I got suckered into reading a novel titled “All That Is” after I read a review once.
In that review (which I can’t seem to find anymore) the reader mentioned that author James Salter is a master of sentence structure.
The sentence, this reviewer wrote. The sentence!
The review sold me.
I love reading novels where not only the story and characters are rich but the prose itself shimmers with power. I love highlighting and underlining sentences in my books. There is such an energy in a well-written line. It’s like getting a tiny paper cut that burns with a sense of satisfaction.
I bought the book on Kindle and got right to reading. I spent two months with this novel, and I couldn’t get past the 60% reading mark.
I thought there had to be something wrong with me.
Every sentence I read, I felt like screaming, “When is this thing going to end!!?”
Indeed Salter writes fantastic sentences. He’s even a skilled character creator, if I must be honest. But that wasn’t enough.
Ultimately I gave up on the book. I felt no emotion toward it other than annoyance. I didn’t care about any of the characters, who were mostly adulterers and self-pleasure seekers.
This is not intended to be a review of the novel, just an aftermath observation to that reading experience.
I found no joy in reading that book. It was full of sidetracked distractions and overly emphasized secondary characters that weighed down the flow of reading.
In fact, the secondary characters, who appeared out of nowhere with such force and disappeared again never to be found again later, were more interesting than the primary ones.
What that book taught me is that you can be a fantastic prose writer, but your writing can still leave a reader dissatisfied.
The point is that the story and the characters are what matter most. The prose itself can be refined later.
In contrast, I’m reading George Saunders right now whose prose is rather direct and simple. There are not necessarily any single sentences that cut into me. And yet, it’s through his structured building of the story and surreal scenarios that he punches readers in the throat, causing them to slow down, read a paragraph again and gasp for air.
I think that’s an important thing to keep in mind: You don’t have to be the best prose writer to execute excellent narrative. The prose can certainly enhance and help transport the story at times, but it can’t compensate for its complete lack of emotion and drive.
My advice: Focus on crafting the story first, then go back and revise the prose.
(Feature photo by Jackire Depp)
What about you?
How much emphasis do you place on prose when you read and write?