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Mugwump
October 9th, 2004, 06:16 PM
We are all book lovers – yes. Nothing stirs our imagination like a well-written novel which takes hold from the very beginning and refuses to relinquish its grasp until the final page is turned.

But what precisely do we mean when we say 'well-written'? Critics fall over themselves to espouse the virtues of a particular author, but try to pin them down on what 'well-written' actually means and many assume the defensive, offering vaporous answers that amount to little more than nonsense.

Below I include two similar passages from award-winning novels that are concerned with bullying and violence. Which do you think is the better written, and why?

Note that I have removed the names of the participants in an attempt to minimise the effects of prejudice.



The people behind ______ grabbed at him, to hold him.

______ did not feel like laughing, but he laughed. “You mean it takes this many of you to fight a ______?”

“We're people, not ______s, turd face. You're about as strong as a fart!”

But they let go of him. And as soon as they did, _____ kicked out high and hard, catching ______ square in the breastbone. He dropped. It took ______ by surprise – he hadn't thought to put ______ on the ground with one kick. It didn't occur to him that ______ did not want to fight like this seriously, that he wasn't prepared for a truly desperate blow.

For a moment, the others backed away and ______ lay motionless. They were all wondering if he was dead. ______, however, was trying to figure out a way to forestall vengeance. To keep them from taking him in a pack tomorrow. I have to win this now, and for all time, or I'll fight it every day and it will get worse and worse.

______ knew the unspoken rules of manly warfare. It was forbidden to strike the opponent who lay helpless on the ground; only an animal would do that.

So ______ walked to _____'s supine body and kicked him again, viciously, in the ribs. ______ groaned and rolled away from him. _____ walked around and kicked him again, in the crotch. _____ could not make a sound; he only doubled up and tears streamed out of his eyes.

Then _____ looked at the others coldly. “You might be having some idea of ganging up on me. You could probably beat me up pretty bad. But just remember what I do to people who try to hurt me. From then on you'd be wondering when I'd get you, and how bad it would be”. He kicked ______'s face. Blood from his nose spattered the ground nearby. “It wouldn't be this bad,” ______ said. “It would be worse.”

He turned and walked away. Nobody followed him.




New prisoners are largely of two kinds – there are those who for shame, fear or shock wait in fascinated horror to be initiated into the lore of prison life, and there are those who trade their wretched novelty in order to endear themselves to the community. ______ did neither of these things. He seemed pleased to despise them all, and they hated him because, like the world outside, he did not need them. After about ten days they had had enough. The great had no homage, the small had had no comfort, so they crowded him in the dinner queue.

Crowding is a prison ritual akin to to the eighteenth-century practice of jostling. It has the virtue of an apparent accident, in which the prisoner's mess tin is upturned, and its contents split on his uniform. ______ was barged from one side, while from the other an obliging hand descended on his forearm, and the thing was done. _____ said nothing, looked thoughtfully at the two men on either side of him, and accepted in silence the filthy rebuke of a warder who knew quite well what had happened.

Four days later, while working with a hoe on the prison flower-bed, he seemed to stumble. He was holding the hoe with both hands across his body, the end of the handle protruding about six inches from his right fist. As he strove to recover his balance the prisoner to his right doubled up with a grunt of agony, his arms across his stomach. There was no more crowding after that.

Expendable
October 9th, 2004, 06:22 PM
Sneaky. I tried not to let it influence me though.

Both showed the scene and it was hard to pick which but Author #1 was a bit more immediate, a little more real.

-Ex.

Eldanuumea
October 9th, 2004, 07:17 PM
This was a very clever idea for a thread, Mugwump, and it gives me an idea for a classroom activity.

I chose piece #2, because I tend to prefer what I would call "thoughtful" writing, that draws out ideas and descriptions and looks for meaning.
My daughter would have chosen piece #2, because she likes lots and lots of dialogue.

I thought the pieces were equally well-written, but simply served different purposes and were aimed at different audiences.

Rocket Sheep
October 9th, 2004, 09:07 PM
Neither is "Great".

The first one has the most promise. It has nice action but it has possible pov issues and too many adverbs.

