Give Me Plot, or Bore Me To Death



By Julie Wu

The summer before I started college, I went to a concert by John Cage, an avant-garde American composer.  I had read his book and was captivated by his brilliance—his attempts to explode the boundaries of music by incorporating ambient noise and the element of chance into musical performance.  He stepped onstage at the Decordova Museum’s outdoor amphitheater, and I leaned forward in the audience, ready to be awed by this iconoclast.

He began his performance, showing random slides and playing equally random notes according to the I Ching.  I was excited–I’d never seen anything like it.  But after a few minutes, a funny thing happened: I got bored.  Really bored. 

Sitting through a John Cage performance wasn’t even a tenth as interesting as reading about one.  It turned out that no melodies and no structure meant no emotion, no direction, no climax, no resolution, and for me, no reason to keep listening.  The sun was setting, the mosquitoes were out, and I was getting chomped.  After twenty minutes, I got the general idea, and I left.

In college, I went on to study literature.  I had discovered, while writing a high school paper on Edgar Allen Poe, the field of literary theory.  Now I majored in the study of it, drawn to its philosophical, analytical nature, and how literature could challenge our assumptions about reading.  I read novels with unreliable narrators, or narrators who broke convention by being self-conscious and self-referential, destroying the fictive dream.  Plot was never central, or even important, in these books or in our classroom discussions.  Concepts were—the concepts of time, story, memory, reality, and “memesis,” a word my department head pronounced repeatedly and very beautifully.

And again a funny thing happened: I started not finishing books.  The pages blurred in front of my eyes, endlessly the same.  And somewhere between Derrida and a book postulating that the pen was a metaphorical penis I started losing my reverence for theorists who never wrote fiction and fiction writers who thought themselves above plebian concerns like characterization and plot.  I wrote my thesis about the most traditionally written, un-experimental book in twentieth century French literature—Les Mandarins, Simone de Beauvoir’s thinly disguised autobiography.  And when I graduated, the first thing I read was Shogun, by James Clavell.  I loved it.  I was enraptured, swept along, kept up several nights in a row.  It was the most I’d enjoyed reading in years.

I realized that different folks love reading for different reasons.  And while the trappings of a story interest me, it is the story’s emotional experience that I really love, and that kind of experience does require unassaulted “mimesis,” characterization, and plot.  I actually emerged from the ivory tower with a higher appreciation of popular fiction than I’d had before. Because now I knew for sure that I would much rather stay up late engrossed in a good thriller or “chick lit” book than prop my eyes open with toothpicks to read some prize-winning, earth-shatteringly beautiful, anti-chronological description of someone’s belly button.  I was shocked to hear a prominent author at a writing seminar describe genre writing as “crap.”  It didn’t make me want to read her books, at all.

I don’t read for the sake of the words, any more than I listen to music for the sake of the notes.  I’m not looking for a solely intellectual or aesthetic experience.  Sure, I’d like intellectual stimulation as I go.  Open my mind.  Shock me.  Dazzle me with beauty and originality.  But, please–if you want my attention, take me somewhere.  I’d rather listen to Lady Gaga than to John Cage.  Give me a melody, emotion, direction.

Otherwise, I’m walking out.


  1. Julie:
    Thanks for your honesty!

  2. Dell Smith says:

    Thanks Julie for articulating this phenomenon. While I’m often drawn to literary fiction (and enjoy most of it), some authors are tough going. And the journey is not always worth the investment of time.

    For Christmas my sister gave me Larry McMurtry’s Dead Man’s Walk, a Western, and ate it up. It was full of plot, plot on every page, but also stuffed with vivid characters and wonderful description. And I learned a thing or two about point of view. I’m a plot snob no more!

    • Julie Wu says:

      So glad you could relate, Dell! For some reason as we get older we forget why we loved books in the first place–the story! I’ll have to check out Dead Man’s Walk. Thanks!

