Differences in "styles" of fiction writing

I have been thinking about something in light of the last 2 books I’ve read, and hoped some of you might be able to help me frame my thoughts.

I tend to like fiction w/ good character development and an engaging plot. I like books where something happens to characters I care about. (I acknowledge, just my personal preference.) I read 50-70 books a year - about 50/50 F/NF, and tend to divide the fiction between what I call (for lack of better term) good vs average. (Well, the writing varies similarly for the NF, but here I’m talking about fiction.)

Last book was Anxious People - by Frederik Backman. He also wrote A Man Called Ove, and several other books. I’ve thought most of his books pretty exceptionally written. Not only are the characters/situations interesting, but he has great skill in subtly phrasing things and making observations about human behavior that I consider very perceptive. And the structure of his books are often unusual - you start them off and it takes a while before you really know where it is going. But they are not REALLY weird/challenging, like Italo Calvino or something. And the odd bits are’nt just tossed in for effect, as you sometimes perceive - an author who wants to APPEAR arty. Maybe E. Annie Proulx might be a similar author. Her writing is unusual, but displays exceptional craft. Yet the characters and plot are very believable.

Then I started A Good Neighborhood by Therese Anne Fowler. It is an interesting enough book, but it just impresses me as less well crafted. The characters and plot are well developed and believable enough, but are drawn in seemingly more broad and predictable strokes. A lot of the added details impress me as inserted in an almost clunky manner - like the author researched a certain thing just to try to add nuance/color. The work is a clever enough accomplishment, and I’m happy enough to spend a couple of days with it, but it is nothing I would call especially well-written, and I will not seek out similar books by the author.

I perceive a lot of this in popular fiction. The writing is entertaining enough, but when I read it, I almost think that I could have written that. As opposed to some of the other type, where I’m really impressed w/ the writer’s craft.

I experience similar distinction in Thrillers - another of my favorite genres. I believe someone like Mick Herron writes extremely well in his Slough House series. But many other thrillers are just formulaic plot.

I apologize for the vagueness of my post, but do any of you perceive a similar distinction in writing styles as I’m trying to describe? If so, how do you describe it - either to yourself or in discussions w/ other?

Absolutely. There are two ways to write good prose, in my opinon:

  1. Make it gorgeous.
  2. Make it invisibile.

To use classic science fiction as an example, Ray Bradbury writes gorgeous prose; Ursula Le Guin writes invisible prose. Bradbury is a poet at heart and he goes off on this absurd riffs that are just pure beauty, and I love it. Le Guin writes with such precision and lucidity that, unless I’m specifically paying attention, I don’t notice the words at all, am swept along by her characters, her settings, her plots, her ideas.

There are definitely authors who do neither. A few years ago I tried reading a Clive Cussler novel. Good lord almighty. I couldn’t make it past the second page. The prose was clunky and ugly and boorish; reading it was sitting face-to-face with a dude who hadn’t brushed his teeth in seventeen years.

There are subdivisions. Some authors write invisible, precise prose. Others–Stephen King, John Scalzi–write invisible, chatty prose. Some authors write gorgeous poetry. Others, like Joyce Carol Oates, write psychotic fever-dreams.

But the quality of prose is definitely something I pay attention to when I read. Bad prose will absolutely torpedo a book for me.

Yeah - I think Clive Cussler is a good comparison. If I were stuck on an airplane, or in a cabin on a rainy day, with nothing else to read, I could imagine just breezing through such a book, and forgetting it immediately after.

Or maybe someone like Dan Brown. Or Grisham. They are able to set up plots that are interesting enough, and they know how to plot the story so the reader is at least curious about what happens next. But there is no deeper level to the writing. No particular craft.

I basically think of such writing as cotton candy or something. You might find yourself eating if if it were before you - even if you didn’t really like it. But then you’d almost feel bad about doing so after! :wink:

And I don’t want ot come across as all snooty, either. Hell, you can read either Bradbury or LeGuin just for enjoyment, without really paying the attention to appreciate the underlying craft. But the work such as authors will reveal more on subsequent re-readings. Whereas w/ the cotton candy books - why bother? You already know how it will turn out.

I’ve seen it differentiated as “stained glass” and “clear glass” prose. Stained glass is where the language is a part of the reading experience, while clear glass is when the story and characters are shown clearly with the language being unnoticeable.

Thing is, I couldn’t read Cussler as cotton candy. His writing was so bad it made me angry. Not like stomping around the room hollerin angry, but more like scowling and thinking, “Jesus, ya fuckin idiot” a couple times a page.

King? Scalzi? Jim Butcher? Total cotton candy authors. World has room for them. Their writing is not actively awful.

Ooh, I like this a lot. I’d add to that “dirty glass” for the Cusslers of the world.

