Beautiful prose may not make a compelling story.



By its cover? Nix that. Now that I read most novels on my iPad, I rarely look at a book’s cover. And now that we’ve gotten that cliché out-of-the-way… I want to know, I really do want to know…

How do you judge a book?

I started thinking about this question last night/early this morning (3 a.m. to be precise). Propped up against my pillows, iPad perched in front of me, I couldn’t stop reading the chick lit novel I had downloaded based on a review in my Yoga Journal. (That’s right, Yoga Journal. Hey, I’ve even gotten some great literary tips from my car mechanic. In addition to oil change coupons, he includes a book review section in his monthly newsletter.) Anyway, I didn’t have one or two chapters left to read, I had more like six or seven. And I finished them. I couldn’t stop turning the pages…

Swiping the pages? The screen. Whatever!

Pre-tablet late night reading

As I was saying, I finished the book. I closed my kindle app, clicked the home button and thought, that definitely wasn’t what I’d call a well-written book. Not even close. You name it… annoying characters, with lots of money and very little common sense. Oh, and everyone had a great body. Give me a break! Plus, there were typos. Yet, I couldn’t put it down. I just couldn’t unplug.

So, was it a success?

Lorijo Metz
Lorijo Metz

As a writer, I would love it if someone told me they’d been up reading my book at 3 a.m. Swipe, swipe… unable to turn off their screen. Yet, also as a writer, it bothers me how compelled I was to keep reading a book that was so far from stellar, so downright provincial, and frankly, tabloidish at best. (Tabloidish: literature that is in many ways comparable to a train wreck. i.e. you can’t look away.)

You might wonder why I bother worrying about this. It was just a book, right? Enjoy!

I worry because of all those other books. Those well-written books…books that have won major awards and high praise for literary critics…the ones that I haven’t been able to finish. The truth is, beautiful prose doesn’t always equal compelling story.

I’m not saying all stories that win awards are boring. Far from it. (Case in point, NeilGaiman’s Newbury award-winning children’s novel, The Graveyard Book. An awesome read. Or, The Poisonwood Bible, written by Barbara Kingsolver and nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. Stellar in every way—except the ending, I didn’t care for that.) Nor am I suggesting that all tabloidish-type stories, such as the one that kept me up last night, should win awards.

Yes, this might be the book I’m talking about.

What am I saying?

Right. Perhaps, all I’m saying is that a well-written story should be defined not simply by the words on the page, but by the intent of the author and how much that translates into by the enjoyment or engagement it produces in the reader.

Given that definition, the book that kept me up last night was…good. Not great. But pretty darn good. And if the author’s intent was to entertain, then I’d have to say it was well-written.

Time to take a nap!

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  • Caleb Pirtle

    Lorijo, you had hit upon the most fascinating about writing or reading. I, too, have read books that won national acclaim and can barely get past the second chapter before falling asleep. Then there are books that will never come close to an award that makes it hard for me to catch my breath. Some of the top booksellers in the market today have never written a literary sentence, but they sure can tell a story.

  • Lorijo,
    A very interesting post. So far in my experience 99% of the people who take the time to write a review say something like, “I couldn’t put this book down.” Hardly ever do I see a customer review that says, “There were some really nice, literary sentences in the book.” So, I suppose the “can’t put it down” category trumps literary writing.

  • The prose must be appropriate to the book. I like certain kinds of mysteries, but mainly commercial mainstream novels that have some plausibility about them and a relatively positive ending. Exaggerated purple prose turns me off immediately, big words for no reason, and characters too stupid to live (TSTL).

    Readers are not stupid – they know what they’re looking for, and they know whether they’ve found it. I have never looked at the prose per se – but I will notice if the prose gets in my way, or if I keep smiling.

    And it really isn’t that hard to write competent prose: educate yourself to possible errors and how to identify them, and stop doing them. Beautiful prose is better, unless it hijacks the story. The best prose is the one you don’t notice.

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