  3. Emily says:

    Loved this post. This line says it all for me, “Because now I knew for sure that I would much rather stay up late engrossed in a good thriller or “chick lit” book than prop my eyes open with toothpicks to read some prize-winning, earth-shatteringly beautiful, anti-chronological description of someone’s belly button.” Having look over my daughter’s shoulder while she majored in ‘literary studies’ I feel your pain re literary theory. In four years I don’t think she read one book I’d ever heard of. And I also find myself drifting away from some literary novels mid-read. I love the writing but the impetus to keep reading isn’t there. I’ve always felt a little bad about that but you have framed it in a new light. There are also page turners I put aside because the characters or writing doesn’t grab me. Perhaps the best books have some of each.

    • Julie Wu says:

      So glad you enjoyed the post, Emily! And I agree–the best books for me have both wonderful writing and a wonderful plot. So hard to strike that balance, and probably every reader has a different conception of what that ideal balance should be. Good thing there are so many different readers and writers! Thanks so much for commenting..

  4. Diana Renn says:

    Thanks for this honest account, Julie. I had similar reading experiences in a PhD program in English, and eventually walked away from it because I no longer loved to read, and I wanted to learn about writing craft more than I wanted to learn about criticism and theory. After I left, I immediately started reading a wide range of contemporary fiction and popular fiction, and came to appreciate storytelling again. I’ve never looked back.

    • Julie Wu says:

      Thanks for your comment, Diana! Yes, it took me a long time to love reading again, though I’m glad now that I went through the process. Glad this resonated with you!

  5. I love what you have written here, Julie, because I have felt many of the same things. There is something intangible but delightful about a novel with a story, characters, and writing that work together to create a harmonious experience for a reader. A novel doesn’t always have to be “brilliant” to truly be luminous. Thank you!

    • Julie Wu says:

      So glad this spoke to you, Jennifer. Personally, I think just achieving that kind of harmony is a kind of brilliance that is under-recognized. Thanks for the comment!

  6. Hey, I was going to write this post!

    Seriously, this is great. I’ve had almost exactly the same experience (including Derrida and the metaphorical penises) and long ago concluded that if there isn’t a good story, I’m not interested. But your post says it so much better (and calmer) than I ever could have.

    The notion that lots of pretty language and little plot is “literary” has become one of the most tiresome and, to my mind, ignorant beliefs of the literary world. A true literary novel is one that demonstrates mastery of all aspects of the form–setting, character, plot, voice, imagery, language, etc. The proportions may vary, depending on the author’s voice and tastes, but the elements should still be there. When writers say “Language doesn’t matter” or “Plot doesn’t matter,” what they are actually doing is giving themselves a pass on their weakest points.

    I can see how language-deficient writing became synonymous with “commercial fiction.” A potboiler will sell no matter what. But how plot-deficient writing became synonymous with “literary” I don’t know. Because it doesn’t sell? By that definition, everything in the remainder bin should be “high literary art.”

    Anyway, that’s my rant. See why it’s a good thing you wrote this post instead of me? Thanks!

    • Julie Wu says:

      Thanks so much, Chris! But who’s to say you shouldn’t give your own, different take on the subject? I do agree–it’s curious that many plotless novels are considered not only literary, but are also lauded as superior to other genres. Perhaps it’s some puritannical belief that the harder something is to read, the better it must be? That if we enjoy something, it must be bad for us? Plenty of food for thought . . .

      So glad you enjoyed this post! We should discuss Derrida sometime–not.

  7. Javed says:

    Hi Julie,
    loved the post, it has definitely hit a nerve with me- in a recent and (rare) moment of clarity I was struck by a similar thought about a number of our biggest writers – I realized that some of these folk are not really interested in telling us stories, rather their work is all about disguising their philosophical treatises and post-structural rantings within the pretext of a story. While that may be a fine use of literature, it led me to wonder why writers like Rushdie, Marquez and Franzen don’t just come out and give us the real deal vis-a-vis mortality, power and whatever else they want to propound on.without the high falutin pretense? Now I have labored through their books and have enjoyed large swathes of it, and am probably being unfairly plebeian here, but my point is, ‘high’ literature seems to have strayed from a focus on story telling into something else. While there should be room and acceptance for all forms of literary expression, it should not be at the cost of story and plot alone. IMHO it is precisely as a backlash to this hyper-intellectualism that we have seen the rise of the Da Vinci Codes and the Twilight franchise(apologies to fans of these books, but it has to be said)…
    BTW, I loved Shogun too…

    • Julie Wu says:

      Javed, I’m so glad this post resonated with you. I think there’s value in all forms of literature, including ones that are using the form as a treatise. But I’m not going to pretend to enjoy reading a treatise as much as I enjoy reading a great story.

