Reader Monica disagreed:
Trying to make sense of this review . . . how is it possible not to be touched by a magnificent woman’s journey into near-death? The audio version, which I downloaded from the library, is hard to put down. Christine must have felt very threatened by the possibilities Taylor presents to us: that by silencing our “monkey brain” we actually gain a profound new appreciation of life.
By the way, “vice” is alternative spelling for “vise.”
Not threatened; just allergic to terrible prose.
It doesn’t matter to me how touching or amazing her journey was — I review books, and the book she wrote was very bad, regardless of the events that triggered its writing.
She wrote back,
What do you mean by “bad”? Useless or uninformative, or just badly written as per your judgment? You seem to focus on style while ignoring content. I maintain that what a book says is just as important as how it says it. My Stroke of Insight should be required reading in every medical and nursing school. Having encountered unfeeling professionals in a medical setting, I deeply feel for a “wounded animal” (Jill’s expression) who is shouted at, ignored, or treated as if deaf or stupid by hospital staff.
Her description of losing the ability to organize experience–what a gift. How many stroke survivors regain enough verbal fluency to tell their story? I maintain that this is a unique and extraordinarily valuable contribution, and not just because of its right-brain/left-brain spiritual implications.
And I replied,
By “bad” I mean that it’s poorly written — and yes, that is my judgement (whose it might be otherwise, I’m sure I don’t know). My issue with My Stroke of Insight is that the style is so bad that I couldn’t even get to the content. Perhaps I should have stuck it out, I’ll give you that, but as I was reading the book I really didn’t think it’d be worth the trouble. The writing wasn’t good enough to hold my attention, and I moved on.
I have nothing against Jill Taylor. I think it’s fantastic that she recovered so completely from her stroke — would that more people could do the same. But her amazing recovery has little to do with whether she can write clearly or compellingly. And there are books out there that tell the same story, in better prose — Norman Doidge’s The Brain that Changes Itself, for example. Her contribution to the field of stroke recovery/treatment may be ultimately valuable, but her writing is not for me.
Now, I'm not particularly interested in who's right and who's wrong in regard to this particular book -- I don't think that either of us is going to convince the other. But she did raise an interesting point that I want to explore further: the question of style versus substance. Which is more important when it comes to the books I read?
It's a tough call, and I can understand that it's a divisive issue, because both style and content can make or break a book -- sometimes more one than the other, perhaps, but they definitely both come into play.
For me, brilliant prose can make up for almost any sin. Last year I read The Road Past Altamont, by Gabrielle Roy, which is one of the most CanLitty books of all CanLit ever. It's beautifully wrought, the prose is great, I really enjoyed it -- but when I finished, I was all, "Wait a minute, was there actually a plot?". There wasn't a plot, nothing at all happened (this is CanLitty CanLit, remember) but it was enjoyable and worthwhile all the same, simply because the writing was beautiful. In this case, the prose was able to make up for the fact that, as stated, the entire book passed by without anything really happening.
Good prose can also help make up for, or smooth over, times when an author is writing about uncomfortable topics. Like incest, for example. Incest is uncomfortable and squicky, but the writing in Jeffery Eugenides's Middlesex is so good that you can look past it. Or for another example, see the death of a young girl, sexual abuse, and yes, more incest in The God of Small Things, by Arundathi Roy. Uncomfortable? Of course. Worth reading anyway? Of course.
On the other hand, sometimes it really is the prose that's lacking. Can a good story make up for writing that's just not that great? Sure it can -- see my review of Diane Setterfield's The Thirteenth Tale, for example. The writing in The Thirteenth Tale is not fantastic -- I found a lot of it irritating, actually -- but the plot was astounding and I couldn't put it down. In this case I was able to overlook the clunky writing for the sake of the mystery of the plot.
(It doesn't always work, though. Sometimes the opposite happens: the prose is so bad that the reader can't even get to the plot. One example of this that really stands out for me is Mark B. Pickering's Story of the Sand, a novel about an American soldier who has come home after deployment in Iraq. As I said in my original review, it's an important story and needs to be told -- but not this particular way, in this particular book.)
Generally speaking, I think that good prose saves bad plots more often than the other way around. But how does this work with non-fiction? With non-fiction there's often no "plot" to speak of -- except perhaps in the biography/memoir and true crime, and maybe a few other genres -- so how do style and substance interact once you leave the 800s?
For starters, I think that they're both entirely necessary. In a non-fiction text, the author doesn't want to tell a good story so much as to inform, enlighten, or convince the audience. The message (the substance) must be good: if your reading audience thinks that your message is stuff and nonsense, you will capture few hearts and minds. If your message is enticing, informative, or otherwise top-notch, your writing is more likely to have an impact on your readers. Possibly.
Why possibly, you ask? Shouldn't an author's message trump their writing style?
The way I see it, the answer is yes -- and no. As with our examples in fiction writing, above, a good story (or a good message) can sometimes make up for a style that is not quite shipshape. But it doesn't always work out that way: sometimes the message is good, but the prose is so bad, the writing so clunky, that readers can't bear to stay the course. I feel like I've run into more than my fair share of these through things like LT's ER book programme -- things like Four Secrets to Liking Your Work, for one.
The thing with non-fiction is that those books tend not to have strong hooks in the same way that their fictional counterparts do -- things like exciting plots, loveable and/or exasperating characters, or space aliens. Because there isn't anything plottish to draw the reader in, the writing becomes even more important. It has to pull a lot of weight. It has to be just that much more compelling.
The trouble is, of course, that many non-fiction writers are not primarily writers: first and foremost they are actors, scientists, politicians, engineers, and doctors. Which is fine, when they're being actors, scientists, politicians, engineers, and doctors. It just doesn't work so well sometimes when they're trying to write books. They're not writers, and that's not a bad thing in and of itself, but it can result in a bad manuscript that in turn results in a bad book. Editors will fix egregious syntax errors and other grammatical mistakes, but aren't necessarily going to edit out a writer's style. And I think that when non-writerly types write, they're probably more focussed on their message, on getting things out there, than on nuances of the writers' craft. (But this is a problem: see above).
A case for more ghost writers, perhaps?