The Jub Jub Manifesto – Part 1
The Jub Jub’s mission is to shine a light on the very best examples of literary fantasy, and its practitioners. It occurs to me that I should define exactly what I mean by literary fantasy, so I’ve been kicking about the idea of creating a manifesto for the Jub Jub niche: a set of necessary (but not sufficient) conditions to qualify for consideration for the highest accolades I can bestow (note-pad at the ready Rushdie). It’s early days though and I want this to be an organic process, so I’m going to construct my critical edifice one supporting-wall at a time.
I have already defined what I mean by fantasy here. When I came across this, admittedly ancient, but utterly inspired piece by Nick Lowe on plot devices, I decided to make it the first cornerstone of the manifesto. There’s little more satisfying than an elegantly constructed plot, in my book; I have always enjoyed piecing together implicit and explicit narrative elements, to complete the picture of the author’s vision. The corollary to this statement is that there is little to spoil the reading experience more than poorly constructed narrative and transparent plot devices, which break the spell and draw attention to the author’s clunking hand.
Lowe’s piece raises some interesting issues for fantasy readers, myself included, because he challenges some of the basic tenets of the genre. I played Dungeons and Dragons in my youth, and have always had a soft spot for the classic quest story, particularly if the adventure involves reclaiming magic items from dragons in dungeons. I’d like to think that my critical faculties would baulk at anything too formulaic or self-serving but even so, as part of a broader canvas, questing after useful magical items has always fired my imagination. Lowe posits the concept of plot coupons, whereby the seeds of the antagonist’s eventual downfall are placed strategically throughout the book by the author; all the characters need do is collect the magic coupons and save them up for use at the appropriate moment. I love this insight but it calls for a clarification, I think, or perhaps a classification: I would distinguish between works where the author establishes plot coupons at the outset and then spends the book simply joining the dots, and those where there are degrees of tension, characterisation, elliptical narrative or thematic strands, to leaven the otherwise stodgy device and threaten the inevitability of the outcome. Any or all of these extra characteristics could elevate the whole, allowing for considered use of this established fantasy trope, without automatically consigning the book to David Gemmell Award status.
I also found myself thinking about rules in alternative universes. Perhaps this is my genre bias showing through again, but I enjoy reading about worlds that are driven by different sets of rules to our own, whether this be something as straightforward as silver-kills-werewolves, for example, or more complex secondary world traditions of diplomacy, etiquette and rules of engagement. Such rules serve as more than simple plot-devices in my view; they give greater depth to alternative worlds, distinguish them from our own and are often used satirically. In any case, if rules encourage protagonists to come up with ingenious resolutions – as opposed to rules which appear from nowhere at convenient moments in the narrative – the plot device is justifiable.
That said, Lowe brilliantly nails some hoary old fantasy plotting conventions, reminding us all of the dangers of authorial omnipotence in general and in made-up worlds particularly. I will make some allowances in recognition of genre tropes, but plotting which undermines my belief in the fictional world, or serves to remind me of the author’s presence – unless the author is being deliberately post-modern – will be looked upon very gravely indeed. Authors, get out of the way!
Of course, nothing that Lowe says rules out the no-plot plot, an approach with which literary works are often associated. I consider no-plot (not no plotting, which is a problem of an entirely different order), to be a unique subset of plot, potentially the most elegant type of all.
So, without further ado, I give you…..
The Jub Jub Manifesto, Point 1 – Elegant Plotting (Incorporating No-Plot and Post-Modernism).