Story Vs. Language

Sugar Pie Recipe from

Hope everyone had a great Christmas, if you celebrated it.  The highlight of ours was the food – along with all kind of roasted things (turkey, potatoes, carrots), we had a Quebecois theme going, with homemade doughnuts (beignes) for brunch, “sugar pie” for dessert at dinner, and poutine for lunch the next day. I’d never had sugar pie before, and it was really interesting—it tastes a lot like it sounds. It’s made with brown sugar, has a grainy texture, and reminded me a bit of maple fudge. Amandine got a cool red retro-style Radio Flyer tricycle, and had a great time popping wheelies in our little living room, which is gradually recovering from its encounter with that tube of purple lipstick.

The book is coming along. My heroine has gotten her heart thoroughly mashed and has set out on a quest to find Truth (with a capital T), God, the meaning of life, and a boyfriend. Man, but it’s been a traumatic couple of weeks on the writing front. Every time I sit down to write, I become a faucet—the tears start jetting out and spraying everything in sight, which is embarrassing when I’m writing in a public place, like my favorite local neighborhood coffee shop for example.

On the subject of literary craftsmanship, I’m starting to think I’m one of those writers for whom the story and content is primary and language is secondary. That’s not to say I think it’s okay to be sloppy in your use of language. It’s just that for me, the main focus is on having a story and characters that are engaging, and the job of the language I use is to let the reader envision the events and people in the book as clearly as possible. I don’t mind interesting metaphors and striking, original word choices if those are helpful in getting the job done, but I don’t go out of my way to put them in. Mostly I just cross my fingers and hope they will appear along the way as incidental, serendipitous byproducts of  my attempts at clarity.

There are people out there who would probably say this is not a very literary attitude to take, although writing of the literary variety is what I’m trying to do.  The story-before-language principle is more closely associated with genre fiction. I guess the problem for genre writing is that it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that if the story comes first, then it is okay if the language is sloppy, and so you do in fact get a lot of sloppy, bad writing. Maybe I’m too idealistic, but I think clear writing is never sloppy or bad; in order to be clear, there can’t be any elements in it that distract the reader from the message, such as awkward syntax, bothersome cliches, or too many adjectives and adverbs piled on top of each other (a crime of which I’m frequently guilty—not to mention all those wretched qualifiers). In any case, I’m no book snob, and I think good, clear writing can be found in all genres.

The other day I read the submission guidelines of an online literary magazine that said the editors cared more about the language than the story. They wanted the striking diction and fancy metaphors, and the plot could pretty much go to hell as far as they were concerned. I think that is such a big mistake. I read more literary fiction than anything else, and while I don’t see this problem with my favorite classic authors like Dostoyevsky and Thomas Mann, I’m constantly getting frustrated with more contemporary authors who get praised to the skies for their nifty language but have boring, boring plots or characters I couldn’t care less about, or more usually both.

Take Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, for example. The writing is full of technical bravura. Unforgettable imagery, awesome similes (speaking of writing about sex, who could forget the depiction of a couple of married chefs, Denise and her husband, doing the deed as though they were making a souffle, or Gary and his wife as, ha ha, “the screwing wounded”?). There’s no denying that Franzen’s language is masterful and poetic. But the plot? The characters? Meh.

Franzen tries. He clearly does. We are supposed to care about Alfred because he throws himself off a boat, and Franzen does at least have the courtesy to send Chip to Lithuania to witness the downfall of a country. And there are some nice insights into the nature of seduction and dominance-submission patterns from Denise’s relationship with Robin. By the end, I did kinda sorta care a little about what happened to everybody, but it was by no means a page turner, and the only way I was able to finish the book at all was through sheer force of will. I was determined to finish it only because everybody said it was so good, or I would happily have abandoned it halfway through. But on the whole, I thought a lot of the scenes didn’t add much or move the story along, and should have been cut—maybe a fourth of the book could and should have been excised. The characters started out deeply repugnant, and by the end managed to become only endurable. The story just wasn’t engaging, I think at least in part because it played second fiddle to Franzen’s clever use of language, resulting in a sadly trivial book for all its magnificence at the level of the words.

So, yeah, that’s the kind of book I don’t want to write, even if writing it would make me rich and famous. Although, in Franzen’s defense, it’s better to have tried and not pulled it off than not to have tried at all, and I respect his intellectual ambitiousness. And goodness knows, she who is without literary sins among us should be the first to cast stones, not me, the one with the half-finished novel that’s turning into one big annoying cry-a-thon. Sigh.

5 thoughts on “Story Vs. Language

  1. Sounds like your heroine is having a hard time of it, though it will make for an interesting story.
    I have to agree with you in that I think the story will should come first. It doesn’t matter how beautifully written something is if it is boring me. Of course, if it is so poorly written it no longer makes sense that is also a problem.
    Wishing you luck with your writing and best of luck in the new year.

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