbers were thrown at me a few times, but they were just numbers. I actually thought Tom Cruise was a perfect Jack Reacher, which I know is about the biggest insult I can give it. I really am sorry 😦

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        • That’s okay about Jack Reacher, Pat and Susan. 🙂 We all have varying fiction favorites and non-favorites. Lee Child’s series certainly is not sublime literature. More like a guilty pleasure for many of us.

          “The Killing Floor” is the first novel in the series (as you know), and Child does get a bit more nuanced and accomplished in his writing as the series goes on. But the subsequent books are not THAT different.

          Loved the way you both wrote your comments — including the humor!

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        • You under-exaggerate: Reacher is six foot FIVE.

          The most unbelievable portion of any Reacher book is whenever he blends into the crowd.

          What I like about Reacher books: he is a huge, ultimately unstoppable force against evil, especially institutionalized evil– makes him perfect for me to read while waiting hours past scheduled departure in the airport. I like to imagine him persuading personnel…. so I save the series for flight!

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          • Ha, jhNY! Yes, hard for Jack Reacher to hide.

            Great description of him as “a huge, ultimately unstoppable force against evil, especially institutionalized evil.” Plus there’s some humor and feminism amid the mayhem.

            The Reacher books are excellent airport/plane reads indeed. And it WOULD be nice if Jack (or his fictional fists) got the airlines to run more efficiently — AND PROVIDE ENOUGH LEG ROOM FOR PEOPLE NOT EVEN CLOSE TO 6’5″… 🙂

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          • Thanks jhNY, I didn’t realise that I’d been exaggerating, but appreciate the correction 🙂

            And I hear you, Dave, about guilty pleasure reading. Heck, I love “Twilight” so I’m absolutely the last person to be pointing fingers. Lee Child was definitely easy to read, which would make him great flight / holiday reading. Maybe I expected too much when I went into “The Killing Floor”? I might try one of the other novels at some time in the future. Is there one that you’d recommend in particular?

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            • Susan, some of the Jack Reacher-loving commenters here (myself included) might have created unrealistic expectations for new readers of that series. 🙂

              The Reacher novels sort of blur together, but the most memorable one for me was “61 Hours” — in which our hero is stuck in frigid South Dakota. The cliffhanger climax is rather mind-boggling.

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        • I haven’t read “The Dark Tower” series — do you recommend it? As for my favorite Stephen King book, I’m not sure I can narrow it down. It’s easier to name a couple I wasn’t that crazy about: “Christine” and “Fire Starter” — they were good, but they just didn’t scare me enough, I guess 🙂 “The Shining” was probably the most terrifying (and sleep depriving). Do you have a favorite?

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          • “The Shining” IS intense, Pat.

            I know you’re asking the question of Susan, but in some ways my favorite Stephen King novel is one of his lower-profile ones: “From a Buick 8.” More spooky than scary, but written so well.

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          • I LOVE “The Dark Tower”. The first book is only pretty good, but the second and third are two of my favourite books ever. Very different for Stephen King, but again, characters that you can’t help but love.

            I like most of King’s older work. I loved “The Shining” even though it did kind of creep me out. And mostly, I don’t really think of King as horror, so I’m not usually scared. So many others that I’ve loved that I wouldn’t know where to start. Though “The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon” and “Lisey’s Story” would be two that don’t make my top 10.

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        • HA…Susan of course not as I have said before I always enjoy your humorous comments. Well as jhNY said Reacher is 6 foot 7 is getting old and needed a female hand to help him in his last one ” Make Me” and was falling for her. I don`t know if I like Reacher like that.

          And I have not read ” The Killing Floor” as yet…so there…. 😀

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          • bebe, it’s interesting that in “Make Me” Reacher FINALLY showed some serious physical vulnerability. Heck, I think he’s in his (late?) 50s now. And staying with a romantic partner for more than one book definitely hasn’t happened much. Earlier in the series, I think Reacher was with that lawyer — daughter of a military guy; I’m drawing a blank on her name — for at least two books. And then Reacher met Maj. Susan Turner by phone in one book and met her in person in another.

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          • Mmm, Reacher seems to be getting taller with each comment :-D. Interesting that you’ve read so many Lee Child books, but not the first. And I must admit, I’m intrigued by the thought of a Reacher prequel story. That might be my next attempt.

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            • HA…may be I exaggerated a bit..`cause jhNY and Dave have read way more than me. The prequel is supposed to come out in November right around 2016 election in US of A…oh my…

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                  • Yikes! If the TV is on, there’s not much choice.

                    I think I might watch the debate, even though I very rarely watch anything on TV. But it will not be a pleasant experience, as you allude to, bebe. One thing that bothers me about candidate debates is how weak the media questioners usually are.

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                    • The upcoming election is kind of fascinating. On the one hand, we might be counting down to a doomsday. But on the other, maybe this will be the last we hear of him. In just a few short weeks we might be very relieved that it’s finally all over.

