A Very Short List of Good Books in Which Nothing Really Happens

Most of us who have taken (or, as the case may be, taught) literature classes understand that stories are made up of three components: plot (what happens); setting (when and where it happens); and characters (whom it happens to). And what makes the study of literature so fascinating to us is that these things aren’t present in equal amounts. Picture a series of knobs, like those on a complex sound system. Say you slide the plot knob way high, turn down the setting knob , and leave character knob in the middle region. This configuration might describe a detective novel, in which what happens (plot) is of paramount importance. But if it’s Sherlock Holmes stories that you like, then the setting will be different, because it isn’t their compelling plots that draw you in, but rather the unique character of Holmes himself, or the foggy, turn-of-the-century setting of London, because it’s the hansom cabs, gas lighting, and general ambiance that appeals to you. A book’s literary mix, in other words, can reflect a variety of combinations of plot + setting + character.

Certain writers tend excel at one or the other of these three elements. (Of course, there are more elements of story out there beyond plot, character and setting; for example, I haven’t discussed “voice,” the teller of the story, and there may be some elements I haven’t thought of or read about. But for the purposes of this blog post, we can just focus on the standard three components of story.) To illustrate my point, I’ll just say that Thomas Hardy, who created an entire English county (Wessex) for his novels, is great with setting, that Agatha Christie is ingenious as far as plot goes, and that Jane Austen produced amazing characters. Some writers are wonderful at two of these, but fail with the third. For example, Charlotte Bronte is great with setting and characters but her plots are pretty much bat-shit crazy. (I still love her works, by the way.) A few highly talented writers, like Charles Dickens, manage to work all three elements in equal portions. But for today, I’d like to talk about stories in which nothing much happens, those novels which are virtually plot-less, and why they can be a source of comfort and entertainment to readers today.

I am now going to alienate half of my readers (sorry to both of you!) by saying that I place Jane Austen squarely into this category. But just think about it: not a whole lot happens in Pride and Prejudice. I mean, the only really exciting part of the novel I can remember (and I’ve read it many times) is when Lydia elopes with Wickham. And that scandalous event doesn’t even happen to the main character. That’s not all: to be honest, I cannot even remember the plot of Sense and Sensibility, which suggests that it scarcely has one. But that’s okay–Jane Austen isn’t about plot. If you want excitement and adventure, don’t read Austen. Read Sir Walter Scott instead. But be advised: Walter Scott himself, author of Ivanhoe and Waverley, those early, action-packed adventure novels so beloved by the Victorians, openly admired the newfangled work of Jane Austen, his opposite in so many ways, as he clearly indicated in an unsigned review of her book Emma. As far as nineteenth-century English writers go, Austen is not the only plot-eschewing literary giant, either; if you’ve ever read an Anthony Trollope novel, you’ll know that few dramatic scenes ever occur in his novels. In fact, when something dramatic does happen, it often occurs offstage, leaving the characters to deal with the effects of momentous and emotional events without ever allowing the reader to witness them herself.

Now this type of novel might be dull and frustrating for most readers, but I will admit that I take great pleasure in books in which very little happens, especially nowadays, when I must brace myself anytime I dare to look at news headlines, with crisis after crisis occurring at breakneck speed. Thankfully, in the world of literature, there is a whole category of works in which books with minimal plots highlight either setting or characters, or both components, in order to produce a delightful and soothing reading experience. I will share some of these works below, with the ulterior motive and express intention of hoping to spur my readers to make their own suggestions in the comments section, and thereby help me find more of these little treasures that I can place on my personal reading list.

First, there are the Mapp and Lucia novels of E.F. Benson. I am a late-comer to these books, having just finished the first in the series, Queen Lucia, in which nothing really happens other than village residents in early twentieth-century England try to one-up each other and claim dominance within their social circle. The very pettiness of these maneuvers is highly entertaining, however, and the characters are drawn well. The writing is as precise as a well-built chronometer, with an Austenian feel to it. Earlier this year, I attempted to listen to Mapp and Lucia, which was a mistake, I think; I stopped listening because it was too acerbic. I think that with Queen Lucia under my belt, I will be much more appreciative of the sharp wit with which Benson portrays a character that not even he likes that much. (Sidenote: Agatha Christie wrote a book called Absent in the Spring, under the name Mary Westmacott, in which she also created a very unlikable character. It’s worth reading, but very different from her usual detective novels.)

