“What’s it about???”

I hate this question. And everybody asks it.

“What’s your novel about?”

I hate it because I don’t know how to answer it. They don’t know it, but what they really mean is, “What’s the plot?” They also, without necessarily realizing it consciously, mean, “What’s the genre?”

Both of these annoy me, because I think they’re the wrong questions. Not that I don’t understand that everybody asks them.

Basically with both questions, the person wants to know “What am I in for when I read your story?” They mean in terms of what’s going to happen. But I’m not interested in the plot so much as the point, which is a different thing. You might consider that the plot is the what and the point is the why. And I’m very much a why guy.

The why is the reason I’m writing. I see something everyone else seems to be oblivious to, and I think, “I’d like to explore that.” And so I do. Then I think of a way to do so. That’s the plot, the excuse for points to be made, for events to happen.

Let me give you an example. Once I was in my favorite coffee shop reading, and also people-watching. I saw a rather peculiar woman there—and I’ve never seen her before or since. She was maybe 50, or a hard mid-to-late 40s, but with a thin, trim body, like that of a child. She was very child-like, a free spirit, and likely had been a hippie at one time. (This was Berkeley, after all!) She was dressed in a tight fitting camouflage top and green cargo pants that flared out beyond even what you’d expect for 60s bell-bottoms. All this was topped off (or bottomed out?) by feet in huge bright orange platform clogs. (She was short, but the clogs and bell-bottoms made her seem to have more volume than she did.) Her curly blonde hair wasn’t just mussed. It looked like she simply never ever combed it. No makeup or jewelry. She was not just a free spirit, she owned it, and seemed happy to be that way.

Even that description doesn’t do her justice, but it’s the best I can manage. She’s certainly someone I’d remember if I saw her again. Watching her, I started thinking she was making the best of her circumstances, which I gathered to be, well, not very well-off, extremely Bohemian—Bohemian by necessity. We embrace what we have, I thought, and tell ourselves it’s the way we wish to live, in large part because we have no choice. I thought of a lyric from Stephen Sondheim: We lose things, and then we choose things…

Then I began to imagine the same woman changed by money and upward mobility: the hair cleaned up and cut, a small amount of tasteful makeup. What if something happened to her that raised her social station, gradually, slowly,  not really by her own design, at least at first, but some opportunity, that led to some better opportunity, etc? And then one day, the bottom drops out. And she realizes that she has risen almost imperceptibly, one rung at a time on the ladder, and now she realizes the size of the drop, and what has become her new normal is so much higher than she ever imaged life could be before now that she realizes, though maybe not consciously, but she realizes she cannot go back. It’s a one-way trip.

I thought about that some more, then went to the trunk of my car, grabbed my handy laptop, brought it inside, sat across from this woman, and started wrting Freespirit.

Even as I sit here writing this, I itch to go back and rewrite parts. (At some point I will.) Because some of it turned out not to be “about” what I’d intended. Specifically, the second half of part II doesn’t work, and I know what I need to do to fix it. I’ll fix it with new plot, but the plot has to conform to the point, which is to illustrate how when one finds oneself in a rarefied social and economic strata, morals and mores start to slip, very imperceptibly. We rationalize what would be unthinkable before, but there’s a problem: we can no longer remember “before.”

I don’t think the story was entirely successful in putting this across, because it’s a very abstract thought and doesn’t give itself well to concreate-isms. My point, however, is that plot is largely irrelevant. I could have written the same story with a different “plot” and liked its ideas just as much. Plot serves ideas, in other words. Sometimes it even feels like it gets in the way.

Mind you, I can’t blame people for asking what it’s “about.” It’s the way we learn to think of fiction—the story. But, I ask you, what’s Lawrence of Arabia about?

What’s I [Heart] Huckabees about?

What’s 2001: A Space Odyssey about?

(Now, I’m not comparing myself to any of these sublime creations…just using them to make a point.)

Rather than talk about what my story is “about,” I’d rather tell you about the ideas in them, and the ideas that led me to want to write it. This is one reason I cannot understand bookstore author readings: someone whose story I’ve already read stands up in front of the room and reads it again. I’d much prefer hearing about what they were thinking that drove them to write it. Now that would make an interesting evening.

So what’s Entertaining Welsey Shaw about? It’s “about” how everyone is so busy searching in our society that they never stop to look. It’s about people wanting to communicate and connect via all sorts of artificial means when they are surrounded by lonely people. It’s about how so many changes have come upon us in the last half-decade that we don’t even realize what a new “moment” we’re living in right now: BlackBerries, the age of Starbucks, star-verhicle movies, DVD rentals, any expectation of private life, Callicoon New York as an untouched backwater free from the strife of modern life, all things of the past. It’s about 95,000 words. And none of this was evident when I started the story four years ago. That’s what Welsey Shaw is about.

2 responses

  1. Excellent post, John. I get those questions a lot, too. I don’t think everyday people know how to talk to writers. We’re this exotic bird of sorts. When they ask what I write, I usually say literary fiction. Then I watch their eyes glaze over.


    January 20, 2012 at 10:14 am

    • Europeans are generally more familiar with the concept of literary fiction. Even when it’s genre (Dragon Tattoo series) it has more of a literary bent, though of course the two are merging somewhat, which is another article in itself.


      January 20, 2012 at 8:55 pm

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