21st Century Literature discussion

Question of the Week > Strong Prose or Strong Plot? (Feb 10/14)

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message 1: by Daniel (new)

Daniel The books we read in January took two very different approaches to literary art. The Flamethrowers was more interested in the subtle nuances of language, whereas The Goldfinch gave a higher profile to the plot.

Speaking in general terms, are you the type of reader who revels in soul-stirring prose at the possible expense of plot? Or is your reading enjoyment dependent upon having a rousing plot at the possible expense of exquisite prose?

message 2: by Deborah (new)

Deborah | 983 comments If I say this is completely dependent on the book? There has to be an element that compels. It needn't be the same element book to book.

message 3: by Casceil (new)

Casceil | 1692 comments Mod
I loved both The Flamethrowers and the Goldfinch. I think both prose and plot are important, and neither should be "at the expense" of the other, but if either is strong enough, it can carry a book that is less than perfect.

message 4: by Sophia (new)

Sophia Roberts | 1324 comments That's very true, but I think if I had to make a choice I would favour prose over a plot. The days are long, but the years are short...

message 5: by Sam (new)

Sam (synkopenleben) | 21 comments Exactly what Casceil wrote. Both need to be reasonably "good" to make a book enjoyable. On the other hand, I have never really come upon a book that has an amazing plot but horrifyingly poor prose, or vice-versa.

message 6: by Tiffany (new)

Tiffany I find that it depends on WHY I'm reading. If I pick up a cozy mystery because I want an escape, then I expect an interesting plot and I often ignore the shortcomings in terms of prose or character. However, if I pick up something that I want to engage with intellectually, I prefer a unique or beautiful prose style and well-developed, realistic, complex characters.

message 7: by Casceil (new)

Casceil | 1692 comments Mod
That's fair. I also read cozy mysteries, and for those, plot is more important than prose style, though breezy or funny prose is often a good thing.

Evelina | AvalinahsBooks (avalinahsbooks) | 116 comments I think I favor plot.. Although perhaps it depends? Cause, for example, Mrs. Dalloway was all about the language, and there was next to no plot. But I still liked it very much. But then again the Goldfinch was something else.. However, as I was reading it i thought the prose was good too. Maybe it was just really in tune with my own style of thinking, it just felt so natural. Sometimes the writer can overload the prose, now that's something bad in my opinion. No one needs too much frills when you have nothing to say, right? There has to be a balance either way, I think. And maybe it's different for every book?

I think that Tiffany is very right with this as well. It depends even on your own mood.. Perhaps that's why sometimes I'll re-read a book and like it, whereas before I'd hate it with a passion..

message 9: by Terry (last edited Feb 11, 2014 08:06AM) (new)

Terry Pearce Let's look at this in terms of examples.

Books that blew me away with prose include:

The Virgin Suicides (Eugenides)
The Sot-Weed Factor (Barth)
The Yellow Birds (Powers)
Invisible Cities (Calvino)
Infinite Jest (Wallace)
Catch-22 (Heller)
The Glass Bead Game (Hesse)

Books that wowed me through their plot (although I prefer to say 'story', because plot makes me think car chases etc):

A Suitable Boy (Seth)
The Goldfinch (Tartt)
Roots (Haley)
Animal Farm (Orwell)
The Poisonwood Bible (Kingsolver)
The Lacuna (Kingsolver)
The Red Tent (Diamant)

Hmmm... see, now this approach has interested me because it's a closer run thing than I thought. I thought prose would win by a mile (these are gleaned from all my 5-star books on Goodreads).

Now in fact, I love the books under 'prose' harder than those under 'story', but the sweet spot is oh so sweet. The Sot-Weed Factor (most underrated/underknown book I can think of) is a great example. The prose is wrenchingly good, the kind of stuff you read a few times because it just gets you. I put it in that list because that's the standout element for me. But I can barely think of a 'plottier' book -- it's a rollicking adventure yarn with pirates, voyages, kidnappings, exploration, fights, mistaken identities, twists and turns... it's almost hyper-real, plot taken to the nth. The result of the marriage of the two is one of my favourite books ever.

