Writers’ Writers and Writer Storytellers






Frequently book discussions will begin with an interesting apologia. I noticed it a lot a few years ago Twilight was the Hot Thing. It was also said about J.K. Rowling, and more recently, Susanne Collins: the author may not be a great writer but is a terrific storyteller.

What that seems to mean (generalizing here) is that the story is what carries the audience, not the prose. The prose is mostly good enough to cause the reader to bring to the story all the images and emotions needed to have an enjoyable reading experience. Smart people often like to relax into their reading, which means finding a story they can fall into within a few pages, without being required to do a lot of the ratiocination they’ve been required to perform all day.

A dense, complex work written in lapidary and polysemous prose can be an intellectual treat.

Then again, one person’s lapidary prose is another’s purple, overwrought, pretentious, confusing, unreadable. A fashionable writer specializes in taking obscure poems and myths and embellishing them with lots of horrific images. One reader doesn’t see any there there, other than what the original myth or poet brought, but a second reader brings reading experience and passion to the work and infuses it with meaning. Who’s right? They both are.

When it comes to choosing books for young readers, we’re back at the never-resolved conflict about meaning and message trumping prose, which should be accessible to the young, inexperienced reader. Poetic pyrotechnics will lose kids. But awards often go to those very works, and awards means library sales, which means they are the choices before kids whose parents don’t have book budgets. The Newbery, many insist, seems to go to books that kids do not want to read, that are often both boring and depressing, their chief element being a medicinal messages that the choosers think kids “ought” to read.

I think that might be too simple, especially if you look at popular books of today. Take Hunger Games. It didn’t win literary awards, but the storyline didn’t stint on grim stuff.

I asked a teenager about that, who said that she didn’t pay any attention to prose quality. That was for teachers to harp on about. She didn’t care if a sentence was poetic or not, she just wanted it to make sense. The big difference, according to her and her friends, was that (at least in Hunger Games, which was their favorite of the three) Katniss is a winner. She said the last Newbery winner she read, the much talked about Out of the Dust had a message of “You lose, your family loses, the world loses. We’re all losers.”

If you look at the Amazon page I’ve linked, you’ll see reviews from middle schoolers up to adults, with a wild range of opinions between one-star “This stinks!” to five-star “Brilliant!” reactions.

Who’s right? Everybody is, though, when I look at history, I wonder if the storytellers’ popularity will sustain longer. Every culture tells the stories that make sense to them. When these stories don’t work anymore, they are replaced by new ones that do. We have no idea which of the popular stories now are going to keep speaking to the generations after us. I suspect we’d be surprised.


 Sherwood Smith’s e-books at Book View Cafe



Writers’ Writers and Writer Storytellers — 27 Comments

  1. OMG, just glanced the reviews on Out of the Dust, and that book sounds awful! Well, it sounds like the sort of book I was forced to read in elementary school that made me wonder whether any of my teachers had any empathy left at all. If other kids actually liked books like that, I wouldn’t trust them anymore, because it seemed obvious that if you enjoy books where people die in a brutal, horrible, and pointless way, you’ll grow up to be a sociopath.
    And though I like myself a beautifully written piece of lapidary prose, what I don’t like at all is to finish a book and be made to feel helpless. A personal preference, perhaps, but it seems possibly more useful to teach children that taking action can have real effects, rather than ‘there’s nothing you can do, so go sit in a corner and suffer.’

    • If you look at the number of books that are absolutely dire, and the readers who feel that such a book is wise, insightful, that you ought to read it, that it is important, I think that what we are seeing are fundamental differences in our natures as humans.

  2. This is slightly tangential (or greatly tangential?) to your main theme, but one thing I think about sometimes is the difference in good oral storytelling and good written storytelling–without even getting as far as the distinction between good written storytelling and great literature. One thing I enjoy with oral storytelling is repeated motifs (“and he walked, and he walked, and then he walked a little more, and what should he see before him but…”) A good oral storyteller is also an actor and performer, and plays these up–the experience is a sort of intimate (depending on the size of the crowd listening) performance.

    When you take those techniques into written prose, it’s interesting that rather than recreating the intimate audience-performer feeling, they create a more literary effect. Or is that just my impression? Whereas the sorts of stories that you’re describing as meeting the “good storytelling” (as opposed to great literature) in written form are the ones where the fact of the words melt away–the reader isn’t even *aware* of reading words, because they’re mainlining the story.

