March 27, 2009

Style Versus Substance

Yesterday an interesting discussion developed in the comments section over my review of Jill Taylor's book My Stoke of Insight.  My review, in a nutshell, was that this book is very poorly written and I didn't recommend it.

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.”

I replied,
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?

March 22, 2009

Review: H.M.S. Surprise, by Patrick O'Brian

You know, it's terribly unfashionable to admit this sort of thing, but there is something about the thought of Empire that just thrills me. It's the words, I think. Fleet. Empire. Armada. The sun never sets, etc. etc. And yes, I know that colonialism is bad, blah de blah de blah, but let me tell you, I still devour this kind of book. The Royal Navy! Scurvy! India! Storms! Cannons! Oh, it is almost too much.

This is the third instalment (of twenty-one!) of Patrick O'Brian's beloved Aubrey/Maturin series, and I actually read it some years ago. I was staying with my aunt and uncle for part of the summer, and they had a whole shelf full, which I promptly devoured. It's been long enough that now I remember who all the characters are but not much about what they've done, or when, or with whom. It's one of the best ways to re-read a book, I think.

Anyway, here's the back:
H.M.S. Surprise follows the variable fortunes of Captain Jack Aubrey's career in Nelson's navy as he attempts to hold his ground against admirals, colleagues and the enemy, accepting a commission to convey a British ambassador to the East Indies. The voyage takes him and his friend Stephen Maturin to the strange sights and smells of the Indian subcontinent, and through the archi0pelago of spice islands where the French have a near-overwhelming local superiority.

Rarely has a novel managed to convey more vividly the fragility of a sailing ship in a wild sea. Rarely has a historical novelist combined action and lyricism of style in the way that O'Brian does. His superb sense of place, brilliant characterization and a vigour and joy of writing lifts O'Brian above any but the most exalted of comparisons.

O'Brian was a superb novelist, indeed. There was one storm in particularly that was genuinely breathtaking, and although I know that I romanticize it terribly, after I finish a book in this series I always wish I'd been born a boy in a British naval family about two hundred years ago. Because H.M.S. Surprise is not only adventuresome and tremendously researched, but it's darn funny. Take these:
"Was you a midshipman in the Surprise, sir?" cried young Callow, amazed, amazed. If he had thought about it at all, he would have supposed that post-captains sprang fully armed from the forehead of the Admiralty. (106)

"I beg your pardon," said Nicolls with an artificial smile. "I am afraid I lost the thread. What were you saying?"

"I was repeating phrases from this little book. It is all I could get, apart from the Fort William grammar, which is in my cabin. It is a phrase-book, and I believe it must have been compiled by a disappointed man: My horse has been eaten by a tiger, leopard, bear; I wish to hire a palanquin; there are no palanquins in this town, sir -- all my money has been stolen; I wish to speak to the Collector: the Collector is dead, sir -- I have been beaten by evil men. Yet salacious too, poor burning soul: Woman, wilt thou lie with me?" (126)

The only quibble I have with H.M.S. Surprise is that mine is a second-hand copy, and whoever owned it last underlined all of the words they didn't know in the first chapter or so. But I knew those words, and so the effect was rather to put the sentences' emphases in some very odd places. But no matter; at least my copy wasn't eaten by a tiger, leopard, bear.

March 18, 2009

Can I Graduate Now?

What I wrote in my paper proposal:
The answers to these questions will serve to further our knowledge of Jack London and his particular interpretation of Darwinism, as portrayed in The Sea Wolf. They will also enhance our understanding and appreciation of London’s novel as a carefully constructed social statement, as well as an excellent seafaring tale.

What I wanted to write in my paper proposal:
The fate of the known universe is at stake, and this paper will make everything finally okay. The prose shall be so luminous, the insights so great and so witty, that even AIDS patients will have but to look on it to be cured. I will not only answer questions about The Sea Wolf and Charles Darwin, but solve humanity's oldest puzzles, about the universe and our place in it. You will have to invent a new grade to give this paper, because even A+++ will not cover it. Read it out loud, and prepare to hear birds fall from the trees, stunned by my magnificent observations and conclusions. Watch in amazement as the very face of all scholarship will be changed forever. And make sure that you have a box of kleenex available when you reach my momentous, unexpected, and wholly stirring conclusions.

Or, alternatively:
Let's be realistic: absolutely nothing is at stake here. I am going to expend a great deal of effort writing a paper that will be read by one person. My analysis will be thorough but utterly boring. My conclusions will be unsurprising. I will soon forget what I said, and so will you. I will receive a grade that is decent: neither abysmal nor spectacular. My graded paper will be relegated to a folder in my room with dozens just like it, where it will remain, unread, in perpetuity. And by and by I will graduate, and as my essay gathers dust, so will my memories of this place, where I learned a great many things that will probably make no discernible difference to my future life. Now please excuse me while I go shrivel up.

Le sigh.

March 15, 2009

Review: The Thirteenth Tale, by Diane Setterfield

Okay, I know that every other book blogger out there read The Thirteenth Tale before I did -- but I stayed up until one o'clock last night to finish it, and it blew my mind, and so I'm going to talk about it anyway. Y'all can just lump it. Or, if you like, you can go watch a video of a laughing baby instead. It's all good.