Even books like Infinite Jest or The Glass Bead Game are no story slouches, and to say that A Suitable Boy is more about the story is not to denigrate the prose, which certainly has many very fine moments.

Overall, though, now that I think on it, I have to say that prose can carry a book without plot, but plot cannot carry a book without prose. the fact that A book as plotty as The Sot-Weed Factor makes it onto my 'prose' list more than my 'plot' list kinda answers the question for me...

Of course, there are outstanding books that actually don't really score their points on either. Stoner, by John Edward Williams is a great example... I suppose you could categorise it under 'story' but hardly 'plot'... the events are very slight, but the prose is rarely poetic, either... rather the genius (and I don't use the word lightly) is in the overall effect, in the character study and the subtle reflections about life that rise from the pages.

message 10: by Carl (new)

Carl | 287 comments This is interesting to me, especially with the books that were picked. I am almost all on the prose side. Creative and original prose is magical to me, and cliche of almost any kind drives me nuts regardless of how engaging the plot is. I had a writing teacher who taught us that there are only three plots in the world - man comes to town, man gets married, man leaves town - and when I stand back, I tend to agree with her on that.

At any rate, I loved The Flamethrowers, almost every page, but I quit The Goldfinch after about ten pages, so I suppose I was true to my nature.

I saw an interview with the author of The Goldfinch, and between that and the discussions here, I've decided I need to give that book another chance.

message 11: by Terry (new)

Terry Pearce Ishiguro is an interesting one to talk about here. He always strikes me as a little heavy-handed with the story, perhaps a little neat. But he makes up for it with the beautiful prose. Perhaps his best book, Never Let Me Go, is strongest on the prose and least heavy-handed on the story.

message 12: by Casceil (new)

Casceil | 1692 comments Mod
Terry, I agree with you about Ishiguro. Here is a link to my review of Never Let Me Go:


message 13: by Angie (last edited Feb 11, 2014 12:19PM) (new)

Angie | 32 comments This may be a silly question, but where does Haruki Murakami fit into this discussion? I definitely experienced a paradigm shift in what reading could be with The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. Each page offered something new and exciting, but I wouldn't call it plot driven. If Wind-Up is lacking in anything it's a conclusion.

As for the original question posed, I probably lean more towards strong prose than plot, at least for my 5-star books.

BTW, for all you prose lovers out there, read A Constellation of Vital Phenomena: A Novel if you haven't already.

message 14: by Carl (new)

Carl | 287 comments Thank you for the pointer. Murakami is so dependent on the translator and I think he's had good and bad translators. 1Q84 was somewhat childish in prose, but the plot was well done. I liked The Wind Up Bird at several points for the prose and found the plot somewhat meandering but okay.

message 15: by Terry (new)

Terry Pearce If you take 'story' instead of plot then Murakami is probably more story than prose (although that statement is even more true for his books besides TWUBC -- oh, and maybe Norwegian Wood). Maybe it's more about milieu, or atmosphere, or something. Not prose, not story... kinda similar to what I was trying to get at with Stoner.

I didn't have trouble accepting the premise of Never Let Me Go, although I agree in ways its far-fetched. Like I said, that was the one where the story seemed least over-neat. It seemed a little too neat in Remains of the Day and When We Were Orphans, but the prose and the characterisation made up for it in spades.

message 16: by Terry (new)

Terry Pearce Carl, TWUBC was translated by the same guy as Parts 1 & 2 of IQ84 (Philip Gabriel). See, I had the same thought about different translators explaining the varying quality of Murakami's work, but it doesn't correlate in a way I can see.

The only thing I can find that does correlate is time -- the later the book, the worse the prose, IMO. Either the original is getting worse, or there's been a stylistic decision as he's gotten more popular, to translate in a more mass-market driven, less high-quality, more lowest-common-denominator way. Is how it seems to me.

