Is it the Story or the Writing?: Book Review

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courtesy Amazon.com

I have not been reading much the last few weeks. Time has been conspiring against me and other pursuits have won. I have however read three very different books and it has returned me to a question that I often ponder. What is more important – the writing or the story?

The first book I read I have already forgotten the name. It was a romance and I would have termed it a penny dreadful but I started to wonder : why is it dreadful? So what if it only cost a penny. All those books that I turn my nose up at that they sell in department stores are there because the mass market wants them. They may just be pop culture and not withstand the test of time but can it be bad that people are reading them? Is it not better that people read something than nothing at all? Why do these sell? I think it is because people enjoy the story. I enjoyed the story. I needed something that could take me away from the realities of life. I needed a bit of sweetness and this book gave it all to me in doses far in excess of what I needed. At the end of my reading I felt relaxed and happy. The book itself now forgotten. Even the story line but at the time it was just what I needed and I was at least reading something.

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curtesy amazon.com

The second book I read was Black Cargo by Vaughn Ponsford. My Mum purchased this book as it was the debut novel by a chap that lives in her retirement complex. In the first couple of chapters I was forever picking up grammatical errors and creative writing no nos and if it wasn’t for the acquaintance I had with the chap I would probably have put the book down not to be finished. Suddenly however, the errors disappeared. I no longer noticed them if they were still there I had become so involved in the story of the main character, Mike Conrad, fighting to save the oceans from oil pollution. Amongst the murder and corruption of the oil magnates, Ponsfords knowledge of the oceans comes through, creating a gripping, believable yarn.

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courtesy amazon.com

A book which I have not yet read but am looking forward to is Ham on Rye by Charles Bukowski. I bought it on my recent trip to Sydney when my ipad suddenly refused to turn on. I had to have something to read on the plane. I took myself off to the bookstore. I used to love shopping for books and I still do but it is quite a different experience shopping at Amazon to trolling through a conventional book shop. The joys I used to feel came back. The title would be the first thing to attract me to a book. I would pick it up and fondle it. Some felt nicer to hold than others. This would lead me to the back flap and I’d read the story line. This may or may not take me inside the front cover where I would read the first page or at least the first couple of paragraphs. If the writing hooked me in that time the book would be purchased as I did with this book. I have now lent it to my mother to read first as my ipad recovered and I felt I had to finish the third book I have read.

It is the Paris Architect by Charles Belfoure.  I have to admit I struggled to read it. I could only read a chapter at a time. Set in Paris in 1942 it is the story of an architect who bit by bit does more to help save and hide Jewish people from the gestapo and inevitable death. Initially he designs hiding spots for money but eventually he does it and more for humanity. The graphic detail leaves me feeling sick and I have to admit that I feel guilty for not wanting to read about and feel in a minor way the reality it was for the Jewish people during the occupation of France. The fact that it makes me feel sick to my stomach probably means that the writing is good but if it wasn’t a book we had to read for my book club there is no way that I would have chosen to continue reading it.

So back to my initial question – What is more important? The Writing or the Story? I believe that for myself generally the writing needs to be good to get me to buy the book but it will be the story that keeps me reading. If the story is not to my liking (and this is such an individual thing and differs with time and culture) no matter how good the writing is I will not continue reading. On the other hand if the writing is poor and I can get past that to become engrossed in the story, if it is a good tale, I will continue to read. What about you?

 

About Irene Waters 19 Writer Memoirist

I began my working career as a reluctant potato peeler whilst waiting to commence my training as a student nurse. On completion I worked mainly in intensive care/coronary care; finishing my hospital career as clinical nurse educator in intensive care. A life changing period as a resort owner/manager on the island of Tanna in Vanuatu was followed by recovery time as a farmer at Bucca Wauka. Having discovered I was no farmer and vowing never again to own an animal bigger than myself I took on the Barrington General Store. Here we also ran a five star restaurant. Working the shop of a day 7am - 6pm followed by the restaurant until late was surprisingly more stressful than Tanna. On the sale we decided to retire and renovate our house with the help of a builder friend. Now believing we knew everything about building we set to constructing our own house. Just finished a coal mine decided to set up in our backyard. Definitely time to retire we moved to Queensland. I had been writing a manuscript for some time. In the desire to complete this I enrolled in a post grad certificate in creative Industries which I completed 2013. Commenced a masters by research in 2014.
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13 Responses to Is it the Story or the Writing?: Book Review

  1. Big question, Irene, and it will generate big answers. For me, the writing must be exceptional, but I read a huge range of story genre and authors, so I can’t identify one trait that always attracts my attention. I follow some authors, finding many to be consistently outstanding and others to be uneven in their writing. I’ve been writing on my blog about my favorite books, A to Z, spotlighting why each book appeals to me. Every book I choose makes me pine a bit for the others on the list that I don’t choose.

