In the comments section of last week’s post about the one question writers should never ask themselves when reading (retroactive spoiler: the question is “do I like this?”), some people took the post to mean that I was essentially saying that if a book is popular it must be well-written, ergo the most popular books are the best written.
Not what I meant!
Now, partly this is a confusion of terms, because are we talking about “writing” as in prose or “writing” as in overall craft or are the books we like the ones that are well-written and the ones we don’t like are the ones that aren’t?? Everyone tends to mean something different when they talk about “the writing.”
But for the most part, and you’ll see below what I mean, I think when people criticize the “writing” they mean the sentence-to-sentence prose, so let’s just go with that definition for now.
And let’s also get one thing clear up front: there absolutely has to be a certain level of writing for a book to work, and I personally think the degree of writing quality in bestselling books is underestimated by many aspiring writers. I host page critiques because smooth and polished prose aids storytelling and in today’s publishing world you need an extremely high degree of craft in order to be published.
But once you’ve reached a certain degree of professional-level writing, the further levels and degrees of writing is not the be all and end all of a book’s success.
What I meant by last week’s post is not that every popular book is written phenomenally well, but a popular book is doing SOMETHING very well, and it’s far more valuable to try to pinpoint what that writer is succeeding at rather than simply dismissing a book as being horribly written just because you don’t like it or just because the prose isn’t top notch.
It might be the suspense, it might be the tension, it might be the pacing, it might be the setting, it might be the characters, or even more likely a combination of several different elements. But if a book is phenomenally popular, something is working that is attracting readers, and no, it’s not just the marketing.
Several people mentioned this part of Stephen King’s (in)famous interview about Stephenie Meyer in the comment section: “The real difference is that Jo Rowling is a terrific writer and Stephenie Meyer can’t write worth a darn. She’s not very good.”
What people don’t seem to remember is this part of the interview:
“People are attracted by the stories, by the pace and in the case of Stephenie Meyer, it’s very clear that she’s writing to a whole generation of girls and opening up kind of a safe joining of love and sex in those books. It’s exciting and it’s thrilling and it’s not particularly threatening because they’re not overtly sexual. A lot of the physical side of it is conveyed in things like the vampire will touch her forearm or run a hand over skin, and she just flushes all hot and cold. And for girls, that’s a shorthand for all the feelings that they’re not ready to deal with yet.”
Whether or not you agree with King’s assessment about Meyer’s writing, at the very least he’s making a distinction between writing and storytelling, or at least what I assume is a distinction between prose craft and storytelling craft, and is acknowledging what he sees as working in Meyer’s books.
Yes, good writing aids storytelling, you need a certain level of writing for a book to work. But just because you don’t care for the prose doesn’t mean there’s nothing that’s working and nothing to be learned.
Do you have any thoughts on the distinction between writing and storytelling? Do you see one as being more important than the other?