Plot versus Character

Is it just me, or does there seem to be a wave of "intersecting lives" novels lately? I'm talking about novels which are structured around characters and place and which move forward episodically, rather than via a driving, suspenseful plot, a genre which is also sometimes called "a novel in stories." Two of the most decorated books of recent years fall into this category: Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout and Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann. Other recent entries include A Short History of Women by Kate Walbert, Await Your Reply by Dan Chaon, and the forthcoming The Madonnas of Echo Park by Brando Skyhorse.

I've always thought of such novels as freshman efforts, a way for a fiction writer to transition from short stories to a novel-length book. This was true of Rebecca Barry's Later, at the Bar, as well as David Schickler's Kissing in Manhattan, for instance, which grew out of the fantastic short story, "The Smoker," original published in the New Yorker.

But of course this genre has a longer, more distinguished pedigree. Sherwood Anderson used it to spectacular effect in Winesburg, Ohio, and one could argue that Virginia Woolf's The Hours falls into this category. A more recent classic is The Things They Carried, by Tim O'Brien.

Personally, I tend to prefer plot-driven novels and am often left unsatisfied with books that introduce me to a bunch of people and move them around a town without ever pushing them up and over a narrative arc. What do you think? Which "intersecting lives" novels work for you and why?

-- Amy Reading

True to her last name, Amy Reading makes a living reading, freelance editing, and writing. She has recently completed a Ph.D. in American Studies from Yale University and is working on a book that grows out of her dissertation, a history of American con artistry.

Thanks for the great blog, Amy! You've crystallized why I've read some of the books that you mentioned but come away some how unsatisfied- as they never get across that narrative arc you mention - I don't mind this if the characters are being pushed around in a place unfamiliar to me like in Tom O'Brien's "The Things They Carried" (which is brilliant) but I sometimes run out of patience when it's small town happenings and I close the book wondering 'what was the point of that?'
# Posted By Sarah | 5/25/10 12:14 PM
I prefer plot driven books too!
# Posted By Jean Jones | 5/26/10 12:53 PM
Very timely post, Amy. I felt similarly about both <i>Olive Kitteridge</i> and <i>Let the Great World Spin</i>. You summed up the thoughts I had put together in my reviews on my blog. http://keepthewisdom.blogspot.com/2010/06/olive-ki... and http://keepthewisdom.blogspot.com/2010/05/let-grea...
Now I feel we have had a conversation. I enjoy your reviews.
# Posted By Judy Krueger | 6/3/10 7:58 PM
I'm very definitely a plot person! Give me a driving purpose to the narrative. If there are a few surprises I didn't see coming, even better. My own blog is called Plot Twister, so that should give you an idea of what I think matters in a story. I only tend to like a book if it feels like there is a purpose to what happens, not just one thing happening one after another.

That said, there is something to be said for character stories. A good novel should have both. The best plot in the world can't make up for appalling characterisation and vice versa.

http://plottwister.blog.com
# Posted By Jessica Meats | 6/29/10 2:54 AM
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