Friday, May 23, 2008

My reading preferences

Around the time The Da Vinci Code came out, people kept telling me, "The writing isn't very good, but it's got a great plot!" That is not an effective selling point for someone like me. It's like saying, "The singer has a bad voice, and the instruments are out of tune, but the song is catchy as hell!" I'd rather read a book with vibrant prose and a boring plot than the other way around.

I don't claim my outlook is the only valid one. It's just a personal prejudice. You may feel differently. I have always been drawn to books with vivid sensory prose that pulls me right into the page. One of my favorite authors as a teenager was Ray Bradbury, whose prose sparkled with possibilities. Here is a quote from The Martian Chronicles:
A man squatted alone in darkness. Out of his mouth issued a blue flame which turned into the round shape of a small naked woman. It flourished on the air softly in vapors of cobalt light, whispering and sighing.
In this story, explorers from Earth enter a Martian colony, whose inhabitants proceed to lock them in a Martian asylum. Since Martians are telepathic, the hallucinations of the mad and deranged are visible to everyone. Therefore, the fact that the Earthlings have a spaceship doesn't convince the Martians that the men come from Earth. The Martians simply assume that the spaceship in front of them is a figment of the men's diseased minds. The problem, of course, comes when one of the Martians touches the ship and discovers that it is a bit more substantial than vapor.
The psychologist emerged from the ship after half an hour of prowling, tapping, listening, smelling, tasting.

"Now do you believe!" shouted the captain, as if he were deaf.

The psychologist shut his eyes and scratched his nose. "This is the most incredible example of sensual hallucination and hypnotic suggestion I've ever encountered. I went through your 'rocket,' as you call it." He tapped the hull. "I hear it. Auditory fantasy." He drew a breath. "I smell it. Olfactory hallucination, induced by sensual telepathy." He kissed the ship. "I taste it. Labial fantasy!"

He shook the captain's hand. "May I congratulate you? You are a psychotic genius! You have done a most complete job! The task of projecting your psychotic image life into the mind of another via telepathy and keeping the hallucinations from becoming sensually weaker is almost impossible. Those people in the House usually concentrate on visuals or, at the most, visuals and auditory fantasies combined. You have balanced the whole conglomeration! Your insanity is beautifully complete!"
You'd think fiction this clever would work on screen. But so far I've never seen a movie do justice to any of Bradbury's works. Even when the ideas are there, there's something missing, and that something is the prose. Taking the prose out of Bradbury is like taking the dough out of bread.

I had a somewhat different experience recently as I read Elsewhere, a 1991 novel by Will Shetterly. It is part of a series by several authors about a place called Bordertown, existing between the human world and the land of Faerie. The extreme prose minimalism of this book surprised me, because I associate the urban fantasy genre with Charles De Lint, whose prose swirls and engulfs the reader.

Elsewhere is told in first person, for reasons that escape me. The narrator does little more than describe what happens, with only occasional entries into his inner thoughts. His attitudes, his feelings, his personality are seen mostly through his actions. A third-person approach would have worked better, but even then, I would have trouble picturing the events. The story concerns a teenage runaway who flees to Bordertown. After being thrown off the train, he is met by two half-elves, who are described as follows:
Two people in dusty black leather straddled dustier black bikes on a road maybe two hundred feet uphill. In the shadow of an ancient oak tree, they'd been invisible until one of them clapped. Their skin was almost as dark as their hair, which rose from their heads like raven's wings. Their ears came to perfect points.... A small difference in pitch and attitude told me that she was female, and the other, male. From where I stood, they looked identical.... They were both lean and strong and bigger than me.
It isn't until well into the story that the narrator hints that he's attracted to the female. I found this rather odd, considering her initial description. There was nothing that made me picture her as a beautiful woman, though she is finally described that way--on p. 183! As I read the book, I repeatedly felt I was getting a less-than-complete picture of what was happening.

Though I have a clear preference for lavish prose, I am able to appreciate other styles. I have no problem with Hemingway's famously terse prose. It's still good writing. It still gives a complete picture of what's happening. (It reminds me of Einstein's remark, "Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not one bit simpler.") What I don't like is bad writing, whatever the style, and even if the work has other good qualities.

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