Thursday, May 24, 2012

Story or Writing: What's Your Flavor?

I posed a question on Twitter last week that got quite a few responses. I would love to share some of those, but of course, Twitter chose now to die. Arrgh! It was prompted by my own thoughts on what constitutes "immersion" reading. That is, books that make me feel as if I've been plucked up out of my life and plunked down in the middle of the story. These books also tend to be my long-time favorites.

The question:

What do you privilege or appreciate more, a good story or good writing?

I realize this is a hard question. I also realize this is a dramatically oversimplified question, but it did make me ponder for a good long while. I'm willing to concede that these two are often so inextricably linked that it's hard to pick them apart.

A story is made less of a good story by bad writing. Good writing can elevate a flimsy plot to the point of breathless admiration. But on the other hand, I know I've tossed more than a few books because the writing sucked. I've tossed more than a few because the story was abhorrent. It might be easier to answer this question: what makes you ditch a book faster: a flimsy story or crappy writing?

To approach my own question, I certainly appreciate both. Sometimes one stands out above the other. But what I was really thinking when I posed this question on Twitter was about the books I love. Love with a visceral, devoted, think-about-the-characters forever-and-feel-like-I-know-them love. Examples: of course, Outlander, but other loves of my reading life would be The Hours, Wicked, Pope Joan, The Lord of the Rings, Cider House Rules, The Great Gatsby.

What makes me love them so darn much??? Is it the story or is it the writing? Does it have to be both? Can it just be one or the other?

As I'm looking at them, I do begin to wonder if I secretly privilege a strong story line, strong characters, long  stories that allow me to wallow and stretch my legs a little. Of this sample, I would say that only about half are known for their especially stellar writing (Gatsby, Cider House, The Hours). While the rest are more plot-driven (Pope Joan, Outlander, The Lord of the Rings, Wicked). It's debatable, of course. I think Maguire does a great job with his writing. Tolkien, too, obviously. But in the wider world of books and critics and stuff (for what it's worth), the first three authors are probably better received for their writing chops and the rest admired more for plot, character, and other elements of the story.

Off the top of my head, I uber-love the following general bookish characteristics:

  • Characters I love and want to revisit
  • Smooth, believable dialogue
  • A strong sense of place and atmosphere
  • A plot that makes me a little breathless wanting to know what comes next
  • A feeling of swept-awayness that leaves me a little unwilling to come back to real life
While I don't think any of these can be accomplished by a writer with no skills--clever and believable characters require a deft hand--I'm looking a little story-heavy here. For a long time I wouldn't have been ok with this. Formal higher education in English pushes form and technique above all else much of the time which seems to fall into the "writing" camp. That was my experience, anyway. While I appreciate stellar writing any day of the week, it also takes a little more forward movement to engage me in a meaningful, powerful way. 

That is my final answer. Today. For now.

Now that I've begun to figure myself out, how about you? What leaves you wanting more and clutching a book to your heart?

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