The Story of the Return of Story
No. That's geekspeak bullshit, "story" a rhetorical pretense that it's the substructure of narrative somehow being neglected if the disruption of equilibrium is subtle rather than blunt, if the stakes and strategies are everyday rather than extraordinary, if the complications are abstract rather than concrete, if the conflict worked through to resolution is internal rather than external. If we want to talk modernists, Joyce's Ulysses is every bit the told story that Homer's is, perhaps more so. I went to see a play adaptation of it the other night and it struck to me, not for the first time, how the text is so very much meant to be heard. Structured by the episode and suffused with the oral, it is absolutely a story. It's simply that the tensions resolved in the closing soliloquy are less boldly manifest, the register of action more low-key.
When enthusiasts of category fiction speak of "story-telling" in this way then, it's a stand-in for the more stirring register of action inherited from the pulps. It's not about the fiction being more story-ish in some sense -- more dramatic, one might say. Taxonomically speaking, all well-made dramas are equally dramatic. If better made, the low-key will be moreso than a series of high-octane set pieces strung together in a formulaic grammar of action/adventure by authorial fiat. The latter may be called "more dramatic" for its brasher impact, but this is dissimulation around the fact that it's simply more spectacular.
A peripeteia is not even more of a peripeteia if it involves the actor physically whirling around 180º on the stage.
Still, when we have a more spectacular narrative made from more immediately visible elements -- blunt force disruptions, extraordinary stakes, concrete complications, external conflicts -- is it not fair to say that the more obvious plot is more important in driving us onward through the story? That we can therefore segregate out such narratives as more "plot-driven"? No, again this is dissimulation. Similarly, plot is no less the motive draw in the "character-driven" story than in the "plot-driven." It's simply that in the former, the characters' structures of self are made the theatres of war, events are internal rather than external, and when plot is taking place in that substrate rather than the physical world it goes by the name of character development. Every revelation of character, however understated, is an action in the plot.
No, the geekspeak bullshit of "plot-driven" and "story-telling" is just a way NOT to say that the subtle disruptions and everyday goals bore us, that the abstract complications and internal plots are less spectacular than we want. Why the rhetorical pretence? An admission would be a confession -- of enjoying the sensational, or worse, the sensationalist. And even those who are ultimately defending such pleasures do so in a discourse so loaded with contempt for the sensationalist that dissimulation may be automatic, unconscious. It may be the discourse itself that is dissimulating. These inchoate notions of "story-telling" and "plot-driven" do serve to defend a particular approach in narrative, but they do so by diverting attention from the sensational, rerouting into a pre-existent -- a downright tired -- and self-sustaining argument of purpose, entertainment versus edification, both sides of which do narrative a gross disservice by casting it as means to an end.
It's time we cut the crap, discard the hollow effigy of Story as a fancied principle grand enough to warrant respect, and defend what it is that needs defended. Say what it is that category fiction does in its bones and muscle and sinew. Because this is the reason for the revolution.
The change signified by "the likes of Cormac McCarthy, Kazuo Ishiguro, Kate Atkinson, and Jennifer Egan" is only the restoration of quirks and associated plot dynamics deemed improperly sensational in that self-privileging imperialist aesthetic of literature which belongs back in 1880s, the aesthetic which reasserted itself in the recuperation of post-WWII realism. From Gothic Romance, through dime novels and penny dreadfuls, to the pulps and hence to modern category fiction -- I take the sensation novel as a linchpin wherein the disdain named its enemy; it's as good a point as any to situate the consolidation of that tedious philistinism masquerading as good taste.
The visceral drive in such sensational(ist) dynamics is the "sturdy narrative roots" that remain blatant as Michael Chabon, Jonathan Lethem, Donna Tartt, and Neil Gaiman cross the barricades from the other direction -- partly just by using these quintessential markers of pulp literature in sophisticated rather than formulaic ways. As has always been done. Why? Because the narrative devices characteristic of category fiction -- these quirks -- are not just crude buttons a writer may push; they're the meat of narrative itself. A writer who wants to "understand why the heart has reasons that reason cannot know" may absolutely employ the monstrum of the horror story and/or the cryptica of the police procedural; these quirks are custom-made to address exactly that sort of unknown. The only wonder is that it's taken so long for someone like McCarthy to do so.
Or perhaps that's not a great wonder. The rhetorical pretense that this is about the structural rather than the sensational, as I say, has not done the defenders of category fiction any favours.