I should preface this with a disclaimer of sorts: I like plots. I like novels with plots, I like stories with plots, I like TV series with plots. I was raised outside my native India on a literary diet of white male writers who championed the plot.
But there is more to writing than plots. And there is especially more to Urdu literature, a newly acquired love of mine, of which the premodern sort is anything but plot-obsessed. So much so that I almost never know how to explain what I’ve read, despite how deeply or uncomfortably it made me feel.
In her book The Biopolitics of Feeling: Race, Sex, and Science in the Nineteenth Century, Kyla Schuller talks about how the male-female sex binary was created by 19th-century race scientists. The idea, roughly put, was this: white people were at the top of a racial pyramid and only they had “evolved” into the distinctly opposite male and female sexes. “Whiteness” was extended beyond skin color into a list of criteria selectively chosen in favor of white cultures. These included a capitalist system, a democratic system of government, ownership of private property, monogamous marriages, Christianity, arts and letters, advanced domestic architecture (parlor, settee, a living space removed from the kitchen). Without these, you lacked a “fully civilized” society. These criteria were codified by Lewis Henry Morgan and E. B. Tylor, who, unsurprisingly, were white men. In other words, to “evolve” oneself, one had to “evolve” toward the cultural attributes of “whiteness.”
I wonder to what extent the cultural differences in writing that we call “good” today are also learned through a white lens, and how much of editors’ telling writers they need a solid narrative arc is based on the algorithmic results of book sales and clicks.
A few months ago, amidst conversations about publishing being “too white,” author Jenny Bhatt tweeted about an agent apologizing for the language of her book rejection after everything that was happening in the world. “We’d gone back and forth for a couple of emails then,” said Bhatt, “and [the agent] insisted it wasn’t race discrimination, she only wanted to take on books she was “in love with” so she could do them justice.” Bhatt had rebutted the agent’s reason for rejecting her book, writing, “[D]on’t you think that ‘in love with’ is too subjective because it means you’ll pick books that reflect your own experiences, corroborate your value/belief systems?”
“Fiction, in its Western sense, while evolving, is still largely limited to two forms — the novel, and the short story,” writes the late Muhammad Umar Memon in the introduction to his anthology, The Greatest Urdu Stories Ever Told. The book was my first toe-dip into Urdu literature, and I’m knowingly biased in looking beyond its at-times clunky translations for nostalgia’s sake. The title is a tongue-in-cheek reference to the fact that early Urdu literature was entirely an oral tradition — dastans told by dastan-gos, or storytellers, who tweaked their narration over time to match their audience. “More significantly,” Memon writes, “the dastan, because of its flair for exuberant fantasy and the supernatural, used plot and character in fundamentally disparate ways from Western fiction.” The intent, he stresses, was to prove or disprove rather than reveal.
[Urdu literature] referred all causality to supernatural rather than to human or natural agencies, offered a different notion of time, and its characters were unavoidably two-dimensional. Stripped of individuality, [dastans] were commissioned to personify abstract ideas.
Perhaps after reading this, you’ll read Memon’s book. The first story in the anthology, Naiyer Masud’s “Obscure Domains of Fear and Desire” is a story truest to having its roots of the supernatural – to proving and disproving. Perhaps you’ll decide this is all hogwash. It may seem so at first, but Masud’s story specifically demands patience; with its abstract characters and nonsensical grasps of place and non-existent grasps of time. Nothing worthwhile actually happens in the story. In fact, I could tell you what happens in the story without giving anything away (I won’t, for fear my summary of a somewhat dull “plot” will dissuade you).
Or perhaps you’ll read this and be inclined to dig your heels in and say, “Plot is everything.”
And while that’s fair, I’m still not convinced it’s true. Plot might mean escapism, or the raison d’être for reading in the first place. But if plot is everything, why do we reread the books we love? Or, in my case, why do we reread the plotless books we love?
There is, moreover, no plot to Mrs. Dalloway or To the Lighthouse — not if you’re being honest, anyway. Netflix’s popular Mindhunter is essentially plotless, or, if you’re being generous, comprised of secondary plots. (If you haven’t seen it, it’s about two FBI agents interviewing high-profile serial killers — think Charles Manson, Son of Sam, BTK.) These plotless stories have always been around; they’ve just never been dismissed for being such. That is, unless one is to believe such stories are fine being plotless when they’re written by white people.
We keep talking about how we want more “diverse voices” in the writing community, and yet we don’t have space in our world for voices that are “too” diverse. I don’t want more performative allyship in the form of “we need more writers of color,” because the ones who are out there remain scarcely recognized and read (it amazes me, for instance, how few people know of Tagore, the first non-white man to win the Nobel prize for literature). Meanwhile the prequel to The Great Gatsby, written by a white man, is making headlines. If this isn’t playing it safe, working off the algorithm, knowing what sells, who sells it, and who gets to write it, I don’t know what is.
If you do read “Obscure Domains of Fear and Desire,” you’ll notice two things: first, there is no plot; and second, the characters and the setting are two-dimensional. I can tell you what I felt, but I cannot tell you who went where, or what the setting looked like, or what the narrator or any of the characters looked like, beyond vague descriptions put together like a patchy collage where you’d still miss an eye here or lips there. This is done on purpose, much in keeping with the original Urdu (oral) literary tradition. “Stripped of individuality, [dastans] were commissioned to personify abstract ideas,” Memon writes, adding, “The dastan was thus a different — but by no means inferior — fictional possibility from the Western novel and short story.”