    • That is a good topic for discussion. Those repetitions create rhythms, and there are other patterns (there is a Greek name for the patterns of three that build in intensity, found in the Bible, for instance) that sound great, but in prose, if used to the extent that storytellers do, can work detrimentally.

      There is so much in the performance that doesn’t reach the written page. (And likewise, when doing oral storytelling, taking a written story to oral form means stripping out a lot of the prose, I’ve discovered.)

  3. Any time someone tells me a book is “important” I run the other way. In adult books this usually means a middle-aged white guy having a mid life crisis with an underage, amoral girl (sometimes boy) with a zest-for-life-damn-the-consequences attitude that ends horribly for both of them.

    In YA an important book is one that has the teenager giving in to temptation, using drugs and/or alcohol and winding up on the streets, cold, scared, filthy, and miserable.
    Neither topic is one I would read for enjoyment. I get important with the daily news.

    • I am totally with you on depressing books. Though I sometimes discover interesting things about readers, and where they are coming from, when I ask them to define importance, or ask “Why is this book important?”

      If I get an answer that boils down to the Puritan “Suffering is good for you,” then I’m right behind you. But if it turns out that there is another impetus there–if, say, the book offered insight, or put a window where there had been a wall–then I’m curious.

      Books under that category: Grimmelshausen’s Simplicissimus, which can be quite funny as well as harrowing, but furnishes such insight into the peasant’s eye view of the Thirty Years’ War, that a century or two later Guenter Grass had to take that same period, and viewpoint, and spin out a novel.

      Another book that I personally consider important, but also highly readable, is Elizabeth Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters. In this book written at the middle of the Victorian period we find women quietly gaining agency in everyday ways, in spite of shifting class and gender issues. It was important at its time, and still is, I think, for illuminating how American culture, which is still bound in so many ways to British, developed. And it’s an absorbing story. (The reason I don’t think it’s more famous is that Gaskell died before the last chapter(s) could be written, so while the editor faithfully described how it was to end, the shift from her extremely effective prose to his careful but eminently pedestrian summary is like being kicked out of the world and the door slammed, leaving one to peer in through the wrong end of a telescope.)

      But these are books that have withstood the test of time. I am far less trusting especially about publicity claims of “important” books during our own time. So many of them have turned out to be unmemorable, if not merely unpleasant, at least for me.

  4. When I read fiction, I want a story. Story to me includes plot, pacing, interesting setting, and great characters. I think all of that is hard to do without strong, vivid writing.
    I’m not enough of a lit lover to drag my way through brilliant prose if there are no characters I like.

    • Yeah. Sometimes prose can be so very, very brilliant I am left with the feeling that there is no real there there. But that often goes with a certain paradigm that maintains there is no meaning anyway, so maybe that is the effect the writer intended.

  5. As a (plebeian?) reader, I suppose I gravitate more towards excellent storytelling than exquisite prose. I’ll take the Hunger Games over any “literary” fiction every time.

    But I will say that the books that leave the strongest footsteps in my heart, the ones that I remember not only with special appreciation for the story, but with a deep pang of emotion, are those that combine the two.

    The Time Traveler’s Wife, The Crimson Petal and the White, The Namesake – all books that are burrowed into my soul, far more deeply and profoundly than The Hunger Games could ever go. And I look at them and think, it was the prose. The prose that buried the story deep under my skin.

    Of course, books that combine the two things – exquisite writing and compelling storytelling – don’t pop up very often, less so when I’m not particularly inclined toward maudlin family epics and depressing stories wherein no one is likable.

    So I continue to happily gobble up the Hunger Games, Twilight (yes, read all four, lord help me), the Help, and whatever else is hot and easily consumable. And I wait for those little gems that arrive when you least expect them.

  6. I need a good story, but I agree that prose matters, too. I read through “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” books in record time, but I stopped regularly in disbelief, subjecting my husband to my reading aloud the more clunking bits of writing. I downloaded “The Hunger Games” sample, but stopped there because I couldn’t stand how the author kept explaining everything. She has the character sneak through a hidden opening in a fence that’s posted No Admittance, and then explains that you’re not allowed to go there. I did like the movie, where she ducks under the fence and the viewer is allowed to figure that out on their own.