    I’ve also put down half finished books, some well known and highly regarded, because I just can’t spend any more time on them, hoping to become engrossed. So I think it’s a matter of personal choice and taste. Plenty of people read to be distracted or to fall asleep. I read because I love the power of a good story framed in outstanding word craft to capture my imagination and stimulate my intellect. I’m not put off by difficult material but I do get frustrated at editorial sloppiness.

    BTW, I also read The Paris Architect. I liked it, especially as the main character challenges his ethics under intolerable circumstances, but found it somewhat predictable.

    Would love to know what you think of Ham on Rye when you’ve read it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I agree it is a matter of taste and all the books I’ve mentioned have made me think of what is important to me in a book and this I believe, for me anyway, will vary according to the mood I’m in and how distracted I am by other pursuits. Some books need to be read in the whole where some can be read bit by bit. It also poses what is good writing. I think good writing gets you involved in a story, develops the characters well and captures your imagination. So can good writing have grammatical and spelling errors. Perhaps even some technical abberrations? I would have said no until I got over the errors in Black Cargo having become totally engrossed with the story which he developed well.
      I enjoy your analysis of the books you choose and it always gives me food for thought. I agree with you regarding the Paris Architect however I found it so gruelling with his vivid descriptions and I feel like I am going to die from the anticpation of the impending doom ( I can’t watch horror movies either for the same reason) that the reading experience becomes one that terrifies me. I don’t want to pick up the book because of the emotions I know I am going to experience. I guess that being able to engender that reaction in a reader means that the writing is good but I cannot say I enjoyed the process of reading.
      I hope Mum finishes Ham on Rye quickly as I’m looking forward to reading it. Will let you know what I think.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I can read almost anything (except raving chic lit) if the writing is good enough – and ‘good’ to me doesn’t mean ‘worthy’ or intellectually impressive, which I often find pretentious. But even the best story can’t hold me if the writing annoys me, although I might skip to the end to see how it resolves itself!
    My son, a successful script-writer, is the opposite. To him, story is everything. We have interesting discussions on the subject!

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    • I’m with your son as I am becoming clearer in my own head that for me story is the most important factor. My favourite books to read, however, have both a story that engrosses me and the writing is a joy in itself with its metaphors and turn of phrase. I agree with you that pretentious writing does little for me. I read a book for book club where almost every second word I had to look up the meaning of the words used (and my vocabulary isn’t that small). This made the reading of the book very tedious and not at all enjoyable.

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  3. For me, it’s always the writing. I will read a book with the most nondescript plot if the writing is great. Good writing gives you a glimpse to the minds of the characters, so it doesn’t matter to me what actually happens in the book—what matters is what the characters think and feel. Hence, the writing. Good post, Irene!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Diane for sharing your thoughts. Perhaps it depends on the definition of writing as I thought that the author of Black Cargo successfully took me into the minds of the characters and I became involved yet the writing (primarily grammar and spelling) initially annoyed me. I will have to find a book with a non-descript plot to test whether the writing will take me through it.

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  4. Charli Mills says:

    That’s a complex question, Irene. Literature is full of stellar writing, but pointless books. And some of my favorite authors won’t ever win literary prizes but they know how to tell a good story. It depends though, as to why I’d call a book great or dreadful. One historical fiction comes to mind though I’ve blocked the title and author’s name from memory. I spent way too much money on the book that was highly regarded. Not an error was to be found in writing or structure, yet it frustrated me how the author made the characters so obliging to the events that occurred, as if to make light of slavery because the slaves were so nice about it. It was poor handling of the material.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It is a complex question and one that probably could differ from time to time but on the whole I agree with you. There are some beautiful writers who have no story (or treat a story poorly) and it doesn’t hold up in my mind as a standalone attribute to hold the readers attention. The story has to be good. To my mind when you have both a good story and good writing you are in heaven only to hate coming back to reality when the book ends.

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      • Charli Mills says:

        That’s a good way to describe the experience as a reader! I’m in heaven right now having rediscovered a writer I loved to read, but I fell behind and moved on. Now I’m questing why I did that? Plus, his books are set where I’m at and it makes me appreciate both his writing and the setting in reality.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Glad you are in heaven Charli. Having a knowledge of time and place certainly adds to the overall enjoyment / or dislike of if they get their facts wrong. Who is the author?

        Liked by 1 person

      • Charli Mills says:

        Tony Hillerman, and his breakout novel was The Blessing Way. The main character is Lt. Leaphorn of the Navajo Police. He weaves a cultural through different lenses — the people of the Navajo Nation, outsiders like government biologists or college anthropologists, and contrasts mystery with logic. The storytelling involves unraveling a crime and it’s set in the places we’ve been stranded.

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