Lauren Hough on novel plots free of conflict

24 March 2022

Writing in response to being removed from the nominations for this year’s Lambda Literary Awards, for her collection of essays, Leaving Isn’t the Hardest Thing, Berlin based author Lauren Hough highlights something I’ve been noticing a little recently: bizarrely, a dislike of conflicts in novel plots.

My book won’t win a prize because my friend Sandra Newman wrote a book. The premise of her book is “what if all the men disappeared.” When she announced the book on twitter, YA twitter saw it. This is the single most terrifying thing that can happen to a writer on twitter. YA twitter, presumably fans of young adult fiction, are somehow unfamiliar with the concept of fiction. YA twitter doesn’t do nuance. They don’t understand metaphor or thought experiment. They expect fictional characters to be good and moral and just, whether antagonist or protagonist. They expect characters and plot to be free of conflict. They require fiction to portray a world without racism, bigotry, and bullies. And when YA twitter gets wind of a book that doesn’t meet their demands, they respond with a beatdown so unrelenting and vicious it would shock William Golding. They call it “call-out culture” because bullying is wrong, unless your target is someone you don’t like, for social justice reasons, of course.

The problem of plots free of conflict isn’t restricted to “YA Twitter” though. Scanning through a range of book reviews on aggregator websites reveals a similar pattern. Readers will fault a novel if they find a character “unlikable”. Never mind said character’s unpleasantness is a crucial plot device, creating a challenge of some sort for a protagonist to overcome.

Others have stopped reading a book after learning a character is, say, engaged in an extra-marital affair. Sure, it’s behaviour not to be condoned, but it still happens, every day, all over the world, no doubt since people first walked the planet. Refusing to read a book where such an activity is occurring is surely akin to burying one’s head in the sand.

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