The second has a distant recollection feel to it which some people find dreamy (and I personally dislike) but it is too formal, it feels like haughty old rich guy on a hilltop casting down his knowledge to the lowly workers children (er... if you know what I mean...).

I wouldn't have given either an award for prose. What award did they win?

ShellyS
October 10th, 2004, 12:44 PM
This is the sort of discussion I try to avoid because I find it very subjective. What I consider great, or even good writing, when it comes to fiction, someone else might not. So I usually keep the labeling to factors of readability. Are there errors? Is the prose flat? Did I like it? And I try to remember that the labeling is mine and applies to what I like and don't like.

I don't like a lot of literature people have labeled great? Does that mean they are or aren't "great"? I leave it to folks to decide for themselves, which is why I think people should be exposed to the broadest range of reading material available.

Mugwump
October 10th, 2004, 01:25 PM
Okay, passage one is taken from Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game, which in addition to being one of the biggest selling SF novels in history also won both the Hugo and Nebula awards in the mid eighties. Given that there have been very few dual-award winning SF novels over the years it's reasonably safe to argue that OSC probably did something right when he put this story together. The book has spawned half-a-dozen sequels which have met with mixed receptions.

For those who aren't familiar with Ender's Game let me say first that it, like Harry Potter, is one of those rare and remarkable books which can be appreciated by both adults and children. Unlike Potter however, EG has a nasty streak that gets even nastier as the pages are turned. It is, quite possibly, one of the most disturbing pieces of SF ever put into print.

The second passage is taken from John le Carre's The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, a tale which many regard as being the legendary spy writer's finest achievement. I don't agree with this opinion (the shortness of the chapters and the book itself means that his remarkable talent for construct mesmerizing sequences of dialogue is somewhat shackled) but that's for another debate.

I think it's interesting to note the differing attitudes toward violence and how it is portrayed by both authors. From the very beginning it's obvious that Card doesn't believe in leaving anything to the imagination. Claret is sprayed, ribs are smashed and testicles crushed in what seems like a sadistic orgy of blood-spattered gore which, I suspect, Card not only agrees with but longs to jump into.

John le Carre, in complete contrast, chooses to shun the visceral almost entirely. His two acts of violence are incredibly subtle, cloudy (dreamlike?) affairs. What exactly happens to Alec Leamas in the dinner queue? Is he stabbed? Punched? Hit with a blunt instrument? I'd argue the first but it could be anything. The point is that le Carre correctly understands that leaving the 'how' to the reader's imagination can be far more effective when describing scenes of violence.

Unlike Card, who pretty much takes you by the hand and leads you through the slugfest, le Carre forces you to do some of the work yourself. He's given you the bare basics, now go out and construct the rest of scene in your own mind.

In my opinion this appreciation of subtlety is what sets the latter passage above the former and highlights le Carre's superiority to Card as a writer.

Average authors, fear losing the reader’s attention and walk with him through every detail of a scene, Great authors bugger off and leave you with a trail of tasty breadcrumbs to follow.

Dawnstorm
October 10th, 2004, 01:26 PM
I went with 2, because I felt 1 read to slowly (too much word-ballast) for an action scene, but not clinical enough for a detatched-violence scene (á la Ballard).

However, I feel that text 1 relies more on context than text 2; it's more important to know the characters, for starters. Also, 1 suffers more from name deletion. So a stand alone comparison may not be fair.

Eldanuumea
October 10th, 2004, 02:00 PM
It amuses me that I have read and enjoyed both of those books, the LeCarre one decades ago but the Card one within the past two years. Didn't recognize the context of either one.

KatG
October 10th, 2004, 05:27 PM
Well-written means "I like this writing." The reasons a critic may have for regarding the writing as strong vary considerably. A critic may like the characterizations, whereas another critic might dislike the same characterizations. Frequently, well-written is an accolade used for writers who are very focused on language -- imagery, description, point-of-view, but more often than not, it means that whatever aspects of fiction a reviewer particularly prefers were present in the writing being reviewed.

