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.