Back on topic, it's interesting to wonder about the quality of prose when the book is a translation. Translations where I've thought the prose beautiful include: all Hesse I've read, much of The Infatuations and Your Face Tomorrow by Javier Marias, some Borges (although the ideas are the biggest thing), some of Min Kamp 1 by Karl Ove Knausgaard... but I'm reaching now. It does seem rarer. I guess you are relying on two beautiful prose writers, and for the concepts expressed to even be expressible to the same level of beauty in another lanuage even in theory... Hesse is teh one that stands out. I'm not sure if it's always been the same translator, but it's always beautiful: Steppenwolf, The Glass Bead Game, Siddhartha, all the short stories...

message 17: by Peter (new)

Peter Aronson (peteraronson) | 516 comments Terry, I think Murakami knows exactly what he is doing, and it nothing to do with being more mass-market or less high-quality. I think he's a master craftsman who uses his tools very carefully, and matches the prose style to story he wants to tell. Style for style's sake can be a distraction from a story. Me, I want a story. Always. My reaction to the Flamethrowers was kind of lukewarm because I didn't feel there wasn't much coherent story there.

“Plot is a literary convention. Story is a force of nature.” (Teresa Nielsen Hayden)

message 18: by Deborah (new)

Deborah | 983 comments Angie wrote: "BTW, for all you prose lovers out there, read A Constellation of Vital Phenomena: A Novel if you haven't already. "

I'm biased. A Constellation was one of my favorite reads in quite a while. I had a very hard time reading it in a shot. It's a wonderful book. At times very funny. But terribly painful.

And there I don't think you choose between plot and prose. I thought both were delivered.

message 19: by Terry (new)

Terry Pearce I'd buy the argument that Murakami was changing his style deliberately, for artistic reasons if he'd gone from crafted, beautiful prose to plain, ordinary prose, but in my eyes he's gone further, and for me the prose in Kafka on the Shore and IQ84 actively detracts from my enjoyment through seeming more mass market. To my eye. But he has legions of fans and many rate him for a Nobel, so clearly many beg to differ...

message 20: by Ben (new)

Ben Rowe (benwickens) | 89 comments Where I am in my life at the moment i need the prose and plot to be accessible. If it is an overly complex plot or there are lots of different points of views, deliberately confusing narration or unclear use of flashbacks etc then it is probably not for me.

Sometimes I want a trashy throwaway read and then I am happy with servicable and witty writing but generallys speaking the quality of the writing is far more important than the plot. It might take an interesting sounding plot to get me to pick the book up or stick with it through some POV jumps but it is the quality of the prose predominantly that will make a difference to how much I enjoyed it and often whether I will see it through to its end.

Jenny (Reading Envy) (readingenvy) I can really enjoy a book because of a strong plot, but probably won't read it again. The books that I clasp to my chest and mark up and reread are because of the language. Catherynne Valente, Jeanette Winterson, Lawrence Durrell are the first to come to mind.

message 22: by Casceil (last edited Feb 12, 2014 07:44AM) (new)

Casceil | 1692 comments Mod
Jenny, do you have favorite books by those authors?

Jenny (Reading Envy) (readingenvy) Casceil wrote: "Jenny, do you have favorite books by those authors?"

Durrell- The Alexandria Quartet, start with Justine. This is 20th century though.

Valente - Palimpsest

Winterson - Written on the Body

message 24: by Carl (new)

Carl | 287 comments Terry, I agree with you on the terrible decline of Murakami, but the story-telling is solid throughout.

Saramago wrote some of my favorite prose...Hard-working translator or indestructible beauty from the author???

message 25: by Carl (new)

Carl | 287 comments Also, Terry, I agree with all of your highly-rated prose except for Yellow Birds, so I am going to try Sot Weed, which I have not read.

By the way, with DFW, TPK is better prose than Infinite Jest by a bit in my view, regardless of organization or completion, and TPK is masterful treatment of a topic as opposed to a story, and that is a solid convention of modernism, and perhaps even post-modernism.

message 26: by Terry (new)

Terry Pearce It is a crime that I've not read more DFW. Infinite Jest is one of my two favourite books and I love Hideous Men, but that's all I've read. Maybe I will try TPK, although I have a thing about unfinished works...

