Writers vs Storytellers

When someone is called “A good writer” what does it mean? Do they flaunt acerbic wit ala tycho or Oscar Wilde? Do they ignore the conventional trappings of grammar and become a literary darling ala James Joyce? Simultaneously weave a spellbinding yarn and milk a blockbuster cashcow – King, Clancy, Grisham, Rowling and all the rest?

I’m of the mind that good writing is a binary division – the duality of word construction and storytelling. Being able to construct impressive prose is an admirable trait; writing a chunk of text that the masses will read, let alone enjoy, is a gift.

Usually revered writers fall into one camp or another. Melville and Hawthorne were writers – their dense multi-tiered prose is like savoring a perfect slice of the richest German chocolate cake. Too much can be a burden, however, as any poor freshman forced to read The Scarlet Letter can attest.

Hemmingway and Steinbeck were storytellers. They both use simple, repetitive, earthy prose to create visual landscapes, recognizable characters and plots with feeling. And while they occasionally dance around with clever wordplay and verbiage, they keep it in easily digestible chunks.

There are a select few writers who ride the fence, equal parts storyteller and prose-master. Shakespeare is the most visible. His plotlines are impeccable; his spoken lines ingrained in cultural memory. To be or not to be, indeed.

I think non-English writers have a higher percentage of riding the line – perhaps something gained in the translation. From Dostoevsky with his religious musings and memorable Karamozov brothers, to Kafka with his dark horrific imagery, even Dumas with the very readable Count of Monte Cristo and Three Musketeers.

So how do modern day novelists stack up? Most paperback books you might pick up in the supermarket counter will fall heavily on the storyteller line. Third-grade sentence structure and read-by-numbers plot leads to franchise fiction (John Grisham law thrillers, Tom Clancy military thrillers, Harry Potter, etc). Much like deriving formulas for television sitcoms and Hollywood blockbusters, these genre books have distilled the essence of storytelling into a producible commodity.

Oh yes, we were discussing “good writing”.

I finished Pattern Recognition recently and was much more impressed by the prose then the plot. Gibson’s writing is nuanced, erudite, humble, even humanistic. The book’s theme is espoused far more by his word choice then the actions of his characters.

Writers like Palahniuk, and before him Vonnegut, are difficult to categorize. Of course they tell interesting stories. Their style is simplistic, so much it becomes minimalist. The stark form of minimalism can be appreciated in and of itself – in a similar way to the dense constructions of someone like Joseph Conrad. Less is more, regardless or plotline and characters.

Personally, I think storytelling is key. This should be obvious. For all the wordplay in a towering literary tour-de-force, without a compelling story it will molder on a dusty shelf. It will be like discarded prototype, a spectacle of words and paragraphs. Ulysses will always be part of the cannon, but I doubt I’ll read it.

I’ll probably be flipping through Neal Stephenson’s latest sci-fi-transplanted-to-a-different-era tome.

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