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Do Readers Really Care About Craft?

Over at Pub Rants, Agent Kristin posed this dilemma. In Why 50 Shades of Grey Makes Agent Lives Harder, she writes:

We agents go to conferences and really drive home the fact that writers need to master their craft. Wow us with masterfully written opening pages. Stop butchering the English language.

Then a work comes along and blows that advice out of the water.

Readers have called 50 Shades of Grey any number of things: campy, fun, spirited, hilarious, worth the money, a fast read.

But well written has not been one of them.

So what do we say when a novel inexplicably becomes wildly popular, sells like crazy, and part of the cultural lexicon?

I suppose this could simply be evidence that there IS no formula to publishing success. At least, I hope so.

The other option — the one which suggests that readers will sacrifice craft for a “campy, fun, spirited, hilarious, worth the money, fast read” — is the one I kinda dread.

Especially after working so damned hard to hone my craft.

Maybe that’s my problem, thinking that craft actually matters that much. You see, I’m one of those odd folks who’s a sucker for style. A well-written book will keep me reading far longer into a slow story than will a poorly-written book keep me reading into a decent story.

Apparently, I am in the reading minority.

So are readers looking for books that are well-crafted and polished, or books that get to the point and read quickly? Are readers looking for books that have depth (expansive storyworld,  dense characters and complicated plot) and style (beautiful prose, grammatical grace, literary complexity), or books that are simple (“campy, fun, spirited, hilarious, worth the money, a fast read,” modest characters, uncluttered plot, and broadly accessible)?

Maybe it’s all of the above.

Then again, maybe my problem is that for all these years I listened to the “experts” who are, just now, admitting that they might have been wrong…

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{ 19 comments… add one }
  • Kessie May 11, 2012, 8:55 AM

    There’s also the porn angle, if I’ve read correctly about 50 shades. Nobody cares how badly written the porn is as long as it’s titillating. Not to mention it’s a Twilight fanfic with the names changed. No wonder the publishing industry is wringing its hands.

    I like a decent style, but mostly I just want the story. Too much poetry in the prose makes me think, “Wow, what gorgeous writing!” It’s made me notice the writing rather than the story. My Antonia has gorgeous writing. Cry the Beloved Country has gorgeous writing. But are they worth reading? They’re actually somewhat depressing, in my opinion. That’s what I remember about them. That they made me sad. Not the clever word usage. I’ll probably never read either of them again for that reason.

    At the other extreme, you have books like the Maximum Ride books, which were fast and fun, but I kept wondering if Patterson even bothered with editors anymore. It was so deep in Max’s voice that things like Basic Logic were ignored. (And how did those wings fit into their jackets, anyway?)

    I don’t know. I want a fun read, but I want the writing to be invisible. Don’t wow me with your awesome style. Tell me a story that makes me forget that I’m reading.

    • R. L. Copple May 11, 2012, 10:09 AM

      I’m with you, Kessie. I want the writing to be invisible. That means few, if any, typos and egregious grammatical errors, but not weird, flowery, forced prose. Don’t care for an author showing of obscure words they’ve learned that leave me wondering what they meant. What I want is a good story and characters. And I think the stronger story and characters you have, the more readers are willing to put up with in lack of prose and other “craft” issues.

      Then there are those that like a story not so much for the plot or what it is about, as much as the feel of it all. I’ve never personally gotten into that. I find a lot of that boring unless it does have a compelling story with it.

      But I think no matter the rules, you’re always going to have books like Dan Brown’s that take off not because of lack of plot holes, or great writing, or other craft issues, but they got the one thing right that needs to be right, and that is an engaging story that draws you in. If you can do that consistently, the rest is gravy for most people.

      But, obviously, the better deal is to have all of those, and that’s when you get a classic. When a story fires on all cylinders. And isn’t that what we really want to stretch and reach for as writers? Not merely to make a living or some extra money at it, not merely to hit the bestsellers list, but for something we write to go down in history as a classic. And you won’t get that with poor writing.