I THINK I read one Clive Cussler book, in a situation like I described. On vacation, nothing else to read. I think it was Dirk Pitt. It impressed me as entirely formulaic and unmemorable, but I was willing to pass my eyes over the pages.

One of my problems is, when I start a book - even if the writing is not great, I’ll often want to see how it ends. Yeah - could probably spend my time more profitably taking a nap or masturbating! :wink:

I think the second book I describe is a considerable step above Clive Cussler. But perhaps not to the level of either stained or clear glass. When I read work like this, I can almost imagine a moderately talented craftsman working hard to write it. Whereas w/ the better books (by my description) while I might wonder how someone could come up with that, I don’t get the image of someone scribbling away.

I believe there is a market for books where there is a cool good guy and not any big words.

Sure, there is a market. Same for Harlequin romances. But IMO the existence of a market does not make it good writing.

In some cases I’ve found writers difficult to read, but movies made from the books are much better. Elmore Leonard is one, Larry McMurtry is another. That’s probably just me, though.

This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force.

Dorothy Parker allegedly, but probably not

Beyond sentence structure and prose style, there’s also narrative structure and the pacing of world building. Fairly close to each other I started a historical fiction novel about a child abducted by Vikings, and one about an aged artist summoned by a Roman emperor.

The “Vikings” story began with a straightforward first-person exposition and continued as such. The “Roman” one was a clever short story that implied any mysteries therein might be explained if you kept reading. .

The Vikings, whomever the writer and title, were left on the shelf after a single chapter, while “Sailing to Sarantium” by Guy Gavriel Kay was returned to the breakroom table so someone else could enjoy and the sequel was bought.

I’ve read quite a few EL books. Several are entertaining, due to the characters and plot. But I’ve never quite understood the leonization of “Dutch.” A great many impress me as pretty superficial hack work.

Re: LM, I thought Lonesome Dove was pretty incredible. But the more of him I read, the more I thought it a pretty unique highwater mark. Like EL, most was serviceable, but unremarkable.

Yes, there are multiple dimensions to writing well, more than one thing a writer can be good or bad at.

And some readers are more sensitive to some of these things than others are.

And, as the OP notes, some books are more conventionally constructed than others—which doesn’t inherently make them better or worse, except that an unconventionally structured book has, I suppose, the potential to be both more challenging and more rewarding than a more typical one.

Not just you. Every 5 years or so I read another Elmore Leonard novel, in hopes that maybe this time I’ll appreciate his genius. And every time I’m left with a feeling of confusion: what are people seeing in him that I’m not? Justified is one of my top shows of all time, but I just don’t get the written appeal.

I’m kind of a sucker for weird structure, to a point. Dead Astronauts, a novel that uses different intensities of ink, notes written vertically in the margin, and entire chapters repeated multiple times, is probably just beyond that point. I finished it, but by the halfway mark it was out of a sense of grim determination rather than out of any real enjoyment. I respected the novel a lot more than I liked it.

But when authors use creative structure to a lesser degree, I’m delighted.

IMO Get Shorty was a pretty fun read for anyone who likes that genre.

But working thru his ouvre trying to find it’s equal is a long unrewarding slog.

Wow. I’ve read everything Elmore Leonard ever wrote, going back to his westerns. I love his writing.

I love reading all sorts of thriller/crime mysteries.

There are all sorts of different styles. The classic style being you, the reader, being entirely through the perspective of a famous detective. You get a feel for how he or she works. Hercule Poirot is extremely fussy about habits and precision where even the slightest object out of place is something to deduce. Therefore when you read Agatha Christie’s books often despite you keeping track of clues and pieces falling into place by way of investigation, Poirot memorizes innocuous oddities which as a reader you can be forgiven for glossing over as just that (an oddity) but further down the line it is brought back into focus as the key to the mystery.

Henning Mankell’s great series about Swedish police detective Kurt Wallander is classic Scandinavian noir. It is totally different because that character is not a famous private detective who is a know-it-all brilliant flamboyant figure. On the contrary Wallander is ordinary. He has personal demons. He has regrets, desires, observations of a life seemingly frozen in time. Scandinavian thrillers are far more simple in imagery because they go down the line of realism and the anti-hero. There’s an abruptness in the way these authors formulate the characters. Wallander is not an unlikeable character but there are authors in this sub-field who make their heroes unlikeable. They meander in thought and have their work clouded and compromised by setbacks. Something a great detective like Poirot never would.

A third style I’ve been experiencing more in recent new authors is the form where you are not in the perspective of a detective or any one character. You are given a glimpse into the mind of every major player at differing points in short abrupt sentences. Enough to start deciphering who they are but not enough to conclude are they really what they seem. This is really evident in an author I’m reading right now called Shari Lapena. Just when she lets you be a fly on the wall of one character’s house and feel you have him/her sussed out, she pulls you away and that development may stall or out right falls apart before knowing where it was going.