An editor I admire once said that readers, in general, will always prefer strong storytelling to beautiful prose. The "in general" qualification is, of course, a big one for those of us who deal in words for a living. Prizewinning novels, highly acclaimed ones, often feature elegant, sophisticated, even intellectual prose. But does the readership in general care about that?
In a word, no. Fifty Shades of Grey, surely, is evidence of that.
It's a question all of us, as writers, have to ask ourselves, just the same. I've just finished reading a historical novel that is badly written, even amateurish. The prose is pedestrian and larded with cliches. The characters are two-dimensional. The best part of the novel is a sort of intermittent diary entry in an interesting voice, but the narrative itself is the sort you can skim through without missing anything.
But I finished it! Why? I have no qualms at all about putting down a book that bores me. There aren't enough hours in the day to waste them reading bad books! In this case, however, the author (I won't name her or the book, because I make it a rule not to trash my colleagues) constructed a story that intrigued me enough to draw me through. Yes, I skimmed the novel, but also yes, I wanted to know how the plot worked out in the end.
My agent once said, when I told him I was "polishing prose," that a writer can "polish prose forever." Polishing prose, as it happens, is my favorite part of writing, but he was pushing me to intensify my plotting, to put my characters in more trouble, to increase the story tension. I hope I learned my lesson.
I understand, though, that story trumps style. It's not a truth I love, but one I must accept. Plotting, for this writer, is the hardest part of the job, but it has to be done. Beautiful writing, without central story tension, has, I'm afraid, a narrow audience. We need to make our readers long to know what's going to happen, so they will keep turning those pages. And remember our names when they want to read another good book!
But can we please tell those strong stories with good, clean prose, free of cliches and repetitions and wordiness and predictable descriptions? Thank you.