Another novel quite similar to Benson’s work is D.E. Stevenson’s Vittoria Cottage. Stevenson was a first cousin of Robert Louis Stevenson, author of swashbuckling novels like Kidnapped and Treasure Island, but she specialized in what was termed “light” fiction. Now, I’m not taking anything away from Robert Louis, but I believe it takes real talent to write about the trivial; as Hamlet says, “There’s a special providence in the fall of a sparrow” (V.ii). D.E. Stevenson possesses this talent, and it is a delight to delve into the world she has created, in which nothing happens, and little seems to change.

The Kindle version of Vittoria Cottage has an introduction by Alexander McCall Smith, which is highly appropriate, since Smith’s works offer an excellent contemporary example of the minimally plotted novel and fit precisely into the category I’ve identified here. Sure, the Sunday Philosophy Club books are detective stories, but they are the subtlest mysteries imaginable. One could say the same thing about the Number One Ladies’ Detective Agency series; we don’t read them for plot, but rather for the delightful characters they introduce, such as Precious Ramotswe and Grace Makutsi, as well as for the simply drawn but well-evoked setting of Botswana. Smith’s 44 Scotland Street books have more plot, but only because they depend on coincidence and absurdity to move their stories forward. I could sum it up by saying it this way: in Smith’s novels, there is scarcely any climax, but instead a gentle descent to the concluding pages. And far from condemning or critiquing such a structure, I will praise it here, in an attempt to celebrate these minimally plotted novels that allow us to focus on, and take delight in, both setting and character instead of plot.

Now, readers, it’s up to you: do you have any suggestions for books of this type? I look forward to more discoveries.

Why I’m Not an Austen Fanatic

from http://www.bebo.com/c/photos/view?MemberId=21047730&PhotoAlbumId=6418575718
from http://www.bebo.com/c/photos/view?MemberId=21047730&PhotoAlbumId=6418575718
I am not crazy about Jane Austen. Don’t get me wrong: I like Jane Austen very much. I’m an English professor, so I’ve read all of Austen’s novels (my favorite is a tie between Emma and Persuasion), as well as a few biographies of her. But I don’t share the infatuation with Austen that seems quite prevalent in this generation, to which I referred in my reblog of last week (check here if you missed it). Many years ago now, when I was teaching at a small Catholic liberal arts college, a fellow professor told a story to demonstrate how popular Austen had become. “I was at a Jack-in-the-Box,” she said. “Two teenaged girls were eating burritos, and they were talking about a third friend’s boyfriend. ‘What’s wrong with him?’ the first girl asked. The second girl replied, ‘I don’t know–her parents hate him. It’s a Jane Austen thing.'” Austen-mania had begun, back in the 1990s. It would only get worse in the coming years.

Austen-mania is a lot like Downton Abbey mania, which is a lot like royal-baby-mania, which is the reaction to the imminent birth of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s baby (happening even as I write this blog: check here. Yet for those of us who are truly enamored of British culture, it’s a bit annoying to find everyone else jumping on our own personal, slightly rickety and not-too-stable bandwagon. I mean, we were the ones who always knew that Austen was cool, that monarchies make for much more interesting history than boring old democracies, and that the British aristocracy is not nearly as stuffy as it’s made out to be.

What I find particularly annoying is that there’s plenty of other good literature out there that goes undiscovered. Consider this: Austen is the mere tip of the iceberg as far as women writers go. There are many, many other good and not-so-good women writers that go unread simply because we are hyper-focused on Austen. We all know, for example, that Mary Shelley, 21-year-old author of Frankenstein, wrote what became perhaps the most important novel of our modern era–it’s a story we are reliving now, in this era of climate change, genetically modified foods, and other critically dangerous corollaries of modern scientific discoveries. But how many people know that Shelley also wrote what must surely be one of the first end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it novels (The Last Man)? Check out this Wikipedia entry on apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic literature: and you’ll see that she can claim to be the originator of that genre, too.

Photo from http://www.nlm.nih.gov/frankenstein/birth.html
Photo from http://www.nlm.nih.gov/frankenstein/birth.html

My point is this: there are lots of interesting writers out there. Austen is surely one of them, but she’s not the only one. Likewise, Shakespeare wrote some beautiful sonnets, but out of 154 of them, how many are really memorable? Less than 10 percent, surely. I’m all for falling in love with a writer and reading everything they ever wrote, but there’s plenty of other works out there that deserve to be read, too. Let’s hear it for the women writers out there who aren’t Austen: Mary Delarivier Manley, Fanny Burney, Maria Edgeworth. And Downton Abbey is fine, but if you really want to be drawn into a great British story set around WWI, try reading The Forsyte Saga. You might even go back to the original television series about British life, above and below the salt, in WWI: Upstairs, Downstairs.

From http://www.updown.org.uk
From http://www.updown.org.uk