Content Versus Quality

On blogs and list serves there was some discussion recently about the Kirkus piece, “Reader Beware,” in which editor Vicky Smith discussed the decision to not give an unnamed book a star because of copy-editing problems:

After consultation, the reviewer and I agreed that although we both felt the story deserved a starred review, it should not receive one; we felt we had to look at the book as a whole, and the whole included too many grammatical faults to ignore.

Many thought the book in question was The Hunger Games, which I had found an exhilarating read.  Spelling and usage have been problems for me my whole life; I have enormous trouble seeing my own errors (I kiss the ground of those who invented spell and grammar checks:) so rarely notice them in books I read.  That certainly doesn’t mean that it is okay for them to be there, just that they don’t register when I read so they don’t affect my appreciation of a book.

What does bother me is poor writing. Clunky sentences, overdoing the telling rather than showing, trite situations, and repeating lame metaphors or similes are things I do notice. I am taken out of the story when I see too much of it.  And there sure was too much of it for me in the much-admired Little Brother.

I had bought the book and taken it on a long plane ride eager to dive into it.  And then the writing tripped me up.  Again and again.  A character kept “pissing like a racehorse.”  Once, maybe, but more than once?  Some characters seemed to have been created purely to give speeches or to be one-dimensional figures in opposition to the main character. Others were barely developed (notably the main character’s best friend) and seemed to exist purely to advance the plot.  Parents came and went in completely unbelievable ways. The romantic (and sex) scenes made me cringe.

Yet reviewers and readers alike seemed to feel such clunky writing didn’t matter because the message was so important.  Austin Grossman in the New York Times writes:

Doctorow’s characters tend to speak on behalf of the ideas they represent, as when the teenage protagonist stagily debates his Homeland Security interrogator: “I thought I lived in a country where I had rights. You’re talking about defending my freedom by tearing up the Bill of Rights.”

At such moments, “Little Brother” is trying to make speeches, and it would be unfair to judge the writing by other standards, but it does lead to a few awkward shifts in tone. After a disquisition on Inter­net protocols, it’s a little uncomfortable having to hear about Marcus’s first real kiss; it’s like spotting a favorite professor eating lunch.

So I guess I just wonder about this. Is it easier to catch those proofreading errors and to overlook clunky writing?  Is the clunky writing less important?  I don’t have any answers, but am struck by the different reactions to these two otherwise enthusiastically-received books.


Filed under Writing

9 responses to “Content Versus Quality

  1. Lee

    As far as I’m concerned, it’s impossible to separate deep style from content, and clunky writing means clunky sensibility, clunky thinking. Little Brother is one of the weakest novels I’ve read this year.


  2. Monica, I noticed your comment on this over on the listserv and I’ve been mulling it over ever since. I didn’t find the writing in LB clunky, but I have known for years that my reading style (very, very fast) is less sensitive to style than it should be. Oddly, I do notice typos and grammatical errors, but –for the most part– the kind of writing you note does not usually trouble me much. I enjoyed LB because it told a story I hadn’t read before, and I found the central character believable in a kind of earnest highschooler way.

    That said, MIllar’s Lonely Werewolf Girl did trip me up with its clunky writing, over and over again. It was inarticulately bad–not just undigested ideas, as in LB, but grammatical errors, repetition and redundancy, lots and lots of telling instead of showing, etc. I found it nearly unreadable–and yet it was praised all over the place.


  3. Petrichor

    Thank you, thank you, thankyouthankyouthankyou. I have been waiting and waiting for someone to say this! I got three-fourths of the way through LITTLE BROTHER and couldn’t even finish it–the writing bothered me that much. And I almost never leave a book unifnished, even one I don’t like.
    I have been wondering the very same thing about whether reviewers/readers have been willing to sacrifice writing quality for message. I say it does a disservice to the message to broadcast it with bad writing.
    And I loved HUNGER GAMES, copyediting notwithstanding.


  4. hope

    Little Brother– it was like The Da Vinci Code of Lefty Fear Mongering. I’m a Lefty Fear-mongerer and I couldn’t bear it.


  5. I haven’t read either title yet, so I can’t comment on them specifically, but personally, if a plot is compelling, I can get beyond clunky writing and often don’t notice it. I don’t notice grammar errors as much (mainly because my own grammar is pretty bad) but spelling errors will pull me out of a story. All of a sudden, I’m sitting in a chair, looking at print on a page, not traveling along inside someone else’s brain and leading someone else’s life for awhile.


  6. Thank you all for weighing in on this. Nice to know I’m not alone! I have to say I was really beginning to wonder if I was in another universe as far as this book was concerned.

    Libby, I’m also a very fast reader, but I’m also writing more and more myself so that may be why I am sensitive to this sort of thing.

    Hope, I too consider myself a liberal-lefty and was expecting to really like the book based on all I heard. On par with The Da Vinci Code? — harsh (but I admit the thought crossed my mind too:).


  7. hope

    I should be less with the harsh and more with the reasoning. I thought the Doctorow was propaganda. Info-dumps and rousing speeches vs the Homeland Security Strawman (woman). It had an exciting hook though,and even if I was skimming, I did read all the way to the end. I expected that teens would lap it up, and thought that lots of adults would like it, too. I am disappointed by which adults, and by how much, though.

    Libby, I read Lonely WereWolf Girl because it was the only book I brought for a week serving as chaperone at sleep-away camp. I doubt I would have persisted with it, otherwise, but I ended up enjoying it very much. The layering and redundancy in LWWG ultimately worked . . . for me.

    I think Millar’s hallucinogenic wandering was a stylistic choice. I think that much of the slackness in Hunger Games was also stylistic. I think Little Brother has no style at all.

    But how does anyone step outside their own taste in order to “measure” how good a book is?


  8. Mike

    The publisher David Fickling has a lovely phrase to describe good writing: ‘writing that sings at the sentence level’.

    And those writers whose work sings at the level of the sentence, well, they are to be treasured.


  9. donald

    You’re probably right about the language in Little Brother, but I think many readers like myself got caught up in the premise and the story. For good reason. I think this book has such strong appeal because it relates so closely and so directly to what we (kids, teens, and adults) read about and worry about today. And there’s not much out there in children’s and ya lit that’s doing that. Shoot the Moon and Keeping Score are excellent anti-war books out this year, both with eloquent language and effective metaphors, but both are set far in the past, with protagonists who feel the effects second-hand. Picture books like The Librarian of Basra and Silent Music show inspiring stories against the backdrop of the carnage of war, but they’re picture books and the stories are very specific. Myers’ Sunrise over Fallujah takes us right into today’s war, and is full of thought provoking ideas, but compared to Little Brother it feels measured, tame, and sanitized. Little Brother gets at the outrage so many of us feel about post 911 America, without caution and delicacy. Maybe it shouldn’t win any literary awards, but I’m willing to plow through some one dimensional villains and speechified dialogue for a book that takes on the scariness of today’s world. Especially since few other more highly skilled writers seem willing or interested.


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