30 August, 2006

Style and story

The Language Log is a consistently erudite, witty and thought-provoking blog on the finer points of English usage. Sarah Johnson recently drew my attention to their post on possibly the most famous novel of recent years, Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. Not surprisingly, the Language Log has little good to say of Dan Brown’s prose style.

Now, I come neither to praise Dan Brown nor to defend him. I’m in no position to do either, since I haven’t read The Da Vinci Code. The premise didn’t appeal to me, as I read The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail 20 years ago and was much more taken by the Merovingian kings and the mysterious murder of Dagobert II than by the Mary-Magdalene-and-Jesus-had-a-baby conspiracy theory. (Surely Dogbert, self-anointed saint plotting to take over the world, must be the secret descendant of Dagobert II? I think we should be told.) So I wasn’t attracted by a warmed-over version of the Mary Magdalene theory, and a flick through the first chapter of The Da Vinci Code at a station bookstall didn’t convince me otherwise.

Assuming that first chapter is a representative sample of the novel, I’m inclined to agree with the opinion of the Language Log on the prose style (though I personally would cut the author a little more slack in cases such as a single man falling in a heap or a voice speaking). So this raises an interesting question: what did the many readers and buyers of The Da Vinci Code like about the book, if not a scintillating prose style? My guess is that the main attraction would be that elusive quality called ‘story’. I gather the novel has a lot of plot, as thrillers usually do. Perhaps also the excitement of the occult and exotic. Perhaps the lure of the conspiracy theory - it is so comforting to imagine that somebody is running the world for A Purpose, even if it is a sinister secret society. Perhaps the vague idea that one is learning some, ahem, factual information about history and culture. Perhaps the warm glow of righteous indignation if one’s sensibilities - religious, literary or historical - have been offended. Perhaps none of the above. But evidently the novel must have something going for it beyond style.

Which led me to consider what I look for in a novel. Sure, I admire elegant prose. But looking over my favourite novels, the ones I read and reread, they all have more to them than style. Terry Pratchett’s facility with language is a delight, but even a simile like, “Lightning stabbed at the earth erratically, like an inefficient assassin,” isn’t going to make me buy 25 novels all by itself. “Last night I dreamed I went to Manderley again,” sends shivers down my spine every time, but Rebecca earned its place for its suspenseful story - are they going to get away (literally) with murder? Should they get away with it? - and for its unnamed narrator. The mysteries of Dorothy L. Sayers are there for their clever and satisfying plots and the irresistible Lord Peter Wimsey. The Candlemas Road because it made sense of the Border reivers for me. PG Wodehouse’s Blandings and Jeeves stories for their joie de vivre - was there ever anything closer to printed sunshine? - and the intricacy of their farcical plots. And so on. All the books I really like have some element of story, character or setting that draws me to them. Many of them have style as well. But books that have only style seem to find their way to the charity shop.

What about you? How important is style to you? What lifts a book onto your favourites list?

25 comments:

Bernita said...

Again, you seem to have summed up my personal reactions exactly, whether it's "Holy Blood, Holy Grail," or Lord Peter.
To me it is the story and the characters first.
In fact, I may only notice "style" if it's clunky, and will often forgive that if the story or the characters are strong and vivid...much like messy frosting on good cake.

Alianore said...

I have to say that I enjoyed The Da Vinci Code - the writing is sometimes wince-inducing and the characterisation is minimal, but I did get caught up in the story.

My first priority in a novel is characters I care about, and a good story (I know that's very vague!) - and style is much lower down my list. I can forgive a novel with a 'clunky' style, but a novel that's all style and no substance will probably remain forever unfinished.

Carla said...

Bernita - that's a good analogy, frosting on cake. I'm not a great one for icing myself.

Alianore - defining a good story seems to be as slippery as defining life, doesn't it? I find I have to read a book through before I can tell whether it has a decent story or not, as there's always the hope that the characters might develop or that a plot twist that I thought was daft or cliched might acquire a new significance in the light of later events. But if it turns out to be all style the author's other books will probably go unread.

Susan Higginbotham said...

It's character for me first too, and with historical fiction, at least, the interest of the historical events themselves.

To me "style" overlaps with "voice," and a unique one can be either utterly captivating, like that of Jane Austen, or irritating, reeking of too many years spent in creative writing classes. So a style I love will keep me reading, a style I hate will make me stop reading, and a nondescript style won't bother me if the characters and story are sufficiently interesting.

Susan Higginbotham said...

By the way, Carla, I think you may be on to something with this Dogbert idea.

Carla said...

Susan - yes, a truly repellent style is one of the few things that will make me give up on a book before finishing it. It tends to be the pretentious look-at-me-aren't-I-clever styles that turn me off, whereas a 'clumsy' style is no big deal either way provided it's intelligible and a nondescript style quickly becomes transparent. What's the difference between style and voice? I've never really figured it out.

