Sunday, September 12, 2010

TSS: How important is the WRITING to you?

Well, here I am, back in the proverbial Sunday Salon saddle!  I've thus far had two posts in my "How important is..." series, and I've really enjoyed the discussions they've led to.  I hope you have, too!  So here we go with another aspect of the book reading process- the writing!

To me, if a book has beautiful, evocative language, it goes a long way towards making up for lacks in character development or plot.  I can sometimes get lost in lovely language.  (It even makes me alliterate.)  I love it when it's done well, such as in Kate Grenville's The Secret River, which is one of my favorite books mainly because of Grenville's fabulous use of the English language.  Words can do seriously amazing things, and when she wields them, she wields them well.

That's not to say that beautiful language is always necessary for the writing to be good.  In some cases, beautiful language would make no sense.  But as long as the narratorial voice comes through strong and I feel a connection, I can still enjoy a book.  I may not fall in love with it the way I would with the lyrical style noted above, but I'd still like it.  An author who I think has a great voice in this more frank and open manner is Sherman Alexie.  He has my attention at the first sentence and pretty much never loses me after that, even though his language is completely different than Grenville's.

Writing can obviously make-or-break a reading experience- if I don't like the writing style, then I am unlikely to like a book, regardless of how intricately woven the plot is or how smart the author may be.  I think many people feel the same way.  But I think one genre where writing style is far too under-appreciated is non-fiction.  Non-fiction has this stigma of being dry and fusty and boring, but there are many, many writers out there compiling facts and presenting them in engaging and witty and clever ways.  More than in a novel, quality writing in non-fiction can really get me far more interested in a subject than I might ever have conceived.

What about you?  Does writing make or break a book for you, or is there something else more important you look for?


  1. I love this post! I really liked The Secret River because of her writing although I need to read it instead of listening to it.

    I have to say, I really appreciated The Colours by Rose Tremain but really didn't like the story. I liked the main lady character but the rest just didn't sit well. Like it was in it for shock sake. Hmmm. It was written very well though. Have you read that one?

  2. Good writing is important. Good language is important too. But sometimes too good language takes away from fully enjoying the book. It dwells more on the lyrical aspect and plot and storyline get neglected!

    Here is my Sunday Salon post!

  3. Anonymous9/12/2010

    Writing definitely makes a difference for me. You notice the calibre of the writing from the first paragraph and get shivers down my spine. One book that really impressed me this year was Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible where the prose is just beautiful. However I think I need to start reading more non-fiction books. I probably read two a year (which really isn't enough!)

  4. I can get lost in language too, and I love it. And then I read those books that has "normal" language but the story is just exciting. But I need those beautiful tales now and again

  5. Good writing makes a HUGE difference to me. I struggle to get through badly written books, trite dialogue, etc. But like you said, good writing doesn't necessarily mean lyrical writing (which I love tremendously). Sometimes good writing means a strong, realistic voice. Wendell Berry would be an example of a good writer who is lyrical; Stephen King I would consider a good writer who lacks lyrical writing completely (at least in the books I've read).

  6. The writing is important to me, but a beautifully written story with characters I detest, probably will not win me over.

  7. I also love beautiful writing, and it can make me like a book I otherwise would not, and in fact gush all over it. But less than beautiful writing doesn't make me not like a book - probably because it's not something you find repeatedly. With a good story, I don't care so much about less than perfect writing - not all authors can have it or we wouldn't be so bowled over by those that do!

    BUT, I totally agree with you about non-fiction! Good writing CAN make or break a non-fiction book for me!

  8. Anonymous9/12/2010

    Writing style can make a big difference to me, but it's probably not at the top of my list of priorities. I think character development is probably the most important to me: if I don't want to spend time with the characters, it doesn't matter so much how beautiful the writing is. A beautiful, witty, insightful writing style can carry me past reservations about the setting or the plot, but not past boring characters.

