20 June 2010

A Fine Line

My friend Lisa and I were discussing books the other day and I asked her to name her very favorite book ever. To an avid reader this is an unfair question. It's a little like asking which of your children you love best: you like them all in different ways, corresponding with their different personalities and charms. Faced with the impossibility of this task, we tried instead to determine why one book is better than another.

I argued, "Does not the fine use of words make one book better than another, one author better than another?"
"No," she countered, "The plot makes the book."
"Ah, but how does an author develop a plot? Through the skillful use of words."
"Okay," she conceded, but then offered up an insight too: two very different handlings of a similar plot or event can produce very different but likewise satisfactory stories.

This would suggest a few things:

1) A fine use of words develop a fine story.
2) A good story lends itself to fine description.
3) Poor use of words can equal a bad telling, no matter how good the subject, but...
4) Erudite words with no real point are, well, pointless. (Scholars do it all the time!)
5) Words need to paint a picture.
6) Monet and Rembrandt are equally compelling in their genre.
7) Ergo, a good story and good telling are equally important.

When you pick up a book, ask yourself a few questions:

Do I find the style and use of words appropriate, i.e. entertaining, descriptive, vivid, etc.? Can I "see" the characters, for example. Do I understand them; do I understand what drives them? Can I feel mist (or spiders) on my face, smell the lavender (motor-oil), etc.?

Does the story interest me? Does it captivate me? If I am interested I can still leave off at the end of a chapter. If I am captivated, I am just finishing the last chapter the next a.m.

Am I willing to put up with some dragging of the plot? (Please say no.) There is sometimes a point in a book where you sort of regain consciousness - where suddenly you are aware that you are reading. Too often it is because the author has gone on and on about some small thing and your boredom switch was flipped. "Oops, here I am flipping ahead to see how many pages before the chapter ends and therefore I must have fallen out of the story." You know the point I mean. The parts of a story which need the most explanation are tricky for an author: how to make sure the scene is fully understood, without beating all the life out of it. (You mystery novelists will forgive the figure of speech.)

Do I come away a little changed? Does the story stay in my mind and why? Am I glad I read it or do I feel a little icky or a little cheated? Am I recommending it to everyone I see including my gynecologist or proctologist? (That, my friends, is when you know when you are obsessed with a book!) Or do I refuse to put it on my GoodReads updates because I am embarrassed to been seen as having read it?

Writers (and aspiring writers), give us plots that are ingenious and writing that is superb. Not much to ask. And in return, we will give you lavish praise to our plumber, 250 library circulations a year, multiple print runs, and that little slice of immortality - a NYT Bestseller designation. Tell me that's not worth a little extra sweat over your keyboard. And maybe one day we can say, without hesitation, yours was the best book we ever read.

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