Story versus Style

What’s more important – that a book is well written or that it has an engaging story? I’ve always been firmly on the side of story. If the story isn’t compelling then it surely doesn’t matter how beautifully it’s been written. That’s what I’ve always thought, at least. However, I am now reading a book that’s making me rethink my position. I managed to get my greedy fingers on not one, but two, of the titles for World Book Night, one of which was Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. It is 348 pages and I am up to page 116, and I am completely and utterly gripped – not by the story, but by the writing. It is one of the most exquisitely written books I have ever come across – and I do consider myself to be pretty well read. There is an effortlessness in every sentence and I feel like this book is showing me just how great the written word can be.

So far this year I have read a lot of just-released books, and have found many of them to be insipid and bland, and now that I am reading Marquez, those other books seem even more insubstantial and unsatisfying – like having a glass of water for dinner as opposed to a three course meal. Time of Cholera is something to really get your teeth into and, right now – just over 100 pages in – I feel like the book is nourishing my reader’s soul. I am not massively engaged with the characters or their story (although I suppose that could still change), but, with this book, it honestly doesn’t matter. I feel almost hungry for Marquez’s words. How refreshing to read a book that is not a fast-driven frenzy of activity from beginning to end. What a welcome change for there to not be some sort of fight scene or car chase on every page. This is a book that allows itself to breathe – and is all the better for it.

Pace is something I am painfully aware of with my own writing. I’m aware of a constant pressure to make sure the action doesn’t slow down, even for a second, in case – God forbid – the reader gets bored, and the reviewers begin baying for your blood etc etc. Surely we have not sunk so low as a society that all we want to see is pretty people running away from explosions? It is a notion that I dislike intensely. Not so much for Lex Trent or other comic fantasies because they’re naturally more fast-paced – but for serious adult books I find it very frustrating that there should be such a single-minded focus on grabbing the reader’s attention by doing the writing equivalent of bashing them over the head with a heavy object. Personally, I generally dislike books that start with action scenes or fights or chases. They bore me. If I don’t know the characters yet then I couldn’t care less what happens to them as they run madly through the house whilst being pursued by a werewolf/man with gun/love-sick sparkly vampire. Still, I am told that this is what most people want in an opening chapter.

In the story versus style debate I would hold up Dan Brown as a brilliant example of the former. I realise it’s dreadfully unfashionable of me to like Dan Brown, and many people (some of whom openly admit to having never even picked up one of his books) seem to almost fall over themselves in their eagerness to proclaim that the man cannot write, or that his writing style is clumsy at best. I do not accept this. I think Dan Brown is a very skilled and intelligent thriller writer, and no aspirations to literary snobbery will make me say otherwise. Dan Brown does not write beautifully but the stories he tells do not require that he should. I enjoyed The Da Vinci Code but I absolutely loved The Lost Symbol. I devoured it because every time I got to the end of a chapter I couldn’t wait to learn what was going to happen next. It gripped me very differently from the way Time of Cholera is gripping me now.

I am in awe of Marquez’s writing – literally, I am in awe of him – but I’m still more likely to take a Dan Brown book on holiday with me, or reread a Dan Brown book, or rush to the cinema to see a film adaptation. I am still more likely to eagerly seek out other work of Brown’s that I have not yet read – not because I think his books are better than Marquez’s but because, for me, story is still more important than style. I read Brown’s books – and others like them – for a different reason. Fundamentally, I read those books to enjoy them as a reader, whereas a book like Love in the Time of Cholera I’m reading mainly as something to aspire to as a writer – a fondly nurtured dream that perhaps if one worked at it solidly for fifty years or more, one might become even half as good.  

