A Good Story is No Excuse for Bad Writing

I reviewed at the Detroit Free Press for about a decade and my first editor quit because she got tired, she said, of being pushed by her superiors to do yet another feature on Stephen King.

She was a real book lover, widely read, and catholic in her tastes.  I reviewed many genres under her, and also did a monthly crime fiction column, and I never felt pushed to focus on the best sellers.  That meant I could do mysteries in translation, small press mysteries, and trade paperback opriginals which seemed to be consistently ignored by other reviewers.

Her successor’s first comment about my popular column was that I didn’t review enough best selling authors.  I explained to her that these authors didn’t need relentless review coverage because mystery fans would find them easily at bookstores.  These books would be in the window, in end cap displays, in “dumps” by the cash register, and sometimes across a whole wall (now, of course, these books show up all over amazon and on blog pages).

My new editor didn’t care.  But she did accept a compromise.  I added “Also Out This Month” at the end of my column where I’d list books by big names, with a one-line description. I wasn’t prejudiced against best selling authors.  Some of them were even my friends and I’d hung out with them at mystery conferences and even been on panels together.

But whatever the author’s status, I always wanted to write about books that were exciting or novel–and whoever the author was, the book had to be well written.  I’d read too many reviews by other reviewers–like Janet Maslin in The New York Times–noting that the prose in a certain thriller or mystery was “workmanlike” or some synonym for  dull.  “But the story’s great,” they’d insist.

That was a distinction I didn’t make. because weak writing vitiates the power of the best story.  Why give authors a pass on not doing a complete job?  I still feel the same way.  If someone hands me crime fiction where the prose is bad in one way or another, I can’t concentrate on the story and don’t want to recommend it to my readers.  Why should I?  With all the choices out there, why not choose an author who can tell a great story and tell it really, really well?


2 Responses

  1. I agree. But we’re the only two who care any more. I get all sorts of free downloads and books for review that are just out, but I seldom can bear to read them, because the prose is so clunky and words or phrases are misused. It’s like reading essays by sixth-graders, and it gets tiring adn irritating. We have to accept that now no one seems to know or care about the difference between a well-crafted story and a well-crafted story that’s told beautifully and evocatively.

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