                      I can’t help but get sucked in to watching debates. I always go in feeling like I’ll be better informed, but I end up angry that none of the questions were answered. Or, I get swayed completely to one side of the debate, and then that party doesn’t win 😦

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                    • Actually, if Trump loses, I’m sure we’ll hear a lot of him. 😦 There are reports he wants to start his own media company. And he might claim the election was rigged — which is not implausible in the U.S., but things are usually rigged against the more liberal candidates given that conservatives own the voting-machine companies and have pushed for bogus anti-“fraud” laws that disenfranchise many minorities, many of the less-affluent, and many college students — who all tend to be more liberal.

                      Yes, Susan, it can be fraught watching debates. A lot of it is just theater, and the REALLY important questions often never get asked. (I know I’m not saying anything you don’t already know. 🙂 )

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                    • Oh Dave, don’t say rigged. I never even thought of rigged. This could go on for years, couldn’t it? Now I’ve gone from looking forward to it being over, back to being scared. And I’m not even in America 😦

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                    • Oh, and I meant to add, our question askers generally aren’t too bad. But they can a question that starts with Will you, so the answer should be yes or no, but 15 minutes later, all the politician has said is there wouldn’t even be a need for the question if their opposition wasn’t so incompetent!

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                    • Susan, you’re right that politicians everywhere are adept at deflecting questions, changing the subject, turning the answer into an attack on their opponent, etc.

                      It IS depressing to think of U.S. elections being rigged (a lot or a bit), but I really believe it’s true. 🙂 And while this is not rigging per se, the mainstream media certainly skews coverage toward its favored candidates. For instance, it was appalling how anti-Bernie Sanders the supposedly liberal New York Times was during the primaries (I was very tempted to cancel my subscription, but didn’t).

                      Liked by 1 person

  10. More intriguing titles to read or reread. I prefer a plot in a novel. Some of my favorites are by Mike Johnson, a high school friend. He wrote 6 novels about WWII (some in areas we don’t think about, like the Slavic states and how the war affected the residents of the area as well as military action) and Korea. As I read I was on the edge of my seat wandering what would happen next, would the hero get back to his love, would the priest remain a priest and much more. The books are available online.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, energywriter, for your thoughts about plots and your mention of your high school friend Mike Johnson! There have been so many fiction and nonfiction books about World War II that it’s nice he took “the road less traveled” in subject matter for some of his page-turning novels.

      BTW, I plan to read your new book sometime next month. It’s in the queue! 🙂

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  11. Hi Dave, very interesting column and very clever parody on Oz! I think the reason I love mysteries so much is that the plots are so clear: who, when, how, and why. When I don’t have that structure, I will sometimes, not always, start to get a bit bored. I read a book about historians being detectives a long time ago, and it resonated with me as both a history major and a lover of mystery/detective stories.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for the kind words, Kat Lib!

      Yes, plot is so crucial to a mystery novel — even as it’s great when the book’s characters are compelling, too. I guess excellent “escapist” fiction almost always has a strong plot — it’s a major reason why those books are so readable. Of course, “challenging” fiction often has a strong plot, too, but it’s not quite as necessary.

      I totally agree about the similarities between historians and detectives!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Dave, I’ve always been slightly embarrassed about my love for mysteries/detective fiction, as though it was a failing in me somehow. And yet, I feel that I’ve learned a lot from many of them along the way. And I also know that I’ve read many classics, science fiction, poetry, general modern fictions, plays and non-fiction more than many people (except you and those on this blog!). I also have to realize that it’s not a competition! Fondly,
        Kathy

        Liked by 2 people

        • Kat Lib, I think it’s great to read a mix of “escapist” and non-“escapist” fiction. I do that, too, although the escapist fiction I read is only occasionally a mystery/detective novel. (That kind of novel CAN be educational.) You’ve read in a very impressive variety of genres!

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  12. Howdy, Dave!

    — How important is a plot to you when reading fiction? —

    If one categorizes Philip Roth’s “The Great American Novel” as fiction and William Carlos Williams’ “The Great American Novel” as metafiction (as I do), then I consider a plot essential for the former and inessential for the latter.

    — Do you like some novels that mostly lack a plot? If so, which ones? —

    If one classifies Williams’ “The Great American Novel” as a novel (as I do not), then I do not like it but love it.

    — Also, what are some of your favorite books with compelling plots? —

    Dashiell Hammett’s “The Maltese Falcon” may be more celebrated for its characters than for its plot, but I enjoy traversing all the terrain between what apparently happens and what really happens on the way to its denouement, the “Rashomon” effect in evidence on almost every page. Nice!

    J.J. (Alias MugRuith1)

    P.S.: “If They Only Had a Plot” most likely has Yip Harburg plotzing all over the Yellow Brick Road!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, J.J.! I haven’t read Roth’s or Williams’ “The Great American Novel,” so I can’t respond to your thoughts about either, but I did enjoy your comment and its cleverness. I HAVE read “The Maltese Falcon,” and agree that both the characters and the plot are compelling.