Re Dogbert - Sssssh! Oh, dear, am I now facing a terrible fate for having stumbled upon the Secret? [Exit, pursued by a mad albino consultant]

Elizabeth Chadwick said...

Carla, like you I didn't finish DVC because I'd read The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail years before and found it so much more interesting. I knew what was coming next every step of the way in DVC and the writing was so bad that I couldn't be bothered to read on to a conclusion I already knew.
My keeper books are all thumping good stories very well told - in my opinion of course. Unlike Susan for e.g. I can't abide Jane Austen. For me, reading one of her books is like being in a small room with a maniacally twittering sparrow. Help, get me out of here! I love the use of rich language in novels and inovative use of language such as explored by Dorothy Dunnett who creates such amazing word pictures. I love intricate plots - as long as they're not too intricate for me to know what's going on. I enjoy surprises and being kept on the edge of my seat. The characters have to be well drawn and their motivations plausible. I have just wall banged The Fool's Tale by Nicole Galland (set in 12thC Wales) because the happenings in the novel made it impossible for me to suspend my disbelief no matter that the writing style itself was accomplished. However, I can do implausible in some circumstances. The events and characters in Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum novels would never happen in a million years, but I love them because they make me laugh out loud and the author expects the reader to enter into a pact with her and suspend his/her disbelief for the joyride. I love Ruth Beebee Hill's Hanta Yo for its delicate, profound, poignant exploration of the vanished world of the Lakotah Sioux. Bottom line. Keepers are books that drag me into their river and make me care. Non-keepers are the books that leave me standing impassive on the bank...or in Jane Austen's case me me stick my fingers in my ears!

Carla said...

Elizabeth - must agree to disagree regarding Jane Austen, as I like her novels very much. Some of the characters are twittery, for sure, but I love the author's dry irony.

Interesting how 'plausibility' can vary, isn't it? Most crime capers are absurd if you analyse them (the film The Italian Job leaps to mind) but somehow they carry you along and plausibility doesn't matter. Wodehouse is the same - Bertie Wooster's world never existed (except perhaps in John Major's imagination) but it doesn't matter, it's real on the page. Ditto with Harry Potter and Tolkien and Pratchett and James Bond. Maybe this is something to do with whatever it is that makes a good story, a sort of spark of life that makes the story world 'real' in its own terms.

Rick said...

I've seen a suggestion that the outsize success of Da Vinci Code is due mainly to the conspiracy theory, or at least the stuff that is alleged to be true. (My wife caught Dan Brown in a technical howler - a character slips a key behind the canvas of a painting, but the painting isn't on canvas.)

To the main point, I think character comes first for me, and then story. But in hist-fic, as in SF/F, the setting interacts with character - e.g., the human characters shouldn't come off as time travelers with contemporary attitudes.

Style for its own sake is too much frosting, but good style contributes to mood.

Carla said...

"the human characters shouldn't come off as time travelers with contemporary attitudes." Couldn't agree more, Rick. I think this is one of the hardest things to get right, not least because past values can be unpalatable or incomprehensible to modern readers. E.g. we are so used to ideas of equality that the central importance of rank in medieval society is unattractive (leading to heroes like Harry Talvace in The Heaven Tree, who has very modern ideas about the rights of villeins that get him into all sorts of trouble). At least Edith Pargeter made Harry's ideas a conflict with his society, which kept the book out of anachronism. When attitudes like that are just dropped in as normal, though, it gets on my nerves far more than more immediately obvious anachronisms such as potatoes in medieval Britain.

Gabriele C. said...

Style can be a determining factor for me. Terry Goodkind's Wizard's First Rule ended up against the wall firstly because of the clumsy, repetitive style and second, because I didn' care about the characters. Maybe the style even got into the way of making me care about the characters, albeit he lost me for good with that boring torture scene. Hey, I like torture scenes, usually. Plot? I couldn't find one. ;)

One of the main factors why I love the books by Thomas Mann is his style, though his characters, up to the minor ones, are very well drawn, too. Though his books seldom have much of a plot, lol. I like Tolkien's style despite the fact he breaks about all those stupid 'rules' there are. But I like his world as well.

I sometimes read books for character, plot and world even though I don't care about the style, but those other components better be very good to make up for clumsy writing. Dan Brown isn't on that list - I read his book because it was so bad it made me giggle all the way through it. The same reason why I read some Scottish romances while in Edinburgh (and deprived of other books until I found some Tranters in my landlady's shelves).

Carla said...

Now I'm going to have to read that book just to find out how it's possible to write a boring torture scene.

Gabriele C. said...

For one, it's way too long. Even a perv like me doesn't want to read some 100+ pages of uninterrupted torture. My own scenes rank from a few paragraphs (Ciaran's flogging) to 2600 words (Roderic's torture in the dungeon of the Abodrite king), and the good ones I've read are in the same span - sometimes several shorter scenes separated by other narrative strands like Scott Oden does with Barcas' torture by that Aegyptian priest with the long name. :)

Rick said...

