Monday, July 20, 2015

Is prose the ultimate measure of a book's value?

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Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know that a couple of weeks ago, E.L. James (author of the Fifty Shades of Grey Trilogy) held a twitter event that took a turn toward the dark side. A number of people sent nasty tweets attacking her skill as a writer and accusing her of damaging women’s causes. I was disturbed by this, not because it happened per se—internet trolls are gonna hate, that’s no surprise—but because it seems to be the apex of a phenomenon I have a very hard time understanding, both as a writer and a reader.

Before I begin, I have two disclaimers. First: in this post I’m talking about the writing issue, not the abusive relationship issue, but I do not mean to imply this is an unimportant question.

Second: on the recommendation of a friend, I started reading the Grey trilogy shortly after it became a phenomenon. I made it halfway into the second book, and stopped; it just wasn’t my thing, and although my friend loved it, I just couldn’t get into it. No big deal—different strokes for different folks (no pun intended). 

I watched the backlash swirl around the books and have heard more than a few people trash the series. I’ve heard all sorts of jokes about how poorly written the series is, how cheesy, etc., etc.; I’ve seen the random generator that allows you to create Grey-like-prose-filled sex scenes. Before that, I heard people say similar things about how bad the Twilight series is, and before that, I heard people criticize the Harry Potter series with comments like ‘Let’s face it, it’s not great literature’ (interesting that such comments about the Harry Potter books have dwindled almost to nothing nowadays—but I'm quite sure J.K. Rowling remembers the early criticism all too well).  

When people snarked about the Harry Potter series, my response has always been: If it gets kids reading, I’m all for it.

When people slammed the Twilight series, my response was (and is): If it gets teenagers reading, I’m all for it

When people trash the Grey series, my response continues to be: if it gets adults to take time out of their busy days to read rather than surfing Facebook, I’m all for it. 

Still, it raises the question in my mind: is perfect, beautiful prose the end-all-be-all of writing a book? Is it the only form of talent and value? Sure, it’s important, and we should all strive for it. But is it the only thing that matters when it comes to telling a great story? Clearly not, if we agree that the novels mentioned above are not examples of transcendent prose. But it’s just as clear that those books have something that makes millions of people read them, some important IT-factor that pulls people in. There are so many other important elements to a great read that should be just as valued: Great story. Great plot. Great dialogue. Humor. Deep, compelling characters. Universally relatable themes. Excellent pacing. Expert world building. 

And, if I’m honest, I know that I’d much rather read a book that has a great plot and blah prose than a book that has a blah plot and great prose.

In fact…I hesitate to say this, but…

I love The Lord of The Rings. I currently own three copies of it, two in hard form and one on my Kindle. But, I find the prose nearly impossible to read without concerted effort. Yes, I hear your collective intake of breath and your declarations of sacrilege, but there it is. I personally find the prose mind-numbing, and in certain places am tempted to stab myself in the thigh with a fork just to stay awake. But I read it anyway, because I love the world that Tolkien created, and the epic battle between good and evil that he plots with such emotion and intrigue. And A Christmas Carol? One of my favorite stories; but that’s despite the prose, not because of it. And these are classics; nobody disputes their status, nor will they. Tastes differ. Styles change. But these books have something that keeps them alive, even for those of us who don’t connect with them stylistically.

Sure, I hear you saying ‘But shouldn’t we try to perfect all of these elements in our writing?’. Of course we should. But we also have to recognize that there is a time and a place for everything. For example, Dickensian prose in the Grey series would be silly and turn off more people than any of the purported transgressions James makes; it would just get in the way of whatever people are connecting with in the books. If the Harry Potter series was written in Steinbeckian prose or in the style of The Great Gatsby, how many six-to-ten-year-old children would have read it or listened to it for more than thirty seconds? We are always faced with these choices. And, all writers have strengths and weaknesses; few if any of us are masters of all aspects of the craft. 

And that, my friends, leads me to another question I struggle with: why do writers feel the need to tear each other down? Most of the harshest criticism I've heard leveled at books like the Twilight series and the Grey series comes from writers. I get that there is an element of professional competition (dare I say sometimes even jealousy?) in most fields. But I find it harder to understand when it comes to writing than with other professions. Clients may have only one general practitioner or one lawyer, may shop religiously at only one deli, but no reader has ever said ‘I only read the works of X’. Especially in this age of binge reading, once a reader is done with the works of one author, they move on to another, usually someone who writes a similar type of book. Because of that, I suspect Stephenie Meyer and E.L. James have done more to drive sales in the paranormal romance and erotica genres than just about any other single element in the past 10 years. So shouldn’t their successes be embraced and celebrated by writers in their respective genres, and across the board? Doesn’t it just give other authors the chance to demonstrate their considerable skill?

At the end of the day, who decides what is acceptable prose and what isn’t? Who decides which factors are most important in making a novel worth reading? Who determines if a book has that magic ‘IT’ that makes them want to keep reading and buy the next book in the series? Is it those of us who write? Is it the academics who study literature?

No. It’s the people plunking down their hard-earned dollars and investing their precious leisure time on the books. And in the cases of J.K. Rowling, Stephenie Meyer, E.L. James, and many others, they’ve spoken with resounding eloquence. 


  1. Bravo! I've read quite a few 'classics' that required a fork to get through & still enjoyed them, although what I enjoyed may not be what other's have enjoyed. I think there are 2 parts to every book: what the author is trying to share with their story & what the reader actually gets from it. These 2 things may or may not match & that's ok. As long as both the writer & the reader are getting satisfaction from a story, the subjective technical issues are irrelevant. <3

    1. Hey Inky!! So good to see you over here! <3 I totally agree with you here. Another point I thought about including was, sometimes I want a light easy read, and sometimes I want something more. Same reader, different day, different needs/wants. I try to keep that in mind when I review a book, too--if something is literary fiction, I'm going to rate it on a different set of criterion than a cozy mystery or some fun chicklit. But what I want from each of them is to be good at what they do--good lit fic, a good cozy that keeps me guessing and engrossed, good chicklit that gives me a strong heroine I can connect with.

    2. I tend to lurk in your literary shadow. LOL

      Exactly! To expect every writer to be the next Bard is ridiculous. Even the Bard has tales that never made the stage while he lived & for good reason. Each genre has it's particulars & each writer may interpret them as their muse dictates. If I'm in the mood for something specific, I'll go find it. If something doesn't suit my preferences in general or my mood at the moment, I keep looking. Publically lambasting a writer for not meeting an individual's preferences is just self absorbed on the part of the reader. I say shut up & go read something that you do like! LOL

  2. This is one of the reasons I like Clancy. He's self described as a horrible author, but he writes compelling stories, and for him that sells. I also think that trying to be a literary award winner comes second to writing for the love of it, and the love of it doesn't require an MS or Ph.D in English Lit.

    Just my thoughts. Thank you for the awesome article.


    1. Thanks for leaving a comment! Excellent points. I've heard several authors I love routinely slammed (e.g., Michener and Patterson), and I just have to shake my head. Both authors keep me reading for different reasons, and that's great! And I really like your point about writing for the love of it. Do you spend years with one book trying to perfect every sentence, or write the other three books that are begging to get out of your head? There's always plusses and minuses to any choice we make as writers. :)


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