Think of your favourite book (or books if, like me, your literary affections are fickle). Now think about why you love it.
I’ll bet the first thought to mind is not ‘because it’s so well written’. That may be one of the reasons it made your top 10 – chances are that it was written very well – but the quality of writing is very rarely the reason a book makes its way to the top of the favourites stack.
The exquisite pain of adolescent love or the hard, urgent lips of a long-frustrated lover; the fresh, salty sting of ocean spray on our faces or the hot breath of pursuing demons on our goose-pimpled necks; these are the sorts of things we remember from our favourite books.
Writing is a lot like applying make-up. Done skilfully, the effect is breath-taking, the technique too subtle to be remarked upon. It’s the distinction between “you look beautiful” and “your make-up looks great”.
The best writing puts focus where it is supposed to be – on the story and the reactions it evokes in readers lost in sights, sounds and emotions rendered by the author with deft, invisible brush-strokes.
There are rare exceptions, like Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang, written in the semi-literate style of the fictional narrator. The technique is obvious, even confronting, to the reader, who might, at first, struggle to concentrate on the story given the constant distraction of having to decipher the text. Even then, once the reader becomes familiar with the unusual presentation, he or she becomes absorbed and the author’s words recede into the colourful world they describe.
For the most part, good writing does not announce itself. It remains in the background, an influential but silent partner. The star of the show is always the story.
Readers don’t buy books because they are well written. They are interested in what is being said.
Never has a well-written book sold out without a decent creative hook – an unusual angle, a strong concept, a heavy whack of inspiration. But I have known, and read, many wildly successful books in which the writing was pretty ordinary. I have even enjoyed some of them.
That is not to say writing technique is unimportant. It takes skill to write invisibly. Writing so bad as to be distracting can be crippling to anything less than a stunningly original concept. But if you haven’t got a good story to tell, no amount of clever writing is going to help.
That’s why so many competent writers remain unrecognised, spending hours, days, even years staring hopelessly at blank screens or battling desperately with armies of uncooperative words.
Inspiration is an elusive mistress. Even when she does turn up, most days, her make-up is a little obvious.
“I ain’t doing my duty by that boy, and that’s the Lord’s truth, goodness knows. Spare the rod and spile the child, as the Good Book says. I’m a-laying up sin and suffering for us both, I know. He’s full of the Old Scratch, but laws-a-me! he’s my own dead sister’s boy, poor thing, and I ain’t got the heart to lash him, somehow. Every time I let him off, my conscience does hurt me so, and every time I hit him my old heart most breaks.”
– Mark Twain, The Adventure of Tom Sawyer