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?

15 thoughts on “Style Versus Substance

  1. This post really struck home with me. I read Henry Miller's “The Tropic of Cancer” and found it disgustingly misogynist and nihilistic. And yet, the prose was so darn good I couldn't bring myself to totally hate it. Same thing with William Burroughs's “Naked Lunch.” It's full of grotesque imagery and its author was a 100% total jerk in real life, but, at the same time, it's so well-written! I guess there is a danger in making objectionable ideas sound pretty, but then again, the more you read the less likely you are to be really swayed by a book. It's like those college students who read Ayn Rand and think she's the greatest philosopher ever – but haven't actually *read* any other philosophers so that's not at all an informed opinion.I agree that ghost writers can be a real asset, but what about in history books? Part of being an historian is writing books and articles, but some of them just can't write and you can't really hire a ghostwriter if your book is based on original research. Even if the ideas presented are brilliant, sometimes the historian's prose can make reading incredibly painful. Such was the unfortunate case with Allison Games's “Migration and the Origin of the English Atlantic World.” Sample paragraph: “Geographic mobility was not part of a conscious effort to ensure conformity in the colonies to a broader English culture. Indeed, such an effort was futile: although English people brought with them a multitude of English ways, colonial exigencies forced other patterns upon them. But frequent movement did enable colonial residents and visitors to retain contact with old England and other colonies, and for all their geographic distance, this contact enabled them to remain a part of England even as England itself was ultimately altered by its colonial holdings. In their repeated journeys from one colony to another and from the colonies to England, many of these voyagers signaled an understanding of a large and varied colonial world. . .” Veeeerrrry slow reading.EL Fay’s latest blog post:Anita Blake and Mary Sue


  2. Oof, that last excerpt is a doozie — and neatly illustrates why I left History for English Lit. It seemed like all of the history papers I was reading were written like that. I think that Lolita is probably the best example of superior writing making up for an objectionable plot. Pedophilia: not so great. But Nabokov's prose? Delicious.


  3. I have to agree as well … it takes a fairly terrible plot to ruin good prose but it also takes an almost perfect plot (like The Thirteenth Tale) to overcome mediocre prose. There are a lot of books that fall in the middle with average prose or average plots and they are really hit or miss with each reader as to whether they are tolerable or not.Kristen M.’s latest blog post:Poe Fridays: The Sphinx


  4. Thanks for elaborating, Christine. I feel less riled at what initially struck me as cavalier dismissal of a great contribution to our understanding of stroke.By the way, as I said, my acquaintance with this book is via audio. Some of it was repetitious but that didn't really bother me. Because Taylor writes quite colloquially, this may make for better audio than print. I delight in good writing as much as the next man or woman, but even superior writing cannot, for me, make up for poverty of content. Reading Updike in English lit was one such experience. His writing is polished to a fault, and in the end I was left with an empty feeling: what was it that he said?Are we treading gingerly on the boundary between prose and poetry?One more thought–McLuhan comes to mind: the medium is the message. Not sure I entirely agree, but he did alert us to the importance of “how” as opposed to “what.”


  5. A fundamental question I believe we're asking is, “what is a book for?” Or better, what is writing for? I see writing as only a tool, and perhaps that's too narrow-minded a view, but then, there it is. I love elegant, beautiful, well-crafted tools, but to me that's all they are. Writing evolved to preserve and transmit content (McLuhan to the contrary), and only centuries later did it become an art form.


  6. I see that Karen beat me here – I was coming to tell you about the award that I gave you.'ve been thinking a lot about this topic lately too. Escpecially since I just finished a self-pub book that had an excellent plot but terrible writing. I just can't give the book a high rating because the writing was so poor that it was painful to read.Alyce’s latest blog post:Awards Roundup


  7. Poor prose can obfuscate the point, and not communicate. I love the history example above – and as a academic & theologian, I find much the same problem in my field. Sometimes people use a lot of big words and say very little of substance. Perhaps it is my engineering training, but I find I prefer clarity in prose even to beauty – though I am appreciating beautiful prose more these days.


  8. I have to make a major exception to the idea that historians can't write. Myself, I can't stand what most English Lit types consider good literature. Historians have a completely different audience – people who need to support some very complex multifactorial arguments that will be lost in flowery language. Please remember that the audience determines the type of writing. I have been a technical writer in my past. In technical writing, the style of writing is determined by the target audience. It doesn't matter what is nicer prose if the point is going to get lost. Mass market non-fiction books have a very different style from those books written for the professional or serious amateur markets. I know that when I review non-fiction, I try to take into consideration who the book is targeted at. If the book I am reading is targeted at the serious amateur I am going to give much more leeway in terms of the niceties of prose. If the book is targeted at “the masses,” I am going to be more critical of the prose.To sum up an overlong response, it depends on who the audience for the book is!


