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Plot Mania!

When I first started teaching, decades ago, I followed the convention of many of my colleagues and read in class for the story. I required that my students spit back details of the narrative, who did what, where, when, and why. Often they beat me at my own game. They concocted parallel narratives––extra-textual profiles and cliques of characters––and they often argued among themselves about who was most correct. If success in the classroom were measurable solely by student participation, I was certainly a hit.

But something was wrong. They spent so much time finding the "real" or "hidden" character profiles and psychologies that I began to realize they were missing the point, as was I as an instructor. I was a semiotician in my personal life, in my scholarship––as though the two were separate––but for some reason I chose to keep that work out of the classroom, opting for a more simplistic approach––the path of least resistance. I consciously decided at some point to integrate that work into my pedagogy, though it took some calibrating.

For example, it's one thing to suss Mrs. Dalloway's basic actions in the sentence, Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself, than to begin to think more deeply, say, about the resonances of flowers, the ability to buy them in a post-war economy, their luxury status, the idea of a well-to-do woman acting "herself" instead of having the hired help do the work––never mind the fact that the sentence, and the entire novel, begin by calling attention to the titular character's marital status in a heteronormative milieu.

As our newly-directed readings progressed, themes were allowed to build that were related to, but in some ways independent of and even contradictory to what was happening at the level of plot. My students learned to read with a bifurcated vision, to stop relying exclusively on plot for understanding what a work was about. They were able to detect the irony of foregrounding Clarissa's marital status from the get-go given that not all was well in conjugal heaven. They detected the author's re-incarnation of medieval flower iconography, namely its feminine resonances, pointing to the lesbian themes in the work. They even became conscious of the shifting post-war economy, in which titled individuals could no longer rely on servants to do everything for them the way they had for centuries––is Clarissa complaining about having to go out and buy the flowers herself, is she annoyed or put out, or is she simply stating a fact? The meaning of the word "herself" becomes pivotal.

My students developed the tools for appreciating a work in ways that were not plot-dependent. And the ones who got it really got it, the play of language, such that many began either to develop a yen for writing themselves, or to think about spending a lifetime analyzing the works of others. Many went on to MA and Ph.D. programs in literature, creative writing, teaching, the law, advertising, and journalism, among other professions. For those who resisted the redirection, away from plot mania, it was a slog. Enrollment in my courses fell. Word got around that students would have to work, that it'd be a certain kind of party but not of the afternoon talk-show variety.

I bring all this up because I've been told by some that The Lede is a challenge to read. One of the reviewers even remarks, "Readers who appreciate that kind of literary challenge [of not being told how the characters are related] will find much depth, feeling, and startling insights." That, in fact, was my goal, namely to write a queer novel that could stand up to a kind of scrutiny similar to the works I taught. I didn't want to write a one-and-doner but something that would honor the critical skills of readers, and perhaps invite rereading.

The vast majority of my students who were schooled in the art of thinking critically about language will have no problem with The Lede––in fact they might complain I soft-pedaled it. For the plot-obsessed, for readers who are looking for a breezy read in which the major characters and conflicts are more or less spelled out, it might be more of a struggle. But it's the discerning I wrote for primarily, similar to the way any poet worth her salt relies on readers to be equipped with the skills to sort out, play with, tunnel below, fly over, and ultimately imbibe the language of a poem. Someone able to enjoy the endless lure of language.

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