  • Ike L. Obidike May 11, 2012, 8:57 AM

    Firstly, people want to read an intriguing story, well written or not but without grammatical errors. If the writing is brilliant, you might be holding a bestseller. With neither an intriguing story nor exceptional writing, it’s very difficult to hit the bestseller mark.

  • Bobby May 11, 2012, 8:58 AM

    It’s one of those things, Mike: Sad but true. I think majority opinion is that Harry Potter was written (reasonably?) well, but Twilight, the other literary phenomenon? Haven’t seen too much praise for Stephanie Meyer’s prose. Hunger Games was competent, but I wouldn’t say masterful.

    I think viral smash hits like Potter, Twilight, Hunger Games, even Shades of Grey are just freaks of nature that take off due more to the whims of society than anything else. They might be well-written, well-thought works and they might not be. No author, agent fan or publisher can tell.

    But your goal Mike, to write well-crafted work, is the way toward a career, ala Stephen King. King hasn’t had (to my knowledge) a viral smash hit but a slow, steady, built-over-many-many-years collection of strong novels that, I’d argue, amount to more than one solitary, hard-to-pin-down novel that explodes in popularity.

    Maybe we hope for a smash hit, but spend the writing hours working toward a strong, successful career.

  • Josh May 11, 2012, 9:08 AM

    To be honest, I used to not care about how well a novel was written and was able to enjoy almost anything (about a subject that I liked), however, that all changed when I started reading “classics” [I put that in italics as not to confuse 18th-19th century literature with the classical writers such as Virgil]. I was unemployed one year and wasn’t able to buy books so I decided to read Oliver Twist. After reading Dickens and others similar, I couldn’t enjoy poor writing any more, in fact, it put me off several books I own that I had previously enjoyed.

    • Heather Day Gilbert May 12, 2012, 5:35 PM

      I’m with you there, Josh. I definitely imbibe classics, but I’m afraid it’s made me somewhat of a literary “elitist.” Classics don’t translate well into the easy prose today’s readers want. I’ll admit that I did enjoy Stephenie Meyer’s books, if only because they were a compelling, solid read, with a swift-moving plot. Same for The Hunger Games. But I long for books that make me race to find a pen, so I can underline key poetic phrases (like The Great Gatsby) and commit them to memory. Those books are few and far-between these days.

  • Jill May 11, 2012, 9:27 AM

    I don’t read for oblivion. I don’t need to forget that I’m reading. I’d take style over story any day, and the stories with the style are the ones I will read over and over. The plot-driven books leave me nothing to come back to on a second or a third read. Once I know the plot, I don’t care.

    But I never know exactly what the catch-word “craft” means. Does it mean ridding novels of narrative intrusion? I hope not. I like narrative intrusion. What about head-hopping? I like head-hopping. What does craft mean? Does it mean following fads, or knowing how to construct a complete sentence? I don’t have a clue. I hate the way “craft” is tossed around because it’s so ambiguous, as slippery as language. When I write and when I read, I just want the words to flow smoothly without awkward jumbles, even if I don’t understand their meaning at first glance.

    • Ike L. Obidike May 11, 2012, 10:05 AM

      Let me try to give my little understanding of CRAFT.

      Craft relates to the way the story is told. It delves into all the techniques of writing – POV, style (another abstract word), authenticity of facts, naming, etc. A well crafted book would have done justice to most, if not all the known ‘laws’ of writing.

      One thing the ‘masters’ have done is to master this and as they chunk out book after book, people start talking about ‘formula.’ Their formula is that they’ve mastered their ‘craft’ – the way to tell their stories effortlessly.

      I stand corrected.

    • Kevin Lucia May 11, 2012, 10:24 AM

      “The plot-driven books leave me nothing to come back to on a second or a third read. Once I know the plot, I don’t care.”

      I have to say, as I grow older, I feel much the same, as a reader. These books I teach every year I’ve read over and over again, but the language and style is masterful, and there’s something new – apart from the story – for me to appreciate year after year.

