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:
- The reconstruction of my apartment was completed and I moved back in.
- I was hired by a Mrs. Clyde Gersh to bring her mother back from the Mojave desert.
- 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?