  9. Oh, I'm not saying all historians can't write. I actually double majored in both English and History, so I know how prose has to differ between fiction and non-fiction. The point I was trying to make was, what should poor writers do instead when hiring a ghost writer just isn't feasible? A major problem I had with Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker's “The Many-Headed Hydra: Slaves, Sailors, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic” was that it was TOO well-written in the artistic sense. I mean, it read like a novel and the prose was very passionate. It made the history aspect flow way more neatly than reality ever actually is. Of course, it was also a Marxist history (which I believe is falling out of favor), which basically puts everything in the context of class warfare. In other words, the bias was blatantly obvious and it read like propaganda. (“Oh, the poor, wretched proletariat! How they have fought! How they have suffered!”) I ended up not trusting it.


  10. Great post! I agree with monica tarzier here. Even if I don't like the writing style, a good story can carry it. I love Dr Seuss as much as Dostoevsky- the two styles aren't comparable. Bad prose is whatever distracts from the story- I don't even want to see the words on my first read. I love the prose in The Thirteenth Tale- it's totally my cup of tea.Good prose/bad prose is a matter of personal preference. Sometimes, even when it comes to Literature we think it's not right to just say “Look, this book just doesn't do it for me” Instead we try to show that the work is flawed. “Poorly written” is the first thing people say. If you read the negative reviews on Amazon, especially for beloved classics, you'll see what I mean. 750 people gave the book five stars, it has a Pulitzer, a Nobel but here is A. Smith from Indiana stating that it's “poorly written” instead of “hey, I don't like this style” Also, I don't think prose matters much in books like Lolita, The Thirteenth Tale, etc because they are written from first person p.o.v and the author is creating a person with their prose.Stephanie Moore’s latest blog post:Notes and Pages: Best Music To Read To


  11. I had this experience not too long ago while reading The Weight of a Mustard Seed. The story the book told was supposed to be compelling and enlightening, but the writing was just atrocious. I just couldn't get involved with the book because I was in constant wonder at the horrible writing. At this point in my life, with as many books as I want to read, I just can't waste time on terrible writing, even if there is a great story lurking under there somewhere.zibilee’s latest blog post:The Neurology of Angels by Krista Tibbs – 284 pages


  12. I agree with Christine's point that non-fiction authors are not necessarily writers. They may have a good story to tell, but they often lack the writing skills to tell it. Enter the editor…except in My Stroke of Insight. Where was the editor when the egregious grammar and usage errors made it to the final manuscript? While Taylor clearly knows her neuroanatomy, she could have used help with subject-verb agreement (numerous examples of “each”and “neither” needing singular verbs), missing and/or misplaced punctuation, redundancy (“self-medicating themselves”), and pronoun-antecedent agreement. When I see on this blog “Shouldn't the author's message trump their style?”, I easily excuse the error because the casual writer is not being paid to ensure proper grammar and usage. Unfortunately, the lack of good editing is more and more the norm these days, and I deplore that situation. My enthusiasm for Ms. Taylor's remarkable story was dampened by the poor writing and editing.


  13. The problem with Dr. Jill Taylor's book is that it doesn't explain anything. That's because she has a Ph.D. from Harvard, which turns an ordinary person with good common sense into an incorrigible, who thinks she knows something about her condition just because she's a “brain scientist.” The only rational explanation for her “nirvana” experience is Kundalini. I don't say her awakening was typical. Without knowing the important symptoms, such as Urdhava-retas (Sanskrit meaning reversal of the reproductive system), it still seems rather obvious that she had a spontaneous Kundalini awakening, which more or less caused the left hemisphere of her brain to “crash,” while simultaneously greatly enhanced the activity of the right hemisphere. This would account for the Nirvana feeling. Dr. Taylor needs to forget Harvard and read about Kundalini, preferably and insights. She needs to read a few books by Gopi Krishna, the man who introducee Kundalini to the West. If she were to take this advice, she might very well transform herself into a genuine world-teacher, which at present she isn't. Rather, she is doing a disservice by speaking out like another Sarah Palin, misinterpreting an experience that could actually be Enlightening. Come on, Dr. Taylor, do it!


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