Tuesday, November 10, 2009

What do we owe the reader? A coherent plot, for one thing

I keep thinking about what we owe, and what we don't, and I don't have a good answer yet. The other Clockworkers' posts strike me as well-reasoned. But I will say this, since Matt brought her up: JK Rowling may have kept some of her promises, but she broke a big one--that her plots would make a lick of sense. Instead, they make less sense the longer you think about them.

Voldemort: Here's the plan, Barty. You disguise yourself as Mad-Eye Moody for nine months, then sneak Harry's name into the goblet of fire, and then rig the contest in such a way that Harry is guaranteed to win.

Barty Crouch: What?

Voldemort: You see, the trophy is really a portkey! Ha ha! It will transport Harry outside the school, where my minions can subdue him and then use his blood to ensure the final phase of my resurrection.

Barty: Okay, but...

Voldemort: You dare to question me?!

Barty: Why don't I just, you know, hand him the portkey?

Voldemort: [Stares blankly]

Barty: I just walk up to him, hand it to him, and poof, he's teleported out of the school. We can do it tomorrow.

Voldemort: Barty. Barty. I'll overlook this because you're new. But you obviously have no idea how to be the FRICKIN' LORD OF DARKNESS, okay? That's MY job. Now drink the frickin' polyjuice potion, and I'll get back to you in June.

Now, this kind of sloppiness is not uncommon. How many breakneck adventures have your read, how many X-Files or Heroes episodes have you seen, how many comics have you inhaled that you enjoyed in the moment, but about 30 seconds after putting down the book or turning off the TV, you thought, Wait a minute...

Rowling particularly annoys me. Not just because her stories depend on some kind of attention-deficit disorder dream logic, but because she has sold so many books, and made so many children happy (including my own, and soon Matt's, I'm sure) that it's clear her readers don't care about the plot. They forgive her, or they don't notice, because they like hanging out with Harry for 800 pages. Which goes to show you: charm and wonder trump craft every time. Now: Would anyone like to discuss A.E. Van Vogt? Or the second drafts that PK Dick never wrote? No?


  1. "Rowling particularly annoys me...because she has sold so many books"

    That pretty much sums it up, doesn't it? :)

    But seriously, I don't think you can take Rowling to task for plot holes. Stories need to follow their own internal, self-consistent logic--not necessarily the same as ours. Rowling, like the vast majority of tales in the fantasy genre does just that. Because if you're going to poke holes in her plots, why stop there? Absolutely everything about the Harry Potter stories is ridiculous when held up to cold logic. The golddigging relatives who know he is a wizard but somehow prefer to ignore this fact ad nauseum rather than sell him out one summer? Spastic staircases that never send a student plummeting to their deaths? The most powerful wizard in the world unable to cure a simple case of petrification until the end of the school year when a certain prolific plant ripens? Hopelessly ignorant Muggles never noticing the stream of adolescents disappearing into a brick column in one of the city's busiest train stations?

    It's all just stupid, really. But it largely follows its own rules, which is what is really important. Is Rowling a world-class writer? Of course not. But she doesn't let you down, assuming you buy in to her stories at the beginning. You're either all in or all out; it's not productive to cast stones selectively.

  2. Daryl Gregory: Wonderkiller.

    Of course, if Voldemort really wanted Harry gone, he could have just gone to Harry's house and shot him in the head.

  3. Andrew, I think your examples make the case Rowling -doesn't- follow her own self-consistent logic. I'm all for crazy worlds -- I've created a few myself -- but I really prefer that once the writer lays out the rules of the world, he follows them. When writers don't, it hurts the book and interrupts my suspension of disbelief. I think your list of Potter inconsistencies could go on for pages.

    I think what you like out Rowling's world -- and what I like too -- is not the internal consistency of the world (because it's not there) but the charm of it, the tone, and the characters.

    And I also think that not only is it productive to cast stones selectively -- loved the plot but hated the characters, or loved the descriptions but hated the pacing -- but that it's the job of this group blog to do so. Let's talk about what works and stone what doesn't. Only then, as Shirley Jackson didn't say, can we ensure a bountiful harvest of well-written fiction.


  4. Wonderkiller. Good name. None of the names Matt so frequently calls me are that cool.

  5. Daryl, I guess my point about Rowling is that her self-consistent 'logic' is that it isn't logical at all--but as an author she never promises otherwise. As Matt says, the promise is "a story about magic and wizards, that it is going to contain farce, and that in its pages, a boy will discover and confront his destiny." The farce runs deep from the beginning, completely displacing rationality.

    As for casting stones selectively, I think I was being unconsciously snide to Rowling. The Harry Potter books are so far from what I personally strive to read (and write) that for me, it's no use dissecting them. Critique is productive on works that are good but flawed, whereas Rowling's work is nowhere near 'good' in the way I mean. Successful, to be sure, and lightly entertaining in the most superficial way, but not something I'm interested in analyzing as a storyteller--because all hype aside, the stories aren't satisfying. Their success among the non-YA readership is almost entirely the result of relentless marketing. But I don't want to get into that argument and just sound bitter :)

  6. For me, the reason why I stopped reading Harry Potter somewhere around book 4 or 5 is pretty much what Daryl is saying here. Its charming world started to become *too* unbelievable. Sure it's a fantasy world, and thus requires great suspension of disbelief in the first place. But when even the story's own fuzzy logic gets out of control, it's a real downer because then you might as well be looking at pretty paintings instead of trying to follow a plot.

    Plus, there wasn't enough nudity in it. I kept expecting the teenage years to have more of that going on.

    I must say though, to the person who said that Rowling is not a world-class writer that she certainly is by at least two objective standards.