What makes prose good or bad?

No book review this week — I’m moving today (wish me luck!).  Instead, I’m writing another “question” post: how do you define “good prose”?

I’ve started to notice some recurring phrases in my book reviews.  I often praise “beautiful prose” and “readable prose” or criticize “clunky prose.”  But what, exactly, does that mean?

To some extent, whether prose is “good” or “bad” is a matter of taste.  Mark Twain famously called Jane Austen’s prose “unreadable”; many others–including me–disagree.  But it’s not entirely subjective, is it?  Most people would agree that Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake contains better prose than EL James’s 50 Shades of Grey.  What makes Lahiri’s writing better than James’s?

I thought about it for a while and came up with three qualities I associate with “good prose.”

1. Readability. How hard do I have to work to understand what the author is saying, and how much do I enjoy the author’s use of language? At the bottom end of that spectrum are books that have multiple spelling and grammar errors on every page.  Fortunately this isn’t usually a problem in professionally edited books (although I have noticed some hiccups on Kindle versions of books.  Let’s get on that, publishing world).  Above that, you have writing that is grammatically correct but hard for the reader to follow.  Sentences have too many clauses, the author over- or under-uses commas, or important facts are buried deep in a really long paragraph.  If I have to read every sentence two or three times and mentally re-order its parts in order to figure out what’s going on, I consider that a weakness.

But readability is not the same thing as “simplicity.”  Some books require me to spend a little more time with each sentence, but I still consider them “readable” because I love the way the author constructs his or her descriptions and dialogue.  Take the opening to Patrick Rothfuss’s In the Name of the Wind:

It was night again.  The Waystone Inn lay in silence, and it was a silence of three parts.  …

The third silence was not an easy thing to notice.  If you listened for an hour, you might begin to feel it in the wooden floor underfoot and in the rough, splintering barrels behind the bar.  It was in the weight of the black stone hearth that held the heat of a long dead fire.  It was in the slow back and forth of a white linen cloth rubbing against the grain of the bar.  And it was in the hands of the man who stood there, polishing a stretch of mahogany that already gleamed in the lamplight.

The man had true-red hair, red as flame.  His eyes were dark and distant, and he moved with the subtle certainty that comes from knowing many things.

The Waystone was his, just as the third silence was his.  This was appropriate, as it was the greatest silence of the three, wrapping the others inside itself.  It was deep and wide as autumn’s ending.  It was heavy as a great river-smooth stone.  It was the patient, cut-flower sound of a man who is waiting to die.

I wouldn’t call this simple prose.  The paragraph about the third silence is almost coy, using descriptions of objects and activities to hint at its meaning.  That last line, about the “patient, cut-flower sound of a man who is waiting to die,” is definitely not simple.  (Imagine trying to translate that into a foreign language.)  But I think this passage is beautiful and haunting and tells us exactly what our protagonist’s outlook on his future is like as the book opens.  Plus, the language has a wonderful rhythm and poetry to it — it’s the kind of thing you almost can’t resist reading out loud.  Simple? No.  Readable?  Oh yes.

This leads us to the next quality I associate with good writing:

2.  Vivid language.  When I criticize prose for being “clunky,” that’s usually shorthand for “the prose is grammatically correct and comprehensible, but not exciting.”  Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code is a good example.  The plot twists and fast-paced action in Brown’s book kept me reading, but when you read his descriptions or dialogue out loud, they sound sort of flat.  Here’s a passage from the opening chapter of The Da Vinci Code:

Robert Langdon awoke slowly.

A telephone was ringing in the darkness – a tinny, unfamiliar ring. He fumbled for the bedside lamp and turned it on. Squinting at his surroundings he saw a plush Renaissance bedroom with Louis XVI furniture, hand-frescoed walls, and a colossal mahogany four-poster bed.

Where the hell am I?

The jacquard bathrobe hanging on his bedpost bore the monogram: HOTEL RITZ PARIS.

Absolutely fine.  Does what it needs to do.  Nothing wrong with it.  But contrast that with this passage from the opening chapter of Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake.

On a sticky August evening two weeks before her due date, Ashima Ganguli stands in the kitchen of a Central Square apartment, combining Rice Krispies and Planters peanuts and chopped red onion in a bowl. She adds salt, lemon juice, thin slices of green chili pepper, wishing there were mustard oil to pour into the mix. Ashima has been consuming this concoction throughout her pregnancy, a humble approximation of the snack sold for pennies on Calcutta sidewalks and on railway platforms throughout India, spilling from newspaper cones. Even now that there is barely space inside her, it is the one thing she craves. … She wipes sweat from her face with the free end of her sari. Her swollen feet ache against speckled gray linoleum. Her pelvis aches from the baby’s weight. She opens a cupboard, the shelves lined with a grimy yellow-and-white-checkered paper she’s been meaning to replace, and reaches for another onion, frowning again as she pulls at its crisp magenta skin.

