by J.D. Rhoades
Does good writing even matter?
I’ve been thinking about this question for a couple of weeks ever since our discussion of the TWILIGHT books. You may remember that commenter KarinNH mentioned that her students were reading the books and that:
…one ventured that I wouldn’t like the series because “it is really poorly written.” Interestingly, the ones who were recommending the books all agreed. Emphatically. However, they were willing to look past that because they liked the story.
I found this interesting for a couple of reasons. One, my daughter, who’s read all the books and seen all the movies, says exactly the same thing: the writing’s really bad, but you care about the story. Two, I felt the same way about the last book that everyone I know purported to despise, but which I found quite entertaining: Dan Brown’s THE DAVINCI CODE.
The prose in TDVC is, in a word, atrocious: clumsy sentences (starting with the first one); infodumps; word choices that leave you scratching your head. If you want more explanation, go here.
And yet, when I took it to the beach with me, I I couldn’t put it down. Neither, apparently could millions of other readers. Why? Because the story hooked me and dragged me along. Oh, I was rolling my eyes and occasionally wincing at the prose, but there’s no denying, it had me.
Just a couple of weeks ago I read another technothriller from another well-known author. The dialogue was unbelievable, the hero was just a little too perfect to get next to as a character, and sometimes the set-ups for the action scenes sounded like a catalog put out by the guys who manufacture military gear (when the hero and his buddies are getting ready to kick bad-guy ass, do we really NEED to know who made their gloves?) But once again, I read it cover to cover, because the aforementioned bad-guy asses were kicked, names were taken, and the story was just fun to read.
I think all of us can describe books we’ve read where the prose was gorgeous, but we eventually put the books aside, because nothing really happened to any of those exquisitely described people in their gorgeously described setting. I once described a friend’s book to another friend thusly: “it’s literary fiction, but don’t worry, stuff actually happens.”
On the other hand, we can all reel off long lists of bestsellers, going back years, where the prose ranged from barely serviceable (early Tom Clancy) to pretty much god-awful (VALLEY OF THE DOLLS and all of Harold Robbins). And yet, we read them. Cover to cover and often more than once.
Which brings us back to our main question: does good prose even matter? Why do we bother? Why spend all that time looking for just the right word, paring down the adverbs, repeating to ourselves “show, don’t tell, show, don’t tell,” etc, if all the majority of readers care about is the story?
I‘ve thought about it quite a bit, and I know what my answer is. I’ll reveal it in the comments, after I hear some of your thoughts on the matter. And while we’re at it…share some of your favorite badly written novels you couldn’t put down.