Jenny (Reading Envy) (readingenvy) I found TPK to be incredibly tedious for the first 400 pages, but there is a reason, a beautiful reason. I sure wish DFW could have finished it to be everything he had planned. If you read it, do not skip the notes at the end or you will miss important stuff.

message 28: by Lily (last edited Feb 12, 2014 06:51PM) (new)

Lily (joy1) | 2464 comments Terry wrote: "...Maybe I will try TPK, although I have a thing about unfinished works... "

Like Edith Wharton's The Buccaneers or Gaskell's Wives and Daughters or Dicken's The Mystery of Edwin Drood ? Or what is on your list, Terry?

message 29: by Carl (new)

Carl | 287 comments Schubert's 8th is my favorite unfinished piece.

On the other hand, Mahler's 10th is the most abominable thing to ever be birthed.

message 30: by LindaJ^ (new)

LindaJ^ (lindajs) | 2298 comments I think I agree with Deborah on this question -- it depends on the book.

When I think of prose, first to mind is Marilynne Robinson, but Housekeeping was a darn good story. Sometimes I do not even notice prose, if the story has captured me, but then there is Annie Dillard. Her prose is magical for me, but not her story. One fairly recent 5 star read for me had both -- Once Upon a River by Bonnie Jo Campbell.

message 31: by Terry (last edited Feb 18, 2014 09:42AM) (new)

Terry Pearce Now that you mention it, this may be a thing based on perception rather than experience, but a thing so strong I may have actually gained no experience...

message 32: by Lily (new)

Lily (joy1) | 2464 comments Terry wrote: "Now that you mention it, this may be a thing based on perception rather than experience, but a thing so strong I may have actually gained no experience..."

[Smile.] Thank you for your candor, Terry. I thought later of The Aeneid.

You peaked my curiosity:



message 33: by Julie (last edited Feb 18, 2014 01:52PM) (new)

Julie (readerjules) | 196 comments Evelina wrote: " Sometimes the writer can overload the prose, now that's something bad in my opinion. No one needs too much frills when you have nothing to say, right?..."

I agree with this very much. Often when people refer to a book as having "beautiful writing", I dislike the writing because it takes too much to say too little. I like either plot or good characterization first and foremost. The writing is just the method for delivering those two things to the reader and I don't like it when it is so fancy it gets in the way of doing its job.
(I also hate poetry)

message 34: by Terry (new)

Terry Pearce The Castle by Kafka and the Pale King are the only two I've seriously considered reading, because the two authors concerned are so good.

I think I just feel as if I would invest all that time and... investment, you know, emotional investment, to be left hanging somehow. It's a vague feeling, but it's hard to work past when there are so many finished novels out there that are outstanding, some of which I will never get to read because there are only so many days...

But if I read one it will be The Pale King, I think.

message 35: by Terry (new)

Terry Pearce I suppose if you count unfinished series as opposed to individual novels, The Brothers Karamazov is absolutely on my list.

message 36: by Carl (new)

Carl | 287 comments If one claims to "hate poetry," that is much akin to claiming one hates good prose, so of course plot wins!

message 37: by Deborah (new)

Deborah | 983 comments Let's all remember the club's rule about disagreement and personal attacks. Not liking poetry is OK. People like and dislike many things, but we don't want them to feel unwelcome.

message 38: by Daniel (new)

Daniel Carl wrote: "If one claims to "hate poetry," that is much akin to claiming one hates good prose, so of course plot wins!"

That's a rather blunt opinion which could be taken in the wrong spirit...

For myself, I have come to the realization that I simply don't "get" poetry. There is the odd poem that works, but I largely find myself adrift in an ocean of incomprehensibility.

That said, some of my favourite novels are written by poets. I have no explanation as to why their weaving of language works for me in prose and not poetry, nor why I can lose myself in the "frilly" prose that Evelina and Julie so dislike.