I don’t know about you, but as I read that passage, I feel like I’m there in that apartment with Ashima.  It’s the tiny details that bring it to life for me — the Planters peanuts, the paper that lines the cabinet shelves, Ashima’s swollen feet.  Ashima and her apartment feel absolutely solid and real.

3.  Distinctive voices for the characters.   In a lot of books, most of the characters end up sounding more or less the same, especially when they’re acting as narrators or POV characters.  A good example of this is Jennifer Weiner’s Certain Girls, which has two narrators: Cannie and her daughter Joy.  I liked the book but I thought that thirteen-year-old Joy’s narration was too similar to her mom’s.  Wouldn’t a thirteen-year-old use different vocabulary, less complex sentence structures, more slang?

So I notice and appreciate it when the author has gone the extra mile in this department and I can tell exactly who’s talking (or thinking) based on what they notice, the vocabulary they employ, or the way they build their sentences.  I also enjoy distinctive character voices in first-person-narrated novels — it makes the narrator seem that much more real and alive if s/he has a clear voice.  One author who does this really well, in my opinion, is Sue Grafton, who writes the Kinsey Millhone “alphabet” mystery series.  Here’s the opening of G is for Gumshoe:

Three things occurred on or about May 5, which is not only Cinco de Mayo in California, but Happy Birthday to me.  Aside from the fact that I turned thirty-three (after what seemed like an interminable twelve months of being thirty-two), the following also came to pass:

  1. The reconstruction of my apartment was completed and I moved back in.
  2. I was hired by a Mrs. Clyde Gersh to bring her mother back from the Mojave desert.
  3. I made one of the top slots on Tyrone Patty’s hit list.

I report these events not necessarily in the order of their importance, but in the order most easily explained.

If I’d never read that book before and you handed it to me with the cover removed, I bet I could still guess that it was a Kinsey Millhone book — based partly on context (the character lives in California and is in her 30s) but mostly from the sassy, matter-of-fact tone.

So how do you define good writing?  What books do you think are especially well-written — or especially poorly-written?

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16 comments on “What makes prose good or bad?

  1. Ooh, such a good post. I love the Kinsey Milhone books too. Other long-running detective series (Quintine Jardine springs to mind) are often guilty of awkwardly shoehorning background information into the prose, whether it’s historical events or police officers’ ranks – it’s my pet peeve when it comes to that genre. The last one I read had a police officer staring out of a window reflecting on the architectural history of a bridge in a way that read like a bad guidebook – WHO THINKS LIKE THAT? Nobody. Drives me up the wall.

    I’ve recently started to read some David Sedaris and I love his prose, I think because his voice is so distinctive. I found it very comfortable to read, in a good way. I also read a memoir not too long ago called I Have Heard You Calling in the Night by Thomas Healy, and it was so simply written; very straightforward, unembellished prose, the kind that is actually very hard to write. Beautiful.

    • I love David Sedaris’s writing too! I will have to check out the Thomas Healy book, it sounds great.

      My pet peeve with long-running mystery series is when every new case involves a beloved “old friend” that we’ve never heard about before, thus requiring the author to retcon the protagonist’s background to include all of these people.

    • Nissim says:

      I am quite confused about what is great prose. There are those who would label that passage from Lahiri’s The Namesake as Purple Prose. I do not share this sentiment but many so called literary experts do. Have you heard the expression “murder your little darlings”? Those who hold the afforementioned prosaic point of view would certainly categorize Lahiri’s passage as very Purple and worthy of murder.

      I am a budding writer and I find that my style tends to be poetic and emotionally evocative. Should I drop this style and asume a more plain and beige style of writing? Here is an example of my prose:

      To be perfectly honest and as one is to expect, my relationship with the idols in my father’s shop had evolved over the years. As a small child they fascinated me not strictly due to their theological connotations but also due to a small child’s propensity to experience awe for such things as a rainbow, the clap of distant thunder or the dew embracing the ground during a crisp early spring morning. A young child often cannot distinguish between the genuine truth and beauty of creation and the lie of that which is made by man’s hand. The ability to marvel at the beauty of creation is an affectation of childhood that is often lost with the onset of intellectual maturity. As I matured I understood more deeply the purpose of these idols and my innocent awe was replaced with a deep and misguided religiosity. A poor man is easy prey to those who are crafty as a fox and are inclined to entice him with fool’s gold. A man denied a woman’s sexual love will succumb to those who do not honour humanity’s soul and instead are merchants of its flesh. Likewise, a man hungry for god is susceptible to the charms of idolatry as is a snake to the enticing melody that seeps freely from the charmer’s flute.