    • Yes, I found the Dragon Tattoo books unreadable, but obviously millions didn’t. Of course, translation is another issue–a great book can be klunkily translated.

      • I strongly suspect that the clunky prose of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” is a translation issue, because I frequently hear Brits and Americans complaining about Stieg Larsson’s bad writing but never any Germans, which suggests that there is an issue with the English translation.

        • I actually met the (American) translator once and even he was mad at the translation. This is because the original Swedish-to-English translation was done by the British publisher, who massively edited the book (including making changes to, for example, the description of Lisbeth’s dragon tattoo so that it would match the cover-design he had in mind).

          The American translator did what he could to adapt it into American English, but was still constrained by the changes and the “tone” that the American publishers had decided to keep from the British translation.

    • Well, one I recall recently was Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. I found it distasteful and pompous and forgettable, but I was a small voice in a swelling of praise.

      I remember when John Irving was hailed as important. Don’t forget Margaret Atwood, who still is, and Ursula K. LeGuin has been in the sf/f genre for many decades, and maybe she’s reaching mainstream. When I was young, Truman Capote and Norman Mailer were considered important, but my teen self appreciated Harper Lee’s single book more than anything of theirs that I read (or tried, in Mailer’s case, I never could finish anything. He might have had important things to say, but they weren’t important to me.)

      I remember when Salman Rushdie was hailed as Important in the late eighties.

      Some of these folks may slide with the rest of us who will never be Important into the sea of Lost Books, some may stick. None of us can tell what the future will find important.

      However, when new releases are advertized as important, I look askance.

  7. Isn’t it true that the pop-fiction of previous ages makes up the majority of today’s still-read classics? Shakespeare wasn’t as respected as some of his peers, but who changed the language? Dickens wrote soap operas.

    • I don’t know that one can quite say pop fiction, but there was a different attitude toward fiction. (It was not respectable for most of the eighteenth century!)

  8. I love a good storyteller most of all, and appreciate prose that doesn’t get in the way. Beautiful turns of phrase are admirable, and often desirable. But if I’m loving the story, I don’t want to interrupt the story-trance to admire the words.
    Shakespeare can be incredibly dreary and difficult to understand if the actors insist upon orating their lines to ensure the audience appreciates every word. It is most exciting and engaging–even to audience members who don’t catch all the references and subtleties–when the actors treat the words as average, every day exchanges. That’s literature appreciation versus story enjoyment.
    On the other hand, as a writer, I can obsess over finding the perfect word. Why? Sometimes I wonder if it’s because I’m so aware of the writer-reaction that I forget it’s the reader-reaction that matters most.

    On the topic of “appropriate” readings for kids, I’ve become quite aware of how many required readings focus of death, loss, ruin, and quiet/solitary endurance made possible by some quaintly symbolic object or action. The decision makers must believe that truth can be found only in pain, not joy. My son, after losing his father last year, really hates those stories.

  9. Tangent: The Newbery award gets a bit of a bad rap these days, and I certainly have seen winners listed that fit your “depressing” model … but the things that were getting awards when I was the right age to read them included things I loved; The Hero and the Crown, Susan Cooper, Beverly Cleary (who may have had some of “those” books but also had some cheerful enough ones) and before my time, I’m seeing Lloyd Alexander and Madeleine L’Engle. Is this a case of how it’s evolved recently, or a case where the depressing choices like Bridge to Terabithia are the only ones people remember?

  10. When I read “Out of the Dust” (haven’t gone to the link) I was young enough to find the form of it, a novel told in verse, essentially, fascinating. I was a young writer, so that factored into my attitude.

    I was never in love with the actual tale, though. I’m glad I was given it to read, to have that exposure to the way she was experimenting. I do think, though, that the emphasis of “serious” literature in awards is typical of a dangerous attitude that something that’s completely enjoyable is not worth praising.

    I see the same thing in children’s book, picture books–a lot of the ones that get press seem to be primarily deconstructing whatever the adults read as children. Small children are approaching everything fresh–sure, lets give them better things than we remember getting, but do we need to have every book be X-er cynical?

    • I myself feel it is counter-productive to squash the sense of wonder, but others feel that because there is no wonder in the world, it is their duty to inculcate an awareness as soon as possible in children. Such a difference in paradigm means it’s difficult to find common ground for dialogue.