On a more moderator-ish note: We also have to keep in mind that words like "hate" can be easily misconstrued in a faceless public forum like this. People may have strongly-held opinions on both sides of the issue. Let's try our best to respect the opinions of each other by being a little more selective in our words, and a little slower to react when offended.

message 39: by Carl (new)

Carl | 287 comments I feel properly disciplined, but I was quoting the statement, not using the words, which I found to be intensely closed-minded for a group like this. I should have simply frowned in disconcerted frustration and moved on without commenting. I will restrain from doing so in the future.

message 40: by Julie (new)

Julie (readerjules) | 196 comments I apologize for using the word "hate". I agree it is a rather strong word. But I figured it is my own opinion and certainly no one has to agree with me. I was not offended by Carl's response either. All is good. :-)

message 41: by Terry (new)

Terry Pearce There is something about much poetry that loses me, personally. Which is odd because I absolutely love beautiful prose. I think the poetry that loses me (and the prose too) is when it is not really anchored, when the words, while beautiful, are not really giving me a specific thing to get hold of, somebody doing something, some kind of structure...

It's hard to pin down because I love many poems, but I can definitely relate to not 'getting' most poetry, despite the fact that I love beautiful language.

I do love poems, though, that tell some kind of story or have a structure or flow that I can pin down. The Raven, This Be The Verse, Prufrock... I love these. I also love some slam poetry.

Prose that can be beautiful can lose me. I'm finding Proust difficult right now, even though there is much there that's beautiful, and I found Angela Carter tough going, also Burroughs and Pynchon.

message 42: by Pip (new)

Pip | 102 comments I would have to say strong plot - and it makes me feel embarrassed / uneducated to say it, without really knowing why. On the other hand, I could never be satisfied with a novel which was a series of subject-verb-object chronologically-ordered past tenses, so prose must be important to me in some way.

To a large extent, I agree with Julie in that plot and characterisation are essential in order for fiction to pick me up and take me with it. And then, to put the icing on the cake and make the novel something truly special, there will also be words, phrases, paragraphs within it which completely undo me in their beauty. It is a rare novel, I think, which can carry you through a plot while simultaneously mesmerising you with the prose [Hilary Mantel is someone who does this for me, for example, though I recognise that her storytelling is not to everyone's taste]. I also agree with Julie in that some novelists try too hard to dazzle us with their prose - with few exceptions they sound laborious at best and pretentious at worst.

As for poetry.... Poetry is another area where I think we are embarrassed to admit to not enjoying. I would never really consider myself a poetry lover. However, there are certain poems which I must simply have read at the right time, in the right place, at the right age, whose wording I rejoice in and which feel like part of me and my life far more than most novels.

message 43: by Casceil (new)

Casceil | 1692 comments Mod
Those poems you rejoice in, I'm guessing, are poems you learned at happier times in your life, or perhaps read with friends. Some music works like that for me. (Early Beatles music always makes me happy.) I suspect it has something to do with the phenomena that "neurons that fire together, wire together."

message 44: by LindaJ^ (last edited Feb 19, 2014 06:34PM) (new)

LindaJ^ (lindajs) | 2298 comments Ah poetry. On my list of things to do when I retire is to gain a much, much better understanding of poetry. It seems that what I remember I was taught in grade school about having words that rhyme at the end of each line just is not the key! In preparation, I have been collecting the poetry books that the Library of America is publishing, as well as a few others that have struck my fancy over the years.

My most recent, quite spontaneous, purchase was a chapbook of poetry by Bonnie Jo Campbell called Love Letters to Sons of Bitches. The manuscript won the 2009 Poetry Chapbook Competition at the Center for Book Arts, NYC. To date, only a limited editon of 100 copies has been published by Oak Knoll Books. My copy is #73. I got it because I really like her work -- 3 books of short stories and one novel. Her prose sings in them all, but it is gritty and deals with those on the margins. Here's a verse from a poem called "Fear of Serpents" that actually meets my grade school expectation!

