Some relatively recent reading has made me rethink what constitutes good books and good writing. I’ve previously argued that a book can be really good without the phrasing being beautiful. I want to argue a stronger point: some books intentionally do not use beautiful phrasing so that they are good. I’m not just referencing dialog that reflects an uncultured or inarticulate character. Two great and very different books come to mind that seem to illustrate this point: Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief and Michael Martinez’s The Daedalus Incident (about which more here).
So, what do I mean by beautiful phrasing? I mean lovely, lyrical writing. It is that kind of writing where, very early on, you sense that “wow” and read in awe. You swim and luxuriate in the wording, the turns of phrase and images built. I can think of three examples of this sort of writing in contemporary novels I’ve read within the year: Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane and Diane Satterfield’s The Thirteenth Tale. These are books you simply fall into and, sometimes want to just listen to the music of the wording whether it were moving the story on or not (they are moving stories). It’s like those times in sports where the move of the players is so ballet-like that you almost forget the game just to see the moves, to watch a poetry in motion.
Now those three books also hit a 9 or 10 on the other elements that make a novel: characters, narrative and setting (or world). Of course, there is no magic formula for evaluating books and there’s no graph ala Dead Poets Society to quantify the goodness of a book, but those are typically the areas to evaluate. In my earlier reflections, I argued that great writing does well in all four categories, but books that are fair in a couple can still be quite good. While that’s true, I now think it’s less rare to have really good writing than I thought. This is primarily due to recognizing that the writing or phrasing category does not need to be beautifully lyrical to be great – it needs to suit its purpose. Hello, we are talking communication here. So, it may be that more conversational, colloquial phrasing will do that best as in The Book Thief’s case or more action-oriented, contemporary language or period language is most suited as in The Daedalus Incident (which actually contains both). Not all stories can or should be told through ballet.
Let me provide an analogous example; recently I viewed a video homage to Blade Runner retelling the story through thousands of aquarelle (watercolor drawings) (about which more here). This works really well for fluid dream-like sequences like when Rachel is in Deckard’s apartment playing the piano. It’s a bit jumpy in the action scenes but still fits in with the overall milieu of the movie. This dreamscape of a presentation would not work for Terminator or The Bourne Identity. Similarly, lilting, lyrical language would not work well for Liesel stealing books from the Library or depicting marching Jews going to Dachau (The Book Thief) or Lieutenants chasing a star-ward ship on the run (The Daedalus Incident). I believe that Messrs. Zusak and Martinez used exactly the right language and tone to communicate the tone of their characters and setting (world), spot on.
I now see that looking for that “word ballet” in every book I read is wrong; indeed it would make the book less good were it try. That’s not to say there aren’t books for which it would work but don’t have it. There are, of course, lots of those. This is simply to note that there are really well written books that don’t have the same tone to their phrasing and their tone is just right for the job. In fact, they’re really well written precisely because they match the tone of their writing to the tone of the book. This is all probably obvious to y’all, but a little little bulb turned on for me.