The Importance of Good Writing

Someone asked me recently how I choose what books to read. I meant to answer that here, but it seems to have metamorphosed into explaining why, in one particular case, I stopped and put a book down — and not that far into it either.

This might not seem like anything important, but when the book in question is part of my 100 Great Novels list, and with my commitment to reviewing each novel, skipping something on that list has to be a serious decision. The book was Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe. It was one of those classics I meant to catch up on, and I was surprised and disappointed to find out that it generated no interest with me whatsoever. Did my current fixation on fantasy and science fiction rather than “straight” literature have anything to do with it? I admit it’s possible. But I could tell there was another reason: the writing just wasn’t very good.

The writing. You know, the words stuck together into sentences, dialogue, and narrative. They were competent, at times even clever. But never very interesting. In Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe clearly wants us to spend time with the characters before getting the plot into full swing. So while the narrative is building (and it does so from the very first page, it’s true) we’re treated to scenes and exchanges meant to build the people and our sympathies for them; digressions into backstory, arguments and discussions, an in-depth description of the titular cabin. But somehow it just didn’t work on me. Her writing was competent, but she never seemed to try for better. Even the occasional flash of satiric wit wasn’t enough to make it brilliant.

Writing is the most fundamental aspect of a book. That should come as an obvious statement, yet it clearly doesn’t. When we talk about stories we like to talk about the plot, the characters, the pace — virtually anything but the craft that gives it shape and substance. It’s the foundation on which the entire book is based. A book is nothing but words, after all, and in order for the book to be worth anything the words have to be up to the job. But more than that: without writing, nothing else matters because without writing, nothing else exists. And if the writing isn’t good then neither is anything else.

And I suppose that’s also how I choose what to read: by going through the first few pages and getting a flavour for the language, for the structure, for the writing. Though even if it promises much it might still disappoint further in.

So the collection of reviews for the 100 Great Novels project is going to have to live without one for Uncle Tom’s Cabin. I apologize if you were looking forward to it, or if the book is one you love. It just didn’t turn out to be my cup of tea. But you have to admit: I gave a pretty good reason.

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