And now, as a post script to this post, for anyone who hasn’t heard about this yet, my good pal, and blogger extraordinaire, Amanda Rutter, along with several other very fine people, have organised and set up an auction in aid of the Red Cross Japanese Tsunami Appeal. I’d like to encourage you to head on over to http://genreforjapan.wordpress.com/ where you can bid on all manner of exciting things, including rare signed books, critiques from authors and the chance to have your name in an author’s upcoming book. There is some super exciting stuff up for grabs – and, as a genre fan, some of the lots have left my fingers itching to reach for my credit card. As an example, if you’d like to be a baddie who dies horribly, but has some great powers (and who wouldn’t?!), in my friend Suzanne McLeod’s upcoming Spellcrackers novel then go here http://genreforjapan.wordpress.com/2011/03/24/item-27-appearance-in-the-next-suzanne-mcleod-novel/ and place your bid. I’d bid on this myself if I hadn’t just donated to Japan Earthquake Animal Rescue and Support. Sadly, animals tend to get overlooked in natural disasters of this type but they are just as much in need of aid as their human counterparts. If I and my whole family were killed in an earthquake and my spoilt, pampered pets were left to fend for themselves I would hope to God that there would be someone there to help them. If you’d like to donate to their ongoing efforts on behalf of animals in Japan then you can do so here: http://japanearthquakeanimalrelief.chipin.com/japan-earthquake-animal-rescue-and-support/

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9 Responses to “Story versus Style”

  1. mdlachlan Says:

    A great post Alex. Interested to see how you get on with the Marquez. I read avidly for about 200 pages and then had that feeling you (or I, at least) get with chocolate cake where it goes from being delicious to being sickly in the space of a bite.
    I can’t choose between style and story. Both have to be good for me to enjoy a book. Dan Brown, who I’ve blogged about myself, is a bad writer simply because he doesn’t say what he thinks he says. I’ve blogged on this here: http://www.mdlachlan.com/?p=162
    But story doesn’t need to be action – it simply needs to be some sort of threat or opportunity around what the protagonist holds dearest. In a romance this might be the desire for a partner, in a thriller the wish to live. It can be the desire for acceptance (Carrie), for a big pumpkin (PG Wodehouse) or to bring back a tuna fish and reclaim self respect (Anglers’ Times, sorry, Old Man and the Sea).
    I’ve banged on about this ad infinitum in my own blog but, I have to say, the first mention of someone’s sparkling eyes or rich chuckle or contemptuous sneer normally has me dropping the book no matter how good the story. I can’t get past that stuff. We’re writers so we have to at least try to do everything well and to come up with ways of expression that are better than anyone with five minutes to write could conjure. I don’t pay to see a Premiership football match to watch people who can play as well as I can. I want to see something special and readers have a right to expect the same from us.
    This doesn’t mean we all have to be as baroque as Marquez or Nabokov but it does mean we have a responsibility to avoid cliché wherever we can.
    The annoying thing for people like me, of course, is that many readers are comfortable with cliché. They like to read about people with cheeks as red as apples because that’s how they would describe them. It’s the sort of thing they could imagine a friend saying. Plenty of writers – Jeffrey Archer, Dan Brown, lots of others, write for those people But I don’t think these readers are getting the full reading experience. I’m not saying they’re wrong, just that they’re missing out.
    And, as I writer, I’d be bored to death coming up with that stuff. So, to sum up, my answer to the question ‘plot or style?’ is ‘both please’.

  2. E. M. Edwards Says:

    You ideally, shouldn’t have to choose between them.

    However, I’d argue that without good writing in place, then the other category is forfeited before you even start. You can have the best story in the history of writing, if such were possible, but if you can’t support it with quality writing, it will never be worth the reading in the end.

    Worse than this, it will mean that many discerning readers will never encounter it, as they’ll not suffer through your poor writing to get to the “meat” of your creation.

    Good story + poor execution seems only to work with TV, films and similar media where the concept can be more important than the execution or else can be supported by special effects and loud noises. Then again, there are books like Harry Potter and a whole host of murder mysteries and serial adventures where the writing can hardly be called good – but then rarely are the ideas/stories anything other than recycled familiar tropes that soothe rather than challenge, and give way to reader’s expectations rather than raise them.

    Nothing wrong with the above, but it is not the stuff that makes for long-lived classics in anything but the most commercial sense.

    E.

  3. Alex Bell Says:

    Mark – Story AND style? Now that’s just being greedy! But, yes, ideally, of course, a good book should have both.

    As for the Dan Brown question, I think it comes down to what a writer is trying to achieve. If a thriller is supposed to engage a reader, and keep them desperately turning the pages to find out what happens next then I would say that Dan Brown succeeds on every level.

    I’m not sure the Mickey Spillane comparison is entirely fair because the extract you use is written in first person so you’d expect it to have more personality than something written in the third person narrative.