Harry Talvace in The Heaven Tree, who has very modern ideas about the rights of villeins that get him into all sorts of trouble)

I use a degree of noblesse oblige to get around this kind of problem - someone could treat the, uh, lower orders decently without for a moment doubting the rightness of rank.

And one character detests galley slavery for a purely pragmatic reason - he wants rowers who can rise from the benches to join in a hand-to-hand fight.

(To anticipate a question, galley slavery only became the norm in the 16th century, due to the price revolution - free oarsmen were just too expensive. The Venetians held out longest. Also, due to the introduction of guns, galleys became larger and heavier, more cumbersome to row, but able to carry more deck troops as well.)

Tolkien's style works because it fits his world, and draws the reader into it. I've adopted a slightly ornate style to try and capture a bit of Tudor cadence and flavor.

Carla said...

Gabriele - 100 pages! Say no more.

Rick - I use noblesse oblige the same way too. What struck me about Harry Talvace is that he actually believes that villeins should have the same rights as he has, which is the same as the modern idea, though, as I said, it works because he is shown throughout the novel as being out of step with the times.

Wasn't there a Roman writer who disapproved of slavery on similar pragmatic grounds, on the basis that free men worked harder and did better work? I can't remember where I saw that.

That raises another interesting question - why did the price of free oarsmen go up at that time?

Bernita said...

There's a reverse question to all this.
What if a time-travelled character doesn't get all upset about human rights, servants and social inequalities, but accepts them as in Rome?
Does this smack of reverse anachronism?
Would it bother the reader?

Carla said...

Interesting question, Bernita. Just to be clear, you mean a modern person who has time-travelled back into some past era and accepts that the mores and conventions of that era are different? I think most of the problems over anachronistic attitudes don't apply to a genuine time-traveller, as the central character has a perfectly good reason to have modern attitudes. Specifically, it wouldn't bother me that the time-traveller accepted the past conventions once (s)he had figured out what they were - that's like a modern tourist visiting a country with different conventions and accepting them. It would bother me more if the visitor started preaching to the people in the past era that their class system was vile or that slavery was immoral, or whatever, although that's still quite credible for a certain type of character, just unbelievably rude and liable to get the time-traveller into trouble with the locals. It wouldn't bother me if (s)he mentally commented on such things, though - it's natural to compare an unfamiliar social system with one's own - and that might be a way of not offending readers with modern sensibilities. It would bother me if the visitor magically knew what the past conventions were without having been told or without having some plausible prior experience or knowledge (e.g a knowledge of history). I'd expect someone dropped into an unfamiliar culture to have to feel their way and/or to make some social gaffes before they learned how to fit in. Is that any help? What does everyone else think?

Bernita said...

Thank you, Carla.
Yes, it does.

Rick said...

The cost of free oarsmen went up as part of the general inflation of the 16th century. Why the inflation itself happened is uncertain - I seem to recall that it is no longer thought to be due simply to silver coming in from the New World.

I don't specifically remember a Roman criticizing slavery as inefficient, but I wouldn't be surprised. It probably wasn't Cato the Elder, though - his recommendations for handling slaves were fairly grim; I believe he called them "speaking tools."

As to how modern time travelers would react to past customs, I'd be puzzled if they didn't have modern attitudes - but that doesn't necessarily mean zeal to reform society. After all, their first concern will probably be survival, meaning adapting to their surroundings.

Once they do adapt, they may find themselves with other concerns (like finding and supporting allies) that are more immediate than trying to change the world.

There is an unspoken convention that time travelers almost always have some basic knowledge of the era and society they're thrown into. Partly because it helps if the character can at least puzzle out Latin or Old English or whatever, and partly because it makes the character's reactions more interesting.

If your time traveler knows nothing about the era, they can't have many interesting insights, or even encounter interesting surprises.

Carla said...

Isn't Cato the Elder the one who advised selling slaves when they fell sick? He sounds a thoroughly unpleasant man.

I haven't read much time travel - Bernita's is one of the few that has caught my interest since HG Wells - so I'm sure you're right.

Gabriele C. said...

I won't mind having a slave who cleans my flat and irons my blouses. Preferably a hunky German. :)

Bernita said...

Seems to me survival would indeed be the main and absorbing interest, Rick.

Carla, thank you. That is high praise.

Beth said...

Carla, I think you know exactly what "story" is, because Ingeld's Daughter is a hell of a story.

I like Joseph Campbell's work on story. The Hero's Journey doesn't apply to all kinds of story, but it applies to a lot of what you're talking about here - fantasy, historical, crime.

Carla said...

Gabriele - men call that a wife :-)

Beth - high praise, thank you. I couldn't begin to come up with a specific definition of 'story', though.

Rick said...

Yeah, I think that was Cato the Elder - not a very nice guy at all.