      • Jerry Orsom says:

        To be honest, I stopped reading. It was just far too complicated. I felt like I was on a bus going over speed bumps too quickly. There is a point where you stop writing for a reader and are writing for yourself (fine, if you want to write for yourself but not so good if you’re expecting others to read it).

      • Anonymous says:

        . no distinctive voice. no empathy. Reads like a an essay.

  2. Oh and good luck with the move!

  3. Kerry says:

    Great post!

    When it comes to poor prose, I’m annoyed by the usual suspects: adverbs, an overabundance of one-word adjectives, repetitive use of -ing verbs. I am also very aware of a story’s pace – which as a writer, I have come to realize is SO difficult to create once you’re “in it.”. Bad writing uses five words where one would do, it spends an extra sentence in one conversation when I’ve already gotten what I need from it and my mind has jumped ahead to the next scene.

    I like easy, straightforward prose more than complex writing – but it can’t be any old linear storytelling. If you write simple sentences, they have to be packed with emotion, buzzing with unexplained matter. They must be universal. That is why E.L. James fails at simple writing (plus she makes all of the mistakes I mentioned, above) and why folks like Lahiri, Lamb, and Egan shine. The words on their pages sound so like the words in my very own head that they just wallop me with feeling.

    • Pacing is definitely tricky. I think this is where a good editor comes in handy. “I know you spent a week honing these two paragraphs, but you don’t need them and they drag down the scene. Cut them.”

    • Turhon says:

      I dont understand how people can give advice of such a subjective thing. I mean no disrespect, but really it’s art

  4. Anonymous says:

    I love good prose, but I’ve never sat down to try to define it. I like Daniel Silva books, but don’t really consider them good writing. One of my favorite authors growing up was Lois Lowry, who I think is a master of good prose, of readability, of characters who think and act like normal people. I dislike complicated prose, even if it is good (The Sound and the Fury, Cormac McCarthy).

    Bad prose, to me, is clunky writing, and also inauthentic writing. Writing in a historical fiction novel that includes the phrase “okay” constantly. Writing that gives a lot of boring details and doesn’t know how to give background succintly and effectively.

    Good luck with the move!

    • Lois Lowry is terrific! I may have to re-read some of her books this summer.

      I’m suddenly re-imagining my favorite pioneer stories from childhood, rewritten with frequent uses of “like” and “okay” …

  5. M says:

    “3. Distinctive voices for the characters.”

    I finished reading Gone Girl recently–not my usual choice, but Jezebel picked it for their book club and that intrigued me. This was one of my major complaints: the alternating narrators (husband and wife) sounded too similar. Same speech patterns, phrases. I was disappointed in this book for a number of reasons, but the fact that it was poorly written (subjectively speaking, as you mentioned) was a major factor. Often what separates an okay book from an outstanding one, to me, is the question am I reading this for the plot alone (I want to see what happens, doesn’t really matter how it’s communicated), or because of the whole package?

  6. M says:

    Oh, and I am in complete agreement when it comes to The Da Vinci Code. I couldn’t get beyond the first few chapters, it was so… flat. Felt like I was reading an action movie.

  7. Bri says:

    I think that the question of good prose depends on what the author is trying to accomplish. Like, fer instance, I really enjoy the straightforward and not-too-complex prose of some science fiction (the really pulpy Star Wars novels for instance; and even Bradbury to a minor degree). Then there’s the “I read it because it’s good for me” prose, such as Robert Penn Warren and Flannery O’Connor (and Frank Herbert, in the scifi world!). It is hard working through it but does reap a lot of rewards in the end.

    Where prose falls on its face is when it tries to reach a certain level of expression and then fails. One example here would be Kinsella, trying to be a Helen Fielding or Meg Cabot or any number of witty women writers.

    At the end of the day a good measure for me is “how much do I care?” as I’m going along. If there’s too much unwilling slogging (or unrewarding slogging, as is the case with pedantic literary fiction), then the prose is probably bad.

    Prose, I think, is a much harder thing to put one’s finger on in terms of what is good and bad, compared to other elements such as plot/character/etc.

  8. Dani says:

    My problem with Lahiri’s passage is her tense, I have real issues when authors write in present tense and thus find the passage unreadable. Beautiful prose or not, writing in that tense for a while novel is a surefire way to make me not buy your book. It’s like the author said, “Hey, please hate my book.” All my reply is a gentle throw and torch, well that’s an exaggeration, but I doubt I’m the only person with this issue…

  9. Victor says:

    Oh. I enjoyed reading this article. My supervisor just informed me that I write too much in prose! She was not impressed. And I am sad! How do I begin writing in a way that is not reflective of how I speak? Can you help?

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