    You’re right that story does not have to be action. For me, the Da Vinci Code, and the other Robert Langdon books in the series, do exactly what they say on the tin – they provide a gripping, twisting thriller story that adamantly refuses to dumb-down the history, religion and symbology that plays such an important part of the novels. These books are full of intricately researched, intelligent puzzles written by an academic.
    As for style, it’s funny that you should say a good stylist should express themselves in a way that’s clear, unfussy and arresting because I think Dan Brown does *exactly* that. I don’t mean in the way he structures individual sentences but in the way the novel is written generally. i.e. there are no lengthy, lyrical descriptions of people or places. There is no lofty, pretentious phrasing. You couldn’t skim read one of his books because every scene that’s there is essential to the story. There is no dead wood. And I would put J K Rowling in the exact same category as this. That’s one of the reasons why I think people find both these writers so compulsively readable.

    “Bad” or “good” writing is subjective. If a writer has their readers devouring their books then they must be a good writer to some extent. If they were a bad writer then surely they would not have been able to ahieve this feat at all, even if it is the case that certain sentences could, arguably, be phrased more elegantly or more succinctly. As you say, Dan Brown has enjoyed phenomenal success, and has his very own veritable army of very happy readers. I find it hard to accept that a bad writer could achieve this under any circumstances. It seems a complete contradiction in terms to me.

    E.M Edwards – I agree that if the writing is particularly awful then readers won’t be able to break through to the story behind it.

    I can’t agree that J K Rowling’s writing isn’t good. As I said above, I think the Harry Potter books are similar to the Robert Langdon ones in that the stories are both fast-paced and pleasantly free from long-winded descriptive waffle. I certainly don’t think you can say that the themes in Harry Potter soothe instead of challenge when its primary themes are some of the most challenging ones that there are! The extents of loyalty and the bounds of friendship and the impossibilities of making very difficult decisions. As a children’s book in particular, I think Harry Potter does very well at being grown up and uncompromising – especially considering the fact that so much YA right now seems to be about some insufferable teenage girl who can’t live without her arrogant boyfriend.

    You make the point that a good story will be irrelevant if not backed up by good writing, and surely that is the key point here. Even the most fantastic story can’t be gripping and engaging if the writing is truly bad, and that is why I do not think J K Rowling or Dan Brown can be called bad writers. If the writing was as terrible as all that then no one would be able to follow and enjoy their stories at all.

  4. mdlachlan Says:

    We’ll have to agree to differ on this one Alex!
    I think Dan Brown’s use of symbolism and history is bunk. In fact, bunk is on a higher level than Brown manages. I certainly hope I never end up with a Wikipedia page entirely devoted to rubbish I have spouted in my work. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inaccuracies_in_The_Da_Vinci_Code
    Or a newspaper article devoted to my 20 worst sentences:
    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/booknews/6194031/The-Lost-Symbol-and-The-Da-Vinci-Code-author-Dan-Browns-20-worst-sentences.html
    My personal favourite was this one. The commentary is the Telegraph’s.
    ‘The Da Vinci Code, chapter 4: Captain Bezu Fache carried himself like an angry ox, with his wide shoulders thrown back and his chin tucked hard into his chest. His dark hair was slicked back with oil, accentuating an arrow-like widow’s peak that divided his jutting brow and preceded him like the prow of a battleship. As he advanced, his dark eyes seemed to scorch the earth before him, radiating a fiery clarity that forecast his reputation for unblinking severity in all matters.
    Do angry oxen throw their shoulders back and tuck their chins into their chest? What precisely is a fiery clarity and how does it forecast anything? Once again, it is not clear whether Brown knows what ‘forecast’ means.’
    I’d add, note the excess of description. Less is more, Danny boy.
    Now I know you might say this criticism is the result of his fame but no one does this with Stephen King. Not that he’s a great stylist but he has style enough for you not to notice it and not to constantly smash your head against the table while reading him. (Note: I split infinitives with delight!)
    Disturbingly, Brown presents what he’s writing as fact when most of it is crank speculation.
    I don’t think JK Rowling is a brilliant stylist. However, she’s way better than Dan Brown. She does have a basic understanding of what words mean.
    The bottom line of this argument is that you are right and I am wrong. If ‘good’ and ‘popular’ aren’t the same thing then I need to say what ‘good’ is. And then we’re in the terrain of snobbery.
    But I do think there is a level at which it’s not enough to say something’s popular. Stephen King compared The Da Vinci Code to Kraft Macaroni and Cheese.That’s popular; it’s also disgusting. I’m not asking for Cordon Bleu, just a decent macaroni and cheese.
    I’m not denying Brown can do plot. This is because I don’t know if he can do plot, I’ve never got beyond chapter 2.
    There are people who will just concentrate on the thrilling ride. There are others who will think ‘Hang on, was this written by that gorilla that learned sign language?’
    I’ll leave my last word to the New York Times, which described The Da Vinci Code as ‘Dan Brown’s best-selling primer on how not to write an English sentence.’
    RIght, work.

