Saturday, April 28, 2012

SPECIAL GUEST BLOG: Katharine Kerr on Good Prose

Writers and readers both love to discuss, and maybe argue about, what constitutes "good" prose. From the readers' points of view, the definition really comes down to a matter of taste -- at least, that’s the conclusion I usually end up drawing from these discussions.

Some people enjoy complex sentences and unusual words. Some people hate them. Some people hate short sentences and basic vocabulary. Others like them. And so on.

It occurred to me that we might look at the problem from the other side: the writer's point of view. What constitutes good prose? Prose that has the effect upon the reader that the writer intended it to have.

Does the writer want the reader to zip through the story and enjoy it as an entertainment? That will require one style of prose. Does the writer want the reader to experience the story as an immersion into a strange and foreign place and time? That will require another. Is an incident supposed to be funny? Humor demands a certain choice of words. Is the incident supposed to make the reader get all teary-eyed? Then the writer had better avoid that distanced, ironic humor.

We can thus define "bad" prose as words that fail to do what the writer wants them to do. Really bad prose which is so muddled that we can't even tell what the writer had in mind does exist, but such doesn’t get into print. Usually the examples are less extreme. A strict-genre entertainment might be written in such complex, rambling sentences that a reader looking for a few hours of escape decides to throw the book across the room. A thoughtful, serious near-future SF work that sounds like a middle grade adventure story is not going to get much respect.

Here's an example of how bad prose can wreck a story, one I remember from a writing class of many years ago. I've forgotten the writer's name, and I bet he'd be glad I have. Anyway, the story concerned a Sensitive, Poetic Young Man who yearned for a certain girl at a high school dance. He asks her to dance, she makes fun of him, his pain knows no bounds. The reader does feel his pain and feels sorry for him until he rushes out of the dance into the parking lot, where :

"In the glare of floodlights the pale trunks of the eucalyptus trees looked like cottage cheese."          

That, folks, is mood-shattering prose.

Katharine Kerr is the author of too many weird books, including the multi-volume Deverry cycle of epic fantasy, a few SF works, and the new Nola O’Grady series of urban fantasies. She lives near San Francisco, CA, with her husband and some cats.

Polar City Blues is now available as a multi-format ebook from Book View Cafe.


  1. OK, three things here:

    1. I have read all the Deverry books. Insert appropriate levels of fanboy geek-out over seeing a guest post from Ms. Kerr here.

    2. For a post about bad prose, this has to be done. Apologies all:

    3. OK, now that I'm finished with semi-irrelevant nerdity, here's an actual probe into the subject matter: Is it possible for prose to be unintentionally good?

    Let's take that cottage cheese line. Now, I have only the context for that line you gave us. From my point of view, a story about a sensitive, poetic young man at a high school dance really needs to highlight the absurdity of the situation. Such boys are typically very impressed with their ability to be dramatic. I certainly was, at that age.

    That cottage cheese line, with me as a reader, could have made the whole story. It would have taken what is basically a melodrama and highlighted the absurdity of the situation.

    I'm not saying that, as authors, we should rely on that kind of luck. Far from it. I'm just saying that "good" is judged far more by the perspective of the audience than the author. With that kind of a highlight, I may have taken the work to be just fine; I just wouldn't have taken the work to be anything near what the author intended.

  2. Aigh! Blogger didn't take my ID on that last post. It was me, I promise.