So, The Thirteenth Tale! There's a chick named Margaret who works/lives in a bookshop, and one day she gets a mysterious letter from Miss Vida Winter, England's most beloved novelist ever to exist ever. Miss Winter is also very secretive, and makes up stories when asked for her biography. To Margaret's great surprise, she invites her to visit her big house up on the moors, and to write Winter's authorized biography. Predictably, Margaret accepts -- and that's probably enough back-story right there.

Here's the thing: for the first, I dunno, third of the novel, The Thirteenth Tale reads like a hymn to reading. It's full of passages like this:
Rising from the stairs I stepped into the darkness of the shop. I didn't need the light switch to find my way. I know the shop the way you know the places of your childhood. Instantly the smell of leather and old paper was soothing. I ran my fingertips along the spines, like a pianist along his keyboard. Each book had its own, individual note: the grainy, linen-covered spine of Daniels' History of Map Making; the cracked leather of Lakunin's minutes from the meetings of the St. Petersburg Cartographic  Academy; a well-worn folder that contains his maps, hand-drawn, hand-coloured. You could blindfold me and position me anywhere on the three floors of this shop, and I could tell you from the books under my fingertips where I was. (p 12)

And this:
Lives -- dead ones -- are just a hobby of mine. My real work is in the bookshop. My job is not to sell the books -- my father does that -- but to look after them. Every so often I take out a volume and read a page or two. After all, reading is looking after in a manner of speaking. Not old enough to be valuable for their age alone, nor important enough to be sought after by collectors, my charges are dear to me even if, as often as not, they are as dull on the inside as on the outside. No matter how banal the contents, there is always something that touches me. For someone now dead once thought these words significant enough to write them down.

People disappear when they die. [. . .] Yet for some there is an exception to this annihilation. For in the books they write they continue to exist. We can rediscover them. Their humour, their tone of voice, their moods. Through the written word they can anger you or make you happy. They can comfort you. They can perplex you. They can alter you. All this, even though they are dead. Like flies in amber, like corpses frozen in ice, that which according to the laws of nature should pass away is, by the miracle of ink on paper, preserved. It is a kind of magic.

As one tends to the graves of the dead, so I tend the books. I clean them, do minor repairs, keep them in good order. And every day I open a volume or two, read a few lines or pages, allow the voices of the forgotten dead to resonate inside my head. (p 17)

I have to say that I find Diane Setterfield's writing style kind of ... annoying. All those weighty pronouncements and similies, and weird sentence structure. But I love what she's saying, and this book is like the Harry Potter books: the prose is really not that great, but the plotting is amazing.

Because you see, Miss Winter's life is not so simple. There are wacko siblings, and  (presumed) incest, and twins, and murders, and fires, and illegitimate children, and you're always caught wondering what happened next, and who everyone really is, and oh, it's all so beautiful and crazy and I couldn't put it down. I read the whole thing yesterday, late into the night, and it's a rare book indeed that makes me miss bedtime. About six times I was sure that I had figured the mystery out, and put every puzzle piece into its place -- but I was wrong every time, and while I obviously won't spoil the ending here I will say this: it's good. I'll bet that book-clubs love this thing. And as with the best of mysteries, I can't wait to read this again, so that I can find all of the things I missed in the first place.

I think that my main beef with The Thirteenth Tale is the prose: it's a little overblown. And all of the characters spoke with what, to me, seemed like the same voice: Margaret, Miss Winter, Hester, Aurelius, everyone. So, that part of things is maybe not so good. But I can overlook it, because the story is just. so. good.

March 8, 2009

Book Reorganization: The Saga Continues

I have a very exciting development to share with you in my book-reorganizing ordeal project:

March 4, 2009

Judge This Cover: Dogeaters

Dudes. This is how you design a book cover (warning: craziness and nekkidness present):

Seriously, what on earth?

I could stare at this thing for hours. I'm not sure how well you can see all the details -- I, of course, have the advantage of the actual book in front of me -- so let me list some of the things I see:

  • We've got the pseudo-cruxifiction pose, except it's a woman, except her head has been cut off and a statue's head (David?) has been sewn on in its place.

  • She's holding a giant sword and a severed head, which I don't think is her own (based on skin tone) -- so where is her head?

  • There's a gaping torso wound on her that either contains a fetus, which is in the wrong place, or her glowing angelic stomach that also seems to have arms.

  • Seriously, whose head is that? There's some biblical imagery that also could apply here: we might have an image of Judith, or of Herodias.

  • Her hands/forearms appear to have been detached and then sewn back on to her body.

  • Her feet: they are webbed. Is she amphibious?

  • There are angels in the clouds above her head, and they are either crowning her with a bishop's mitre, or taking it off of her. Either way, the one on the right seems okay with this, but the one on the left seems pretty upset. Or perhaps they are playing a genteel sort of tug-of-war?

  • She's superimposed (floating, I think) over some sort of fantastic landscape with waterfalls and the sun rising/setting behind her back, and all sorts of severed stumps -- perhaps alluding to her severed head and arms?

  • ORANGE!!

  • Clever little thing: the title of the novel appears to have been forcibly ripped out of the canvas that the image is painted on.

So, my friends, what exactly is going on here? In truth, I have no idea. The novel is by Jessica Hagedorn, the cover was designed by Gail Belenson and executed by Papo De Asis: this I know. But I'm more than halfway finished the novel and, so help me, I can't find any connection between the front cover and the contents except for the title and author's name. Those match up.

As to everything else, it remains a mystery. A fascinating one, to be sure. Wouldn't this cover make you want to read the book, just to find out what on earth was going on?