  9. Hi Aarti! You already know my answer - writing is definitely a huge part to me, and can make or break a book. It's not the only factor, of course, but it IS a huge one.

  10. Amanda- I tried The Colour by Tremain and could not get very far into it. I thought the main guy character was a complete jerk and couldn't really get past that hump to continue reading. I don't remember the writing style as well as I remember him, but I'll give Tremain another try with another book!

    Gautami- Yes, oftemtimes I don't mind that so much ;-)

    chasingbawa- I have been told multiple times that I really need to read Poisonwood Bible, and I even HAVE the book, but still haven't picked it up.

    Blodeuedd- Yes, they're nice to read when you come across them :-)

    SmallWorld- Yes, exactly! A writer can be good on different levels, and know his/her strong point.

    Bibliophile by the Sea- Yes, I think that was my problem with The Colour.

    Jenny- I think that is reasonable. I sometimes drop books with great writing style, too.

    Amanda- Yes, I remember that about you :-)

  11. I think writing is actually the most important thing to me when I'm reading a book! A great storyline and characters are added bonus, but for me if the writing falls flat, then the whole book does too. I think this is why I don't read a ton of YA stuff - I know there are lots of YA novels that are written in a convincing and skilled manner, but largely many of the books seem concerned with furthering plot and making their writing accessible to younger readers which I often find unsatisfying.

  12. I actually just had this experience with Elizabeth Scott's Living Dead Girl. I though the story was so well-crafted and the language and tone so appropriate for the narrator; but the content was so painful that if not for the excellent writing, I would have stopped reading almost immediately.

  13. Yes, the quality of the writing makes or breaks the book for me, though there are many different styles, from spare writing to the very lyrical, that I enjoy. Storytelling and character development, for me, are a close second.

  14. I'm divided. On the one hand, style (my catch-all term for grammar, syntax and all the other little writerly things that combine to produce good writing) is one of the three things that helps me love a book. If I love the author's style, I can sometimes ignore deficiencies in character, plot or setting. If I dislike the author's style, I sometimes find that nothing could induce me to continue on with the book.

    Heavy emphais on "sometimes." I do occasionally find that I become so involved with the characters and their story that I can ignore poor writing. I can think of three particular authors whose work I enjoy very, very much, even though they're rather poor writers. And I have, on occasion, abandoned beautifully written books because I just didn't give a damn about them.

    As far as nonfiction goes, I think you've made an excellent point. I find that good writing can make almost any subject interesting. Many, many years ago, two nonfiction titles came to the top of my TBR. One was a book about druids, a subject that thrilled me. The other dealt with riverboats, which didn't. The druid book was so dry that I had to abandon it, while the riverboat book was awesome.

  15. Wonderful post, Aarti! Writing is really important to me, and I love your distinction between beautiful language and well-written narrative voice. Both can carry me through a book with the same level of enjoyment.

    And your comments about nonfiction! Right now I am reading a nonfiction book that I really want to love but am having a really hard time with because the writing is dry and very repetitive. Thanks for this one!

  16. The writing is definitely make it or break it for me when I read a book. I also agree that non-fiction sometimes gets a bad rap for being dry, but I have come across numerous examples of great and intricate writing in the non-fiction genre. If something is written poorly, no amount of clever storytelling or inventive characterization is going to make me remember the book, and similarly, I will remember and love books that are poorly plotted and characterized if the writing is evocative and winning. I am actually in the middle of a series right now that wouldn't be exceptional without the force of the writing. Writing is hugely important to me as a reader, and I love that you asked this question!

  17. I 100% agree with you - good writing can make up for a LOT of flaws.

  18. For me, the writing can make or break a book. It has to be beautiful, and by beautiful I mean a writing that leaves an impression on me, and is not just articulate. Anyone can write a story, but not many can actually write it. It doesn't have to be poetic or archaic. This is usually subjective, and I consider a writing to be good if it does not distract me from the plot. Based on how well it is written, I would rate it as good or great or poetic or expressive or any one of those adjectives.

