But first, a glimpse of the way my brain works. (To your scattered thought process go--)
The first thing I read this morning was a review of The Privilege of the Sword by Bookslut's self-described "Genre Floozy," Adrienne Martini, possibly my least-favorite genre reviewer. (She liked the book; I also liked it. My issue is not with her critical faculties. My issue with her reviews is that they always have this not-so-vague air of Puritan guilt about them, as if she's lowering herself in reading genre, and she needs to distance herself from any suspicion she might, you know, actually be drawn to that filth.) (Now that I've ensured myself fifteen years of bad reviews from Ms. Martin, I-should-stay-in-print-so-long, moving on--)
Anyway, the relevant paragraph from the review:
The plot -- a young girl is sold to her crazy, jet-black sheep of an uncle in order to be trained as a swordsperson, which is something that is just not done in this nebulous place and time -- has a well-stoked engine that keeps it humming along, which is weird given that Kushner’s prose is rich with embroidered details that should slow the pace down. It’s only later, though, that you realize how much is coded into this text because the read itself is brisk.
Now, ellen_kushner is, in my only rarely humble opinion, one of the best prose stylists in the genre. Some of this is my personal preference, of course--her writing is crisp, lovely, charismatic, trenchant, and often laugh-out-loud funny when it's not heartbreakingly poignant--and sometimes both at once. She's one of two writers I won't read in public, because I tend to embarrass easily, and simultaneously giggling and sniffling on the bus is too much for my composure. (The other one is Peter S. Beagle.)
But what caught my eye about that paragraph was the implied dichotomy--that rich prose is necessarily inimical to plot. Now, I won't deny that they are not always found hand in hand. But, given my own experience as a writer, I suspect this is because most of us find one easier to do than the other, and we learn pretty early in this business to play to our strengths. We won't please everyone; the trick to surviving as a fictioneer is to find one's audience (those persons who are in sympathy to what one is good at or what one is interested in talking about) and satisfy their expectations and desires.
Also, it's not too much of an exaggeration to say that writing is too hard to do well. It's a juggling act, and a balancing act, and one is working with limited space and resources (and there's the necessity of maintaining pacing), and every decision one makes, as a writer, means that several other possibilities can no longer be explored. And then, of course, there is the issue that this thing is not easy. (It's also the only thing I've ever done that gets harder the better I get at it, because while my skills grow, my awareness of everything I need to accomplish with those skills grows faster.)
Which brings us to the issue of aesthetics. Can science fiction be beautifully written? Can beautifully written stories cook along at a high rate of speed? Can one maintain a literary and a pulp sensibility simultaneously, in other words? (If one's really ambitious, can one get an eloquent sense of character in there, too?)
Damn straight. I refer you to the abovementioned The Privilege of the Sword and to Peter Beagle's work. To the work of Peter Watts, who writes a kind of terse, accelerating prose that I find absolutely breathtaking. Neil Gaiman at his best manages a lovely balancing act of style and tension and depth.
I'm reading a book by Martin Cruz Smith right now, Stallion Gate. I find that while I usually like Smith's work (He's most famous for Gorky Park) this book is leaving me cold. It's beautifully written and beautifully characterized and the world he's building--Los Alamos during the Manhattan Project, through the eyes of an Indian sergeant assigned to project security--is lovingly and complexly evoked, and there are wonderful dichotomies and collisions between the world of the local Native Americans and the world of the government scientists and the world of the Army.
But good lord, could something happen now please? The novel is arranged in a series of vignettes, from which a pattern emerges, but the problem is that the novel breaks tension constantly. There's no through line, or if there is, it's a drunkard's-walk. And while I understand why Smith is doing this--it's a way to show what he wants to show, and evoke the scattered landscape of ideologies he's working from--I find it detracts from the book.
I would like, in other words, less of a meditation, and more of a narrative.
Continuing the earlier discussion of writing and compulsion, there's another dichotomy of craft ideology there. jay_lake talks in comments about an ethos that implies that slow=good, when constructing prose, and that he has issues with that, as well. I tend to agree: everybody's process varies here, and we all tend to privilege our own way of doing things. That's a self-defense mechanism, frankly. We need to validate our own process as writers.
And that's cool. Validating one's own process is necessary, because the world exists to make artists feel like they suck. We *need* to stick up for ourselves. So there are those who spend months crafting a short story, and who feel that that is the system that works for them--and those who write four pages a day, every day, even if it feels like drek.
One thing I have noticed is that the multiply-published writers who write more slowly seem, in my limited and subjective anecdotal experience, to come to the table with a better sense of prose, to publish earlier in their careers, and to write quirkier stories. But those are gross generalities; it just seems that those particular cards (in the "the first one is free" theory of development as a writer) seem to go with a more meandering and meticulous writing process. This is not a dichtomy; it is a pattern, possibly entirely subjective.
For me, I came in writing good characters and okay plots, but my prose style didn't develop until I'd written well over three million words. If I were doing the hundred-words-a-day plan, I never would have grown a voice. Thematic depth arrived about the same time the prose did. (For those of you who are willing to admit of thematic depth in my work, anyway.)
Anyway, it's a similar false dichotomy, discussed here to illuminate how silly I think choosing up sides can be. We need all these skills to write well. And yet, there are those aesthetics--plot, prose, prose, plot--at war. But when confronted with a novel that is more narrative than meditation, I am also often obscurely disappointed. It feels shallow to me, and I keep looking for the undercurrents.
In any case, what all this pondering leads me to is the realization that there is a perception in genre that that pretty stuff--beauty of language, craftsmanship, metaphor--somehow distracts from the serious business of getting the metal to fly. And I find that I can't agree with that, that I delight in the good prose as much as in the strong narratives--and that the lack of one can destroy my enjoyment of the other. There's an aesthetic in SFF (more SF than fantasy) of "transparent" prose, where "transparent" is an vaguely defined term subject to a great deal of argument. (Often it means workmanlike (which I find anything *but* transparent, personally) and sometimes it means craftsmanlike.)
If you ever want to fluster a hard SF writer, by the way, praise his or her prose style or narrative voice. *g* They blink at you like you just grew a third head.
And I tend to differ. I think the ideal goal is to do everything well, and the realistic compromise is to do it all to the best of one's ability. We're none of us perfect, I suspect, but more of us could manage not to settle.