  5. E. M. Edwards Says:

    Alex,

    I respect your opinions – even if I don’t agree with them. But I must say that I find the writing of J K Rowling & Dan Brown to be very poor by my standards.

    And I’m taken aback a bit by your claims regarding the scholarly aspects of the Da Vinci Code – but then my own university background is in history & art history so perhaps I’m being picky here about what is dumbing down and what isn’t.

    Above all, I’m not saying any of this because these books are popular or out of some misguided effort to play the “literary” card – but because they honestly make me groan, writhe, and even occasionally choke while reading them. They’re classic examples of popular bad writing in my book – their stories aside – and said popularity I’d argue, doesn’t signify quality. Just as obscurity doesn’t guarantee it either. Superior writing is a thing, unto itself, recognizable in both popular classics and less successful ones.

    I disagree that good writing is entirely subjective. I do think enjoyment is, so it is not surprising to find people who aren’t (a) bothered by bad writing, or (b) aren’t that attentive of readers in the first place and so fail to notice the things that might cause fits in others. We all have I would agree, different tolerance levels when it comes to bad prose.

    The number of times I’ve had to read about how the various characters in the Harry Potter series “said angrily, crossly, carelessly, etc., etc.,” quickly becomes more than repetitive, it shows a lack of craft or at least care in the prose. Cliches are laid on thickly through the work in general, but rarely are as much in evidence as in the dialogue. As for the cleverness of the series as a whole, I disagree again, at least about the challenging nature of Rowling’s stories – these are predictable, dependable, simple themes – nothing very subversive even by the standards of Children’s or YA literature, let alone fantasy as a whole. Harry Potter delights precisely because it is so familiar, and frankly, easy to read, easy to digest, and well suited for those who aren’t looking or know to look, for something more challenging. It blends a soupcon of wonder with the predictability of a radio serial – and not surprisingly, has done rather well for itself utilizing these tools and some clever marketing.

    I think the series is more successful as films than books – and I’ve read all of them to my children, admittedly intermixed with examples I find more rewarding/worthwhile to keep myself from going insane – but again, mostly because the kids really like the movies first and foremost.

    There are things that J K Rowling and Dan Brown do well – but I stand by it not being found in their writing.

    I’ve read through the Da Vinci Code, using an (humourous in my eyes, but I can see the usefulness) illustrated copy left in the shop by a co-worker at a very boring retail job years ago. Perhaps I did not give it the respect it was due, but I’m a careful reader even under challenging circumstances. I did appreciate the use of art as clues as an art historian, but I think the end result is very misinformative as a whole. Again, I found the prose not just dull and lackluster – but actively painful to read – but then the plot suffered from the same complaint. There are countless better writers, and better books, that only my omnivorous book reading habit has allowed me to plow through what is, in my opinion, best-selling dross.

    In conclusion, I guess I’ll just have to say we’re obviously very different in our tastes/expectations when it comes to what makes up good prose and a great story both. No doubt we could write essays back and forth defending our respective points. But I’ve enjoyed the discussion and thank you very much for your well considered comments and your kindness as a host.

    Best wishes and keep writing,

    E.

  6. Alex Bell Says:

    Thanks both for the replies. I am interested in what people think about this. I’m certainly not suggesting that “good” and “popular” are always the same thing – I have strongly disliked some of the bestsellers I’ve read – I’m only saying that those popular writers have already achieved something significant as story tellers that cannot be dismissed out of hand.

    There are instances of clumsy phrasing in Dan Brown’s books but I’d say the cliches and excessive adjectives are just as prominent, if not more so, in books like Twilight, which don’t seem to get anywhere near as much flak as Dan Brown does.

