Saturday morning rant (story v language)

I've been thinking a lot about the war that is being fought between story and language.


It shouldn't be a war. Language and story should work together. But people don't seem to want to let them, and so they fight.

I heard someone say recently that they didn't like books they couldn't put down. This person felt manipulated by a gripping plot. I found this astonishing.

It goes hand-in-hand with the snobbery towards mass-market fiction, chicklit (see Maureen Johnson's awesome post for more on that) and, of course, YA.

Nick Hornby has this to say:

“In a way, I think all books should be teen books. I can read them quickly without getting bogged down, and feel I’ve read something that was meant in the way literature’s supposed to be. They’re very digestible, designed not to bore people.”

But if you have a look at the kind of books that win the Miles Franklin and the Booker, it seems pretty clear that the literati don't agree. Literature needs to be dense, beautiful and obfuscating.

I love beautiful language. Writers like Margaret Atwood (pre-Oryx & Crake), Jorge Louis-Borges and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. And of course the beautiful-language YA writers Ursula Dubosarsky, Margo Lanagan and David Almond. But as well as having a truly magical control over language, all these writers also know how to tell a cracking good story.


Making stories is an art. It's difficult and complex and there are rules and structures, and if you don't want to stick to those rules and structures, then fine, but you'd better have a damn good reason. In my four years of studying creative writing at Uni, not one class mentioned the importance of structure, except of course, for my screenwriting class.

The story vs language brawl spills over into visual media as well. Film can be loved by our intellectual elite because of its 'language' - the cinematography, metaphor and mood. Television, however, is much more reliant on story. Smaller screens, heavily prescribed time limits, and a need for continuity mean that TV shows have more rules and structures.
But that doesn't mean they can't be art, too. There is often more thought, care, craft, put into an episode of The West Wing, Six Feet Under or Veronica Mars, than into a feature film of the kind that our intellectual elite favour.

I'm not really sure where this rant is heading. I suppose it's a plea. Don't be ashamed to read The Da Vinci Code just because it's mass market fiction. There are plenty of other reasons to be ashamed (ie: it's crap). Embrace your love of chicklit (and its cinematic equivalent, the romcom). Read a fantasy novel. Watch Battlestar Galactica.

Yes. There is bad chicklit. And bad fantasy novels. And books like The Da Vinci Code.

But here's a revalation: there's a lot of bad books, full stop. Some of them have won prestigious literary awards.

You will judge a book by its cover - everyone does. I certainly do. But I try not to judge books by what section of the bookshop they are shelved in*.

Send in the peacekeepers! End the war! Give story a chance.

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*This isn't entirely true. I tend to avoid self-help and true-crime. But in terms of fiction, I'm showing the love for all shelves.