Grisham [has] posed his idea of plot-driven fiction as a distinction from "literature," but he might be surprised to learn that his idea has precedents among the highest of brows: in what is generally considered the first work of literary criticism, The Poetics, Aristotle argued that plot (mythos) is superior to every other element of tragedy, which he considered the highest form of literary art. To Aristotle, action is most important, and the writer's arrangement of incidents leads to the most vital effects of tragedy ...Read the whole thing. If you’re not used to literary theory, Cheney’s exposition of Shklovsky can be pretty tough going. But it’s worth persevering through, because it addresses how writers move from ideas in theirs heads to the words on paper. We’ve all experienced the dichotomy between a mental sketch of characters and events (what Shklovsky would call "story") and the final brush strokes meant to connect the various pieces, lend a particular depth and color ("plot"). There are thousands of ways to incarnate the former though the latter, and Cheney argues not only that complexity of plot rather than story that determines literary quality, but that such complexity can work against certain sorts of stories. It’s an intriguing hypothesis, one that will have you thinking twice about what you read -- and what you write.
Plenty of critics and philosophers have disagreed with Aristotle about plot trumping character (Hegel, among others, preferred the opposite formulation), and there are bestselling novelists who disagree with John Grisham. Indeed, among those who disagree is one of the few novelists who outsells Grisham: Nora Roberts, who in a New Yorker profile said, "For the kinds of books I write, character is key. Character is plot."
Grisham wants to use an emphasis on plot to distinguish his work from novels he scorns, novels he calls "literature," but he's not talking about plot in general so much as an approach to plot. To show this, we can consider Aristotle via some terminology stolen from the Russian Formalist critic Viktor Shklovsky.
(Picture: CC 2008 by Bern@t)