      I have not yet read the Twilight books, but I have read the Da Vinci Code. Was the prose top notch? Was the characterization profound? Of course not. But it kept me up at night turning pages, and I still remember scenes from it. I absolutely enjoyed that book and I think a lot of us “literary” types could learn a lot from reading books like it.

      And yes, Shogun is awesome.

  8. Pauline Lim says:

    Awesome post, Julie! I performed John Cage pieces several times, and I have to say, it’s a hell of a lot more fun and freeing to perform it than it is to suffer through it as an audience member! I recently went to a dance performance at the ICA and felt the same way– super bored but envious of the people actually performing, because it looked like fun for THEM. I also was bored shitless by the ugly, dull stuff in the galleries. You couldn’t appreciate them unless you read the placards, and that’s NOT a sign of good art, in my book.

    I think all these forms are great for helping the creator be free of convention, but as an audience member, I need plot and emotion, too. As a visual artist, I need gorgeousness, excitement, or entertainment. If I were the curator at the ICA, things would look WAY different.

    I recently saw “The Donkey Show” at the ART second stage, and though it was Shakespeare extremely dumbed down with high-school-ish acting, it was a BLAST, and I would go back again!

    • Julie Wu says:

      Thanks so much, Pauline!

      Perhaps there’s a certain self-indulgence or lack of consideration for the audience in this ilk of music/literature/art. People forget that being provocative will only hold someone’s interest for a limited time.

      I saw The Donkey Show, too! We were a little too straight-laced to get down with the fairies, but it was indeed fun!

  9. Leah says:

    Hi Julie,

    I agree with you. John Cage hit upon something, but nothing that required hours of contemplation or so much publicity. It was a gimmicky. If you got his “message” in the first five minutes, that was sufficient;. It never went anywhere. His partner Merce Cunningham took it further with his art of dance.

    As you know my passion is music because of its abstraction and ironically lack of words, or should I say, lack of English words. When I listen to German, Spanish or Italian opera I like to put my own words to the libretto. In fact, sometimes when I get the translation, I’m disappointed. It doesn’t measure up to the power of the music itself and the libretto I have imagined for it. What I love is being pulled into an emotional musical world which is a musical muscle that’s been exercised over and over and is transforming.

    The more I read books, the more I’m astounded by word imagery and its power. This too is what makes my world and gives me so much pleasure.

    • Julie Wu says:

      Thanks so much for your thoughts, Leah! I’m glad this spoke to you.

      It’s so interesting to draw connections between the different forms of art. That will be fodder for another post, I think!

  10. donna d. vitucci says:

    i agree w/all said above. except i don’t feel lady gaga has any inroad into emotion. so that article end-note comparison doesn’t work for me, in trying to relate it to books that keep us up at night turning pages. just sayin.

    otherwise, yes, thornbirds and prince of tides and such , for me, ever trump many of the “academy-praised” books.

    • Julie Wu says:

      Thanks, Donna! It’s funny–I had the same thought about Lady Gaga (was choosing between her and Adele), but in the end I put her in because she puts forth the visual image of being avant-garde, and yet her music is so conventional, and I think that’s kind of an interesting comparison to John Cage. In the end, she’s entertaining, and I don’t think I’d walk out of a Lady Gaga concert, though I don’t have first-hand knowledge of that!

  11. Erin Cashman says:

    Julie, what a great article. I am with you, If I’m half way through a novel, even a beautifully written one, and I don’t really care what happens to the characters, I put it down. In the end it’s the emotional response that I’m looking for. I want to get swept away by the story, so that I don’t want to stop reading. If I find my mind wandering while I’m reading – even if it’s eloquent prose – I shut the book and pick up something else.

    • Julie Wu says:

      Thanks so much, Erin! So glad this post spoke to you.

      It seems a lot of people feel this way but are embarassed about it, for some reason. But isn’t it natural to want to be captivated by a story?

  12. K says:

    Right on, Julie! I’m with you all the way. Thanks for this post.