    As for the historical and religious content in Dan Brown’s books, obviously he sometimes twists interpretations to suit his own plot – this is a work of fiction after all – but what I meant was that I like how detailed the academic content is, even though others have criticised them as info-dumps. Personally, I prefer a more in-depth discussion of the historical themes within the story rather than merely a superficial mention of them in passing.

  7. E. M. Edwards Says:

    “If ‘good’ and ‘popular’ aren’t the same thing then I need to say what ‘good’ is.” – M. D. Lachlan

    Untrue. They aren’t the same thing, even if you can’t define what good is. Cheese and chalk, really. Popularity is exactly what it says on the tin – and to equate it with excellence is a mistake.

    Many things are popular, but not all of them are “good.” Violence is popular, so is alcohol abuse. The Daily Mail is a popular newspaper, FOX News is a popular supplier of news-themed programs – but in terms of either publication’s claims to journalistic integrity or unbiassed reporting, there is much left to desire. This lack of “goodness” in these categories has not harmed in anyway their popularity – in fact, it could be argued that it has enhanced it.

    Returning to art, and specifically to books, there are a number of authors who have never achieved the sort of best selling popularity of Dan Brown or anything approaching it. And yet, they have written highly acclaimed, breathtaking books. It often takes a perfect storm to achieve bestseller status: the right idea, the right style, the right publisher, the right time, and the right market/marketing push.

    A case in point, just the first among many which come to mind, is Michael Cisco – to paraphrase another fine, “unpopular” writer (Jeff VanderMeer), one of the finest speculative authors you’ve likely never read. Cisco’s a good writer, but I doubt he’ll ever be popular – outside of a small circle of readers. This isn’t because his writing is fundamentally elitist or particularly difficult, but he writes quirky little fantasies, for small press publication, and doesn’t seem to do much in the way of marketing his work on a larger scale – so good in this case doesn’t equal popular, but I’d argue his books remain an example of quality writing within the genre all the same.

    So don’t tell me please, that we can only define what is good, by what is popular.

    E.

  8. Alex Bell Says:

    I don’t think Mark is saying we can only define what is good by what is popular, and I’m certainly not saying it either. But the problem remains as to how you define goodness or excellence in literature, or, indeed, any art form. I’m sure there are a great many fine writers languishing in obscurity, and there have also been great writers in the past whose works were not well-received during their time but received classical status years later. The initial public reception of a book is not necessarily indicative of its worth.

    I hardly think violence and alcohol abuse can be labelled as “popular”. Both are viewed as forms of deviance, as opposed to activities that the majority of the population indulges in.

    As for the newspapers and news channels, that’s really a seperate issue altogether because the primary aim of those establishments is to inform, not to entertain. Something is either factual and unbiased or it is not. The same black and white view cannot be taken with an art form that might hit the right note with some viewers/readers but not with others. There is a far greater element of subjectivity innate to the appreciation and enjoyment (or otherwise) of novels because it comes down to a matter of personal taste rather than truth.

  9. Kwok Ting Lee Says:

    Interesting discussion. I must say that I tend to come down more firmly on the “style” side of things. With certain guilty exceptions. I find that as my time for reading has declined dramatically I have become exceptionally discerning about what I read.

    To me, a novel must have a certain style. It does not have to be baroque prose, but it needs to be distinctive. It must have a voice that separates it from the rest of the pack. I list down, by way of example with no intention of being exhaustive, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Jorge Luis Borges, Ernest Hemingway, Vladimir Nabokov, Jane Austen, Henry James, Oscar Wilde, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Guy Gavriel Kay, Gene Wolfe, Neil Gaiman, etc. These writers have a distinctive voice. The elegance of the prose adds volumes to the story, without which it would be merely a story to while away an afternoon. The tone and the voice transform the merely adequate into something timeless. It is the difference, if I may be so bold with my similes, between a candle and a star.

    I think that for me, having read enough stories, I’m now more interested in “experiences”. I am more interested in prose that inspires a sense of awe at the author’s mastery of the language. Or, sometimes, I seek authors who can inspire a sense of awe at the sheer scope of the concepts they toss around with such careless abandon. But I need more than just a rollicking good story. I need either brilliance of prose or brilliance of concept.

    Disclaimer: I do occasionally read fluff. I don’t do it often, and mostly in relation to a series I started reading as a teenager that is now onto its 13th book (being written posthumously). I do have to know the ending, you understand.

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