      “What does craft mean?”
      I have to confess, a few years ago, I complained loudly about this, when I’m not sure I knew what I was talking about. Because one artists craft/style – say, take Hemingway – is completely different than Bradbury. However, that’s just the language. As Ike pointed out, craft relates to story formula, also. Koontz gets slammed a lot these days because his plots can be a bit formulaic (which doesn’t stop me from reading him), but it works so WELL for him. He’s mastered his craft.

      “When I write and when I read, I just want the words to flow smoothly without awkward jumbles”

      That’s where I am as a writer. I figure any elevation of my own “craft” won’t come from me consciously TRYING things on paper, but from the reading I’ve been consuming. My goal as a writer, when it comes to language, is simply to “not suck”.

      “…even if I don’t understand their meaning at first glance.”

      YES. And this, I find, is also coming with my age, after all the reading I’ve done. When younger, I would’ve skipped right over something I didn’t get. Now, not only do I read it again, I take pleasure in doing so.

      In sum, Mike: you’re right. General readers care nothing about craft. Which, IMHO, does NOTHING to lessen it’s importance: it matters how important it is to YOU. Norman Partridge said it perfect in a recent blog: “There shouldn’t be a conflict about ‘art vs. business’. Art is your deal. As long as the writing is on your desk/computer, your concerned with it being Art. When its in the publisher’s hands, then it becomes a business. And, please, let’s not branch out into self-publishing again…;)

    • Liliy May 11, 2012, 8:37 PM

      *high fives* Sorry. You just made me happy. I love narrators & head-hopping. 3rd Person Omniscient is my favorite POV & I’m getting tired of people saying it’s a sign of an amateur.

  • Alan O May 11, 2012, 10:54 AM

    “Apparently, I am in the reading minority.” Yes, you are. A person would only have to read this blog, or your first novel, for about 10 minutes to learn that Mike Duran enjoys grappling with complex ideas… in depth, with style, and unabashed honesty. It’s part of the personality your were wired with, and shows in your reading preferences, your blog comments, and your fiction.

    And, depending on how you measure it, you share that those tendencies with maybe a third of the population. Those who are wired to contemplate, analyze, and savor the beauty of language, tend to look for novels that challenge their thinking, engage their intellect, and showcase the best that “craft” has to offer.

    But somewhere around 2/3rds of the reading public have a different agenda. They’re looking for that “fun, fast read.” They’re not out to anaylze every character motive, and agonize over every authorial faux pas (“Whoa…was that a slight POV shift I just detected!?”). They’re geared toward The Experience…not detail. And they have the numbers to create Bestsellers.

    Equally valid approaches…but when the two sides try to communicate, it can be like Close Encounters with an alien species. Go to Amazon and look at the *language* used in praising or panning novels. One reviewer loved it because it was “deep”…the next reviewer hates it because it was “over my head.” One reviewer loves it because of the “breathless pace”…another hates the same book because it “read slightly above Dick & Jane level.”

    Of course, there aren’t just two camps… we all fall somewhere along this sliding scale, with preferences leaning more towards one side or another. A few people only read dense, highly complex literature, while some only read mass-market commercial, but most have a *range* of preferred complexity, within which they are comfortable reading.

    I will never forget the day one of your commenters wrote (at the end of a long and spirited discussion string): “Why do we have to analyze everything to death?” Most of your readers (or at least, most of your commenters) enjoy the mental exercise.

  • Liliy May 11, 2012, 8:34 PM

    I think craft will always take second place to story and/or what the reader wants to see in the book. Good writing is more like the supplement that makes you pick one book about Subject-of-Choice, over second book about Subject-Of-Choice. But if Second book throws in another twist that puts it above the first, you might choose it even if the writing is “worse.”

    Why do you think people read so much fanfiction? Is it for the masterful writing? No. That varies from “Can barely string together two sentences” (which to be fair most people don’t read) all the way to “This could be a best selling author” level. Most fall somewhere in between. Not amazing, but not bad either. You don’t care because it’s the subject you want to read about & you can enjoy it.

