Good and Popular—Are We Looking for Two Different Things?

A couple weeks or so ago, I entered a contest conducted by agent Nathan Bransford. Over 1300 of us posted the first paragraph of our novel, and he selected six finalists, then had us vote for a winner. What jumped out at me were remarks he made in the post naming the winner. From the comments we made when voting, he could surmise what it was that we—readers/writers—were looking for, and he realized he was looking for something different:

I think a lot of people read these paragraphs thinking, “Which book would I want to read?” and then gravitate to the ones that begin with intriguing plots, voices or situations that speak to them. Which is fine! Nothing wrong with that at all. But that’s not necessarily how I read these — I don’t need to know everything right away. When I’m reading a paragraph (or a partial), I’m looking mainly at the quality of the writing. Is it of publishable quality? Is it seamless, are the word choices strong, is the grammar proper, am I being enveloped in this world? If the writing isn’t publishable it really doesn’t matter how much I like the underlying idea.

Plots are subjective — people have different tastes and interests. Good writing is less subjective. It’s sometimes hard to describe, pinpoint, and define, but good writing is good writing.
(emphasis mine)

I suspect that Agent Bransford is voicing what those choosing award winning fiction believe. My view is that there’s something seriously wrong with this perspective. Repeating an analogy from nature that I’ve used before, no great debate rages concerning what makes a beautiful sunset. It is self-evident. But apparently beautiful writing isn’t. Or should I say, good fiction isn’t self-evident.

I’m not taking anything away from the award winners. Everyone who has read these books says the prose is masterful, and since I haven’t read them, I’ll happily take the word of those who have.

But when I want to be entertained, I don’t pick up poetry. I pick up a story, and not what I call an angst-driven story, though there undoubtedly is an element of angst in it, given that the stories I like have less of helicopters blowing up and more of characters wrestling to do the right thing.

Which brings me to characters and voice. Is writing really publishable if the story doesn’t open with an engaging character who has a unique voice? For that matter, is the writing publishable if the story premise is convoluted or cliche?

Here’s what I’m thinking. On one hand, you have a story, with all the necessary elements—plot, characters, setting, theme—and on the other hand you have the way the story is communicated, that is, the writing. Can’t you have quality in both arenas? And if so, why wouldn’t such books reach the top of the NY Times Bestselling list and also be nominated for a Pulitzer?

What am I missing?

Published in: on December 18, 2008 at 12:14 pm  Comments (9)  
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