  19. I don't read fiction that's badly written. There's such a huge expanse of things that people means by "good writing," though. Style is one aspect, good dialogue another... one thing I want to add to the discussion going on here is that writing that calls attention to itself is sometimes not very "good" writing, no matter how beautiful. (When the study of rhetoric started to focus too narrowly on the "flowers"--like figures of speech--is when it began to die as an academic subject.)

  20. One book that stands out from my reading year as having beautiful language is Ann-Marie Macdonald's Fall on Your Knees; in many ways, the story itself is hard to read, but the language is simply beautiful. That can make the difference for me between enduring a tale that's sorrow-filled and setting it aside.

  21. You hooked me immediately discussing non fiction because I've been tossing non fictions books left and right lately but dove into a 1960's edition of the History of the West, entirely due to the language. It was well written, a touch of wry and a clear concise selected stories.

  22. Good writing is often hard to talk about for me. If good writing makes me get lost in a story, I don't realize it is the skill and power of the words that made it happen and yet, the opposite is obvious: bad writing ruins the whole thing.

  23. Good writing is important. Writing that's cliche or clunky can really take away from my enjoyment of the story. But I don't think it necessarily has to be "beautiful." The language should fit with the story. For example, I don't think you could exactly call the narrative of "Huck Finn" beautiful, but I think as a reader a lot would be missing for me without the whole thing being written in Huck's voice and dialect. I recently read "Oscar and Lucinda" by Peter Carey and again think the book wouldn't have worked so well without the almost straight-faced humor and quirky-ness of the narrative.

    At the same time, sometimes I've found that authors who spend a little too much time on making sure they have especially lyrical and fancy prose lose a little bit of the story in the process. And as important as language is, for me plot and character are equally if not more important. So there needs to be a balance I think.

    Great discussion question. :)

  24. But I think one genre where writing style is far too under-appreciated is non-fiction.

    You're so right. To pick my favourite example, Richard Dawkins is, nowadays, mostly known, it seems, for being a famous atheist, which, it seems to me, is rather a shame [1], since he is a brilliant and lyrical science writer.

    To pick just three examples, Unweaving the Rainbow is a marvellously lyrical hymn of praise to science, The Ancestor's Tale is the best and most awe-inspiring book on biology I've ever read, and several of the essays in A Devil's Chaplain have teared me up more than any fiction. (I'm thinking here of section about his differences with the late Stephen Jay Gould, which begins, "Stephen Jay Gould and I did not tire the sun with talking and send him down the sky..." and ends, "The Structure of Evolutionary Theory is such a massively powerful last word, it will keep us all busy replying to it for years. What a brilliant way for a scholar to go. I shall miss him")

    Maybe it's just me, &c. but he has the ability to make me interested in areas of science that would otherwise pass me by, in the same way that Tom Holland (Rubicon etc.) does with various eras of history, (his vampire novels are great, too!)


    [1] Personal disclaimer: It's of absolutely no relevance, but personally, my beliefs largely tie in with Dawkins's, and I think a lot of the criticisms levelled against him aren't supported by what he's actually written: I mean "is rather a shame" here in the sense that my personal favourite books of his are those that he's written before and after his most famous one...

  25. More generally, I think the most important thing with writing is that it makes you forget the actual process of reading.

    To pick one example, when I was a teenager, *cough* *splutter* years ago, I used to enjoy the martial arts thrillers of Eric Van Lustbader. What made me stop reading them was the first paragraph of 1987's Shan:

    "'Jake', Rodger Donavan said, without turning around. He seemed quite calm, despite the deperateness of the situation. 'You seem to have as many lives as the hero of a novel. I knew we couldn't kill you.'"

    I mean, "as many lives as the hero of a novel"? Talk about breaking the narrative spell...


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