      As for the brilliant Yip Harburg, he could have written a great YA…um…YH novel.

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            • — Thanks for posting that clip, J.J.! —

              My pleasure.

              — Great song, great group — unfortunately blacklisted. —

              Pete Seeger being Pete Seeger, I believe he had to have been annoyed the group wasn’t redlisted, among other things.

              — Now I’m wondering if there’s some connection to “Sometimes a Great Notion”… —

              Indeed, there is such a connection, the clearest embodied in the title of the novel authored by Ken Kesey and these lines of the song attributed to Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter and Gussie L. Davis:
              “Sometimes I live in the country
              “Sometimes I live in town
              “Sometimes I take a great notion
              “To jump into the river and drown”

              (And oh, by the way, did I mention that Kesey notes occasionally in his opus that it rains every now and then in Macondo, I mean, Wakonda?)

              Liked by 1 person

              • How the heck did I not notice that very obvious connection? I’ve only heard that song maybe 200 times. 🙂 Lead Belly could “turn, turn, turn” a phrase…

                As you know, Pete Seeger had very conflicted feelings about The Weavers’ brief run of mainstream fame. Not a mainstream type of guy. Such an admirable person; I was lucky to see him in concert several times and even speak briefly with him once.

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                • — I was lucky to see [Pete Seeger] in concert several times and even speak briefly with him once. —

                  Ditto. One of my most enduring memories of Mr. Seeger came when we were in the back of a comparatively small venue where other folks were performing onstage. He cupped both ears, giving the local musicians of the Pinelands Cultural Society his full attention: Respect! (Of course, I also recall him later doing at that same concert a great a cappella version of “Amazing Grace,” accompanied by a disquisition on its ironic provenance as the unlikely creation of the erstwhile slave trader, John Newton.)

                  Liked by 1 person

                    • Englishman Newton renounced his former occupation, FWIW…

                      Reminds me of another irony: our national seal, what with the olive branch in one of the bald eagle’s claws and the arrows in the other. Seems a wee bit unpredictable, if not unstable. Maybe that’s less irony, now that I’m thinking about it, than fair warning.

                      Liked by 1 person

                    • Yes, those rare cases where someone makes a huge sea change in their lives. Like the rare Wall Street person who chucks it all to help people in some poor area or country.

                      Yes, the national seal IS rather revealing of the way the U.S. is in a lot of ways…

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                  • On subject, yet as yet unmentioned: Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. The novel comports itself (through nine volumes) circuitously and meanderingly as a sort of fictional autobiography, but not getting there is more or less the point, if there is one beyond the amusements to be had in following the mind of Sterne wherever it happens to go.

                    In other words, there ain’t much plot, and much there is of other stuff.

                    But Sterne, humorist, was also an abolitionist, as the following quote, in response to a letter by a man named Sancho, makes plain:

                    “There is a strange coincidence, Sancho, in the little events (as well as in the great ones) of this world: for I had been writing a tender tale of the sorrows of a friendless poor negro-girl, and my eyes had scarce done smarting with it, when your letter of recommendation in behalf of so many of her brethren and sisters, came to me — but why her brethren? — or yours, Sancho! any more than mine? It is by the finest tints, and most insensible gradations, that nature descends from the fairest face about St James’s, to the sootiest complexion in Africa: at which tint of these, is it, that the ties of blood are to cease? and how many shades must we descend lower still in the scale, ere mercy is to vanish with them? — but ’tis no uncommon thing, my good Sancho, for one half of the world to use the other half of it like brutes, & then endeavor to make ’em so.”

                    Liked by 1 person

                    • Great mention, jhNY! I read “Tristram Shandy” MANY years ago, and barely remember it, but I do recall that plot wasn’t one of its strong points.

                      And that’s an amazing, ultra-eloquent abolitionist quote by Sterne. Thanks for posting it!

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      • I have books scattered through my house. Mostly because they don’t fit on my shelf, because, well, I’m not really supposed to buy them. Anyway, the other day, with no glasses on, I look over at my table and wonder what that book is? I don’t remember buying a new one. Yep, it was a phone book! I have a big collection of Shakespeare’s plays, and if I’m reading the beginning (or end) it doesn’t sit open very well, so I use a big phone directory to prop it up.

        I only bought one new book this week, so I think I’m doing well.

        Liked by 4 people

        • Ha, Susan! A phone directory as a book propper-upper? They’re still useful! And, as “vices” go, buying a book here or there is a wonderful thing — even though those books can be…clutter-uppers.

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          • Dave, I just realised that I actually have two phone books on my table. One to prop up my Shakespeare so that I don’t damage the spine, and the other I use as phone books were originally intended to be used – to keep my computer monitor at the right height!

            Liked by 1 person

    • I wish I could believe that this quality we share (putting the book down when it becomes boring) elevates me to your literary league, Dave! But I’m sure it happens more often and after fewer pages for me than for you!! Great column – and i read to the end! 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

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