Thursday, March 18, 2010

The Novel as Three-Legged Stool

Elizabeth Zelvin

“The writing is terrible!”
“The characters are cardboard!”
“How does this guy sell so many books?”

How many times have struggling midlist writers and discriminating readers heard, thought, and said some variant of these words? The object of their puzzlement, dismay, and yes, envy is usually an author—Dan Brown and James Patterson being the most notable examples—whose work is not only earning them millions but read with enjoyment by millions of readers. On the one hand, are all these readers swine who don’t know pearls from garbage and prefer the latter? On the other, are champions of expert use of language and rounded characters merely literary snobs? What is going on here?

I recently participated in a panel at the New York Public Library devoted to mystery and thriller writers who use their professional expertise as doctors, lawyers,and psychotherapists as a resource in their work. During the question period, an audience member and the lawyer on the panel agreed that in their opinion, Scott Turow not only presented a more accurate picture of a lawyer’s world than John Grisham, but was a far better writer. The Turow fan’s question: “Why is Grisham so popular?”

I have no opinion on Turow or Grisham. I’ve read only one or two of each of these writers’ books, and they are not my kind of read. But the answer to not only the immediate question but the global question of how bad writing about flat characters so often makes no difference to a book’s success suddenly came to me.

Imagine the novel—any novel, but especially a mystery, thriller, or other genre novel—as a three-legged stool. The three legs that support the work are writing, characterization, and storytelling. The simple secret of why millions of readers love certain books in spite of their flaws is that their authors—Brown and Patterson and Grisham and their ilk—are master storytellers. These writers aren’t emperors whose fans can’t see they have no clothes. Their “clothes” are the gift of telling stories that keep readers turning the pages to find out what happens.

I happen to love character-driven novels. And I’m an old English major who winces at sloppy syntax and stale metaphors. But my theory makes more sense to me when I consider the movies I’ve seen based on Brown’s and Grisham’s novels. First, there’s the “high concept,” a phrase that I believe was coined in the movie business, though publishing has adopted it. Take Grisham’s first bestseller, The Firm. What’s it about? A young lawyer takes his dream job and discovers he’s working for the Mafia. Brilliant—what a story! Second, consider what happens to characters with no depth when the stories are made into movies. In the book of The DaVinci Code, Robert Langdon has no backstory and little personality. But in the movie, he’s Tom Hanks, a character invested with life by the actor’s presence.

How important is good writing? Is it irrelevant? Is the notion of literature itself outdated? Do we need it? I think we do. Let’s consider diamonds, which are far beyond the means of most people. My own two or three pieces of “good” jewelry are cubic zirconia. And Swarovski crystals can be lovely. So why bother with diamonds at all? Even if we can never own one but only admire them in Tiffany’s window, there’s nothing like the genuine fire. Same with a well written book.


Sheila Connolly said...

When I read the DaVinci Code several years ago, I was very aware of the structure of the book--short chapters, usually ending with a breathless hook. And lots of exclamation marks! Sure, the characters were improbable and the action not exactly believable, but I kept reading.

For the record, I think Dan Brown's earlier books were better written--and sold nowhere near as well.

If we knew the secret, we'd all be doing writing bestsellers, right?

Julia Buckley said...

I wouldn't presume to judge the work of the people who sell well--they obviously know something I don't about what sells.

But I think your point is well made. The writing has to be good enough to make us read it; but perhaps not every reader needs poetic, polished prose. Sometimes we just want to be told a good story, even if the story is told in a very simple way--or maybe, for some readers, because of that.

Sandra Parshall said...

THE HELP by Kathryn Stockett is a marvelous example of a character-driven story that is also beautifully written. It has been at the top of the bestseller lists for almost a year now. (And it's being made into a movie.) It's outselling Dan Brown's new book week by week. It contains none of the action we normally associate with big bestsellers, but every wonderful page is filled with true human emotion.

Harvey Chapman said...

I suppose the answer is that life isn't fair. Books with the most literary merit will rarely achieve the sales they deserve because literary merit is not popular. Plot shifts novels, not characterization or fine writing.

It's the same with all art forms, I guess. Blockbuster movies are rarely as fine as movies that struggle to even get released, just as musicians at the top of the charts rarely have the talent to assure them longevity.

It's like Johnny Cash said, "I don't like it but I guess things happen that way."

Paul said...

For good or ill, I have no patience for poor, generally commercial writing. If I'm going to devote hours of my life to it, I want the read to be meaty and challenging, and not something I will forget as soon as I close the book.

I don't think that's snobbish. I think you alluded to the answer in your post. There are all kinds of writers and all kinds of readers. It's false to paint a dichotomy of one versus the other.