Thursday, February 21, 2008

Style and Popular Literature

One of my favorite writing teachers, Bill Henderson, addresses a fundamental question on his blog:

Are commercial bestsellers poorly written?


If you have a chance, definitely check out his post at TrueVoice - The Blog. I've included my response below, but there are several great perspectives on TrueVoice regarding the role of style in popular (and successful) fiction.

Style and Popular Literature

I'm afraid I have great respect for certain popular writers. The latest Harry Potter book was filled with dozens of horribly structured paragraphs, and there are some Stephen King books simply not worth reading, but I enjoy these authors. I appreicate what they can do with a character, how they can bring a story right up to the edge and somehow create a happy (and believable) ending.

At the same time, I have incredible respect for some of the literary short-story authors I've read lately. I can't remember their names, and I only remember their stories from which magazine I found them in (e.g. Georgia Review or Ploughshares). But these are stories I could not have read six years ago. I hated them, dreaded them. In college, the complex literary stories made me avoid the serious literature classes (quite a feat for an English major). I wanted to study creative writing - I didn't want to get bored out of my mind and then start pulling C's. I didn't understand story structure well enough then to appreciate what these stories accomplish. And what I understand now I learned from writing. Workshops taught me how to read stories in-depth, and I will never again enjoy my cherised "pop" novels which happen to be filled with run-on sentences and poor speech attribution.

Most readers, though, are like my mom - they don't write. Hand her Ann Rice and she'll pass the time; hand her Moby Dick and she'll talk about the ex-cousin-in-law who dropped out of his Ph.D. program. Readers like my mom enjoy a good story, and they rarely notice adverbs or participles that dangle into space. If they're good readers, they might feel queasy as the brooding superhero was saying his words darkly, but not always. To many readers, good writing is a product of deep thought. They think that "specificity of detail" means using phrases like "the fact that" and "he was verbed adverbly." They use these phrases themselves, and then they tell people like us (their friends/neighbors/bartenders who claim to be writers) things like "oh, yeah, I'm working on a book, too. It's about..."

Do I begrudge the bestsellers they're fame? Not really. They tell stories that are fun and witty and enjoyable despite transgressions of style. Honestly, I despise awards committees who slap labels like "A Genre Essential Book" on novels that lack either plot or fully realized characters. I worry about the editor who let it go when dozens of poorly-worded paragraphs in Harry Potter 7 crossed the desk. I feel robbed of my time when the books are bad and robbed of an even better read when the books are good but flawed.

Is style important? To us, certainly. To the typical reader? I'm not sure. I feel like an elitist saying this, but I remember the days when I could read a book without critiquing the word order on every other page. When I was younger, I had no patience for many of the books we call "literary." I read E.B. White because the book was about King Arthur, not because I understood the meaning of clean prose. Pride and Prejudice was a favorite because I thought Elizabeth Bennet was fun.

This, I think, is where the popular books excel - they develop characters who readers relate to. They provide compelling plots and exciting action to help readers quickly escape this world of work, taxes, and parking tickets. They reveal that it's possible to write a compelling story despite structural mistakes. It's the kind of trick I'm still trying to pull off.

In the meantime, though, I'll keep working on the fundamentals of style. I'm already much better at sentence structure than conflict, but there's always room for growth. When the day comes that I discover my compelling blockbuster story, I want the style to back me up all the way. I want the the story to read fast so the reader can dive in and forget that the images dancing through his mind are the product of black ink on white paper.

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