"Let the basement fill with mice, then snakes.
Keep the windows closed against the snow.
We will drink this wine, drink to mistakes.
Let the battle of nature rage below.
No one loves in wisdom, no one loves
what he knows. Medusa's touch is tender.
And for those who dare to trace the lips and curves,
she, like me, is beautiful beyond gender.
Fill your glass, take your deepest breath.
Close your eyes to the coils, the slither, the hiss.
Drink your poison, your heart, your death.
Lean in close, accept the forked kiss.
Any glance can turn a man to stone
once he has loved and felt love to the bone.

message 45: by Sarah (new)

Sarah | 15 comments I would say plot, though the type of plot I enjoy is largely dependent upon internal conflict instead of external conflict. Some might not call it plot, but good characterization is key.

I think setting is an overlooked aspect too though, I'd like what I read for the setting to not feel like a wall of house paint.

message 46: by Carl (new)

Carl | 287 comments I don't like most of the poems I read, but I love a good amount of them. The more poetry I read that I like the more I appreciate good prose, and the more aggravated I get by prose hammered with cliches.

I love Dylan Thomas' definition of poetry, and I think if people were more exposed to the wide variety of poetry that is out there, they would love some of it.

Here is Thomas:

"And question five is, God help us, what is my definition of poetry?

I, myself, do not read poetry for anything but pleasure. I read only the poems I like. This means, of course, that I have to read a lot of poems I don't like before I find the ones I do, but, when I do find the ones I do, then all I can say is, "here they are", and read them to myself for pleasure.

Read the poems you like reading. Don't bother whether they're important, or if they'll live. What does it matter what poetry is, after all? If you want a definition of poetry, say: "Poetry is what makes me laugh or cry or yawn, what makes my toenails twinkle, what makes me want to do this or that or nothing", and let it go at that. All that matters about poetry is the enjoyment of it , however tragic it may be. All that matters is the eternal movement behind it, the vast undercurrent of human grief, folly, pretension, exaltation, or ignorance, however unlofty the intenion of the poem.

You can tear a poem apart to see what makes it technically tick, and say to yourself, when the works are laid out before you, the vowels, the consonants, the rhymes or rhythms, "Yes, this is it. This is why the poem moves me so. It is because of craftmanship." But you're back again where you began.

You're back with the mystery of having been moved by words. The best craftsmanship always leaves holes and gaps in the works of the poem so that something that is not in the poem can creep, crawl, flash or thunder in.

message 47: by LindaJ^ (new)

LindaJ^ (lindajs) | 2298 comments Carl wrote: "I don't like most of the poems I read, but I love a good amount of them. The more poetry I read that I like the more I appreciate good prose, and the more aggravated I get by prose hammered with c..."

Thanks for this, Carl. I especially like the last paragraph of Thomas' definition --

"You're back with the mystery of having been moved by words. The best craftsmanship always leaves holes and gaps in the works of the poem so that something that is not in the poem can creep, crawl, flash or thunder in."

That just feels right.

message 48: by Deborah (new)

Deborah | 983 comments Carl - That was a billiant quote.

message 49: by Lily (last edited Feb 20, 2014 11:33AM) (new)

Lily (joy1) | 2464 comments Linda wrote: "You're back with the mystery of having been moved by words. The best craftsmanship always leaves holes and gaps in the works of the poem so that something that is not in the poem can creep, crawl, flash or thunder in."

Thanks for pulling out that quotation, Linda. For me, they mirrored those of Michael Cunningham on translation:

"We are creatures whose innate knowledge exceeds that which can be articulated. Although language is enormously powerful, it is concrete, and so it can’t help but miniaturize, to a certain extent, that which we simply know.... Life is bigger than literature."

message 50: by James E. (new)

James E. Martin | 76 comments I go for excellent, moving prose. In my opinion, a plot is an option, and some of my fav books almost lack plots but have outstanding prose. Or if that is a bit of an overstatement, plot is subordinated to prose. For instance, I've always been a big fan of Proust, who, let's face it, could have wrapped up his plot in one volume if he had wanted to. But what beautiful language. And a writer like William Gass, for example, or some of the Beat writers like Kerouac or William S. Burroughs, just bathe you in lovely or moving, or witty, or shocking, or humorous prose. What a pleasure to turn each page. Who cares "what happens next"!

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