Thursday, November 19, 2009

When style & substance divorce and have a custody battle

One of the greatest things about being a reviewer is that I have a reason to dig beneath the surface of a book and weigh each little detail's merits. What's good about a book? What's bad about a book? Why do things work? Why do they fall apart? I answer these questions, and bingo, I've got a review on my hands. Some people think that when you're reviewing horror fiction, these questions don't matter. They think that there's no place for craft in the realm of R. L. Stine & Stephen King. Those people need to be punched in the nose. I take my work seriously.

Lately, there's been some turmoil in my happy little world of horror reviewing. In the last several pieces I've slogged through, the ever-uneasy relationship between substance and style has been rearing its head and making my job a lot harder. How do I rate an anthology packed with unique, breath-takingly exciting ideas--and plenty of awkward delivery? How do I assign a number of stars for a book told with wonderful vocabulary, telling details, evocative description--and a totally Scooby-Doo plot-reveal that manages to be both unbelievable and boring? It's darn tricky to rate a piece on the best of conditions, but when the quality of the piece's style and the quality of its substance differ, it's incredibly difficult.

But let me clarify my conundrum. When I say substance, I mean the basic underpinnings of the story--the plotting and story arc, the relationships and development of the characters, the pacing and fundamental ideas. The structure. If you sat down with a book and made a comprehensive outline of what happened, when it happened, and who did it, that would be the story's substance.

The style of a piece is the expression of that structure. It can impact the substance in many important ways. Not only does the style of a piece include the piece's vocabulary and rhythm, but it also includes handling of theme, syntax, perspective, and pacing (see the trickiness? Pacing is both a matter of structure--that what-happens-when stuff--but also the way that information is doled out. And so is perspective!). Style is the zip that makes sentences tasty and passages memorable. It can't work on its own though; no wordsmith has the power to make a terrible idea sound like brilliance.

Substance and style are inseparable. But there are definitely moments when a reader can say: "this idea does not live up to the technique displayed by this writer." Or when a reviewer can say: "this idea is great, but the dialogue is unbelievable, the sentences are choppy and the description relies too heavily on passive voice." These are moments when the style and substance of a piece no longer get along. Their relationship breaks down, and their beautiful child--story--is left in the cold, like a child whose parents are so busy arguing they don't remember who was supposed to pick the little guy up after school.

What do you guys think? Anybody reading anything that has problems like this?


Jak said...

I read through this whole damn post going "WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU READING!?" Some nouns, would be wonderful dearest sibbling.

Winnie said...

Names are withheld to protect the accused. ;)