    I think this basically applies to all fiction writing–I don’t really look for books based on authors or what style it’s in–I read summaries until I find a subject I want to read about.

    For example, I ADORED Pressure by Jeff Brand. Read it in two hours & literally could not put it down. Why? Was it the writing? Psh. No. He wrote a book about a serial killer wanting to be best friends with a normal dude. He wrote a serial killer bromance. It could have been written at a garde-school level and I’d probably still have loved it. (I’d go on about it, but I already put it all in a review: http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/319375223 ) Don’t get me wrong, in this example the writing was pretty great, too–but that wasn’t what was making my face split in a grin. It was the characters and what they were doing & saying. (Believe it or not –you can win someone over with dialogue alone if it’s good enough. XD)

    I guess the point is–if it’s legible & you can understand what the sentences say, chances are someone will read it & enjoy it just fine if the subject’s right & they like the characters. Not always (and not for everyone), as the above comments mention, but for the majority–I don’t think most people care all that much.

    I think it’s nice for variety. You can read what you want be it a masterpiece of literature, or whatever level it’s at. All that matters is people like it and are reading. If you want to hone your craft to perfection? Go for it. If you just want to tell a story and see if people like it? Do that too. Readers will read what they want.

    On a tangent related to craft–Am I the only one getting really sick of Deep POV & 1st Person in all these recent books coming out? I swear. I’ll still read it & if the topic is good enough, still love it (Read: Pressure in 1st Person), but it’d be really nice to see more of…anything else. o_o

    • Kevin Lucia May 12, 2012, 2:33 AM

      “Pressure” was excellent. One of my favorite reads, by him.

    • Jill May 12, 2012, 1:48 PM

      3rd person deep POV gets really old. I wrote a spoof of it here: In the Dollhouse of Modern Fiction.

      • Liliy May 12, 2012, 2:46 PM

        It’s kind of boring. Especially if I could care less about the person who’s head we’re in. o_O;; At least in 3rd I can care about say…someone else. Like a bad guy, or a relation, or…the random guy. And link! *reads*

  • Scathe meic Beorh May 12, 2012, 7:43 AM

    Whether they do or not, I will write my very best for my Lord, because every word tht I write is recorded in Eternity.

  • Jason Brown May 12, 2012, 12:05 PM

    I’d guess option C- today’s lack of common sense. I find it sad that something so elementarily simple like Twilight can actually change a young generation’s view of how the supernatural should operate (let alone what to look for in potential “mates”). Personally, I prefer very deep, complex plots and multi-layered characters (better when they have to deal with one-dimensional characters) and, as that one term goes, a “genre-bender”. But, as mentioned before, if Fifty Shades of Grey does have a graphic porno angle to it, I won’t read it.

  • Bob Avey May 12, 2012, 2:50 PM

    Craft does matter. The reader might not be aware that it matters to them, but they will know that something about the book isn’t working.

  • Gypsy May 16, 2012, 4:47 PM

    Steak and dessert. I eat (and love) both. I enjoy a page-turner and can put up with some less-than-exquisite writing if the story is gripping. I view it as the equivalent of watching TV or eating a sweet. Not very nourishing but very enjoyable. Everything in moderation. (There is a point where the writing is so egregious that I can’t bear it, though. Stephanie Meyer and Dan Brown come to mind.)

    My favorite books, though, my touchstones, are always well-written (regardless of whatever POV or “showing vs. telling” ratio is popular at the moment.)

    From a writer’s perspective, I don’t know if there’s any point in wringing our hands over any of it. Mike, my guess is that even if all the experts told you that craft DIDN’T matter, you still wouldn’t put out a crappily-written book. Some people have a gift for telling commercial stories. It’s a different skill than writing well. Some readers value that ability more, some less. We all have different gifts and we all write what we can. Readers like all sorts of different things and read for all sorts of different reasons.

    Dessert will probably always sell better. I’m glad I don’t have to make a living as a writer, because I’d rather serve up some steaks.

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