In the case of the poll, you not only have two excerpts that are written in different styles, genres and about different issues of bullying, but they are different types of narrative text. Card's excerpt is an action scene, which is rather funny, given that Card's work, "Ender's Game" in particular, is often exposition heavy and easy on the action. Le Carre's excerpt is not a scene. It is a block of exposition delivered by omniscient narration in which are imbedded scene snippets to establish the character's situation. (That's why it seems "thoughtful" -- it's the musings of the omniscient narrator to the reader.) Hence, Card's scene, being a visual image, is very detailed, while Le Carre's block of exposition, being primarily used to deliver information about prisons and the character, and containing a time jump besides, is not. If you really wanted to compare the text of these two authors, you'd be better off either picking two blocks of exposition or two full-fledged scenes. But since the purpose of doing the excerpts seems to mainly have been to laud Le Carre's style in one instance and trash Card's style in one instance, maybe not. It appears rather like voting policies in Florida -- you're trying to stack the deck, Muggie.

Card is quite effective at characterization. One of the reasons "Ender's Game" is his most acclaimed work is because it is essentially a character study in which we are deeply immersed in the struggles of a young man who has to solve very complicated stand-off situations. Le Carre is known for taking the usual hard action realm of intelligence thriller and instead investing in the philosophy, poetry and symbolism of it -- moral questions over guns essentially. So that does give a basis for comparison, I suppose, that they posit moral and emotional dilemmas, but they seem to me to be going in two different directions -- Card is doing a coming of age story against a sf background, and Le Carre is doing the dark angst of espionage, not to mention that their styles and choice of language are not at all the same.

Wouldn't it make more sense to compare Card to someone like Kim Stanley Robinson, and Le Carre to Robert Ludlum?

Mugwump
October 10th, 2004, 06:49 PM
Well-written means "I like this writing." The reasons a critic may have for regarding the writing as strong vary considerably. A critic may like the characterizations, whereas another critic might dislike the same characterizations. Frequently, well-written is an accolade used for writers who are very focused on language -- imagery, description, point-of-view, but more often than not, it means that whatever aspects of fiction a reviewer particularly prefers were present in the writing being reviewed.

In the case of the poll, you not only have two excerpts that are written in different styles, genres and about different issues of bullying, but they are different types of narrative text. Card's excerpt is an action scene, which is rather funny, given that Card's work, "Ender's Game" in particular, is often exposition heavy and easy on the action. Le Carre's excerpt is not a scene. It is a block of exposition delivered by omniscient narration in which are imbedded scene snippets to establish the character's situation. (That's why it seems "thoughtful" -- it's the musings of the omniscient narrator to the reader.) Hence, Card's scene, being a visual image, is very detailed, while Le Carre's block of exposition, being primarily used to deliver information about prisons and the character, and containing a time jump besides, is not. If you really wanted to compare the text of these two authors, you'd be better off either picking two blocks of exposition or two full-fledged scenes. But since the purpose of doing the excerpts seems to mainly have been to laud Le Carre's style in one instance and trash Card's style in one instance, maybe not. It appears rather like voting policies in Florida -- you're trying to stack the deck, Muggie.

Card is quite effective at characterization. One of the reasons "Ender's Game" is his most acclaimed work is because it is essentially a character study in which we are deeply immersed in the struggles of a young man who has to solve very complicated stand-off situations. Le Carre is known for taking the usual hard action realm of intelligence thriller and instead investing in the philosophy, poetry and symbolism of it -- moral questions over guns essentially. So that does give a basis for comparison, I suppose, that they posit moral and emotional dilemmas, but they seem to me to be going in two different directions -- Card is doing a coming of age story against a sf background, and Le Carre is doing the dark angst of espionage, not to mention that their styles and choice of language are not at all the same.

Wouldn't it make more sense to compare Card to someone like Kim Stanley Robinson, and Le Carre to Robert Ludlum?

Possibly. After reading that piece of le Carre prose I remember thinking how remarkably efficient it is at achieving its purpose. I decided that once I reached the end of the novel I would compare it with similar-ish passages in other books. Ender's Game was simply the first book I laid hand on after re-reading TSWCIFTC. Not very scientific but then I am a terribly lazy researcher outside the university. <grin>

In truth I like Card's style. I just happen to think that le Carre is the superior craftsman. From what I've read about Card, I have a sneaking suspicion he might agree himself.

I did briefly consider comparing le Carre with Raymond Chandler but my collection appears to have slipped into the Bermuda Triangle that is the attic.