Your Prose Sings. Too Bad Your Audience is Tone Deaf.

Having been subjected to all the fuss about Stephenie Meyer’s TWILIGHT series, I managed to pick up a copy and read a few paragraphs. Stephen King was right–she can’t write for beans: Her prose doesn’t sing, it mumbles. Clumsy phrasing, line after line of words that weren’t incorrect, but worse—they were wrong. Terrible stuff.

That’s it; I’m done. My slagging on Meyer’s prose is now officially over. This is not a plucking of sour grapes because Meyer’s gotten rich on stuff I wouldn’t read if you paid me. It’s not about her or even the crass commercial (I.E. Trying to Survive) publishers. This is about you. Not everyone who reads this blog is a writer, but some are. Most if not all of you would be horrified to think that someone will read something you’ve written and have the same reaction to your work that I did to Stephenie Meyer’s.

So why do you care? Probably for the same reason Stephenie Meyer likely does, and I’m giving her the benefit of the doubt here, because—outside of a few pranks pulled on PA and the Bulwer Lytton contest–I’ve never heard of anyone who deliberately set out to write badly. The point has been made before of writers like Jacqueline Suzanne and Harold Robbins and a host of others who sold very well but whose prose was generally considered…lacking. It bears repeating: nearly all of these writers were writing about subjects they cared about and doing it to the best of their ability. Even those who made no bones about the fact that they were writing for the money weren’t writing down to their readers or patronizing them, and they connected with a lot of people. Not you or me, perhaps, but a lot. Their interests and emphasis were shared. You can’t plan that. You can try, if you want, but likely you’ll miss. Even Mickey Spillane was sincere in his own way, and sincerity is required. People hate a faker.

So is there a point to this? Perhaps, and if so it’s located where we began: the prose. We work very hard on our prose, most of us. Choosing the right word and not its distant relative. Ordering and re-ordering a paragraph. Cutting, adding, all the nit-picky stuff that brings your work up to your own standards of “good writing,” or at least as good as you can do at your current level of skill…which you’re never happy with, by the way. Never.

But what difference does it really make, in terms of career? Probably not a great deal. As we’ve seen above, there are so many other factors that go into making a successful (at least judged in commercial terms) career that your actual prose style, your skill of matching one word to another may be the very least of them. You have to write well enough to reach your natural audience, if you have one. That’s it. Anything else, in those terms, is just wretched excess and wasted effort. The point has been made, and not first by me, that in essence there are only two types of prose, and they are not “good and bad” but rather “effective and ineffective.” Effective prose does its job, which is reaching its intended audience. Ineffective prose, no matter how well written, does not.

Not that there is no audience for fine prose. Of course there is. We’ve all heard the term “A Writer’s Writer,” and what’s generally meant by that is someone whose work is widely admired in writer circles, but not necessarily widely admired or read outside those circles. Robert Nathan is probably a good example. I’m sure you can think of your own. Fine prose has an audience, but it always has been and probably always will remain a niche readership. Those rare few writers who write well and sell well are selling for reasons other than how well they write. I’m not so cynical as to think good writing interferes with selling, but evidence and common sense both suggest that it’s not the reason books sell. Books sell when they give their readers what they’re looking for. As long as the prose is adequate to the task (effective), it’s good enough so far as they’re concerned.

So why struggle to write better prose if it doesn’t matter? I never said it didn’t matter. The question is: who does it matter to. If you can read that question and respond with anything other than a very emphatic “It matters to me,” then perhaps you need to re-evaluate how you’re spending your writing time.

Just a thought.

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2 thoughts on “Your Prose Sings. Too Bad Your Audience is Tone Deaf.

  1. You’ve made some very good points here. Nothing anyone can do about what is being written or how it is written. All we can do is worry about our own writing.

    As someone who now works in the western genre I see a lot of very mediocre stuff that resonates with the public. I’m talking cliched Saturday morning stuff. Well, I don’t like it and I don’t have to read it, and I don’t. I do, however, think it perpetuates the idea westerns are often generic and cliched and antiquated stories that cannot bring anything new to the table.

    Well, I can’t change that, either, not really. All I can do is write my own stuff and care about how it is written and trust readers will respond in a positive manner.

    I’ve been doing this long enough to realize that much, if nothing else.

  2. That’s the thing about Twilight (and why I get so tired of writers endlessly complaining about it): it wasn’t written for the sake of beautiful prose. It was written to be an exciting YA novel, and it succeeded. It connected with a huge audience. It was what it was, and its readers don’t *care* about the mumbling prose. I like that you’ve recognized that here. So many writers seem to be personally offended by the prose in Twilight, when they weren’t the intended audience and are perfectly free to read something else.

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