Does a Good Story Trump Good Writing?

The short answer to this question, in my opinion, is yes. However, that does not mean that I believe one should not strive for good writing, that one should be arrogant enough to try and have one good idea compensate for badly written prose. If fact, I consider this one of the greatest tragedies in my personal reading experience, to love a story’s concept, but to have it so poorly executed that I cannot appreciate it.

Nevertheless, the historical and modern examples demonstrate that, if one has a stellar story that captures the imagination, most are prepared to wade through what some may deem less than robust writing. Many mock the writing of Twilight and Fifty Shades of Gray, but that has done nothing to hinder either franchise’s sales. In the 19th century, Gaston Leroux’s Phantom of the Opera was considered just normal, run-of-the-mill, Gothic horror fiction, yet its many adaptions have fashioned the Phantom as a gigantic cultural icon.

It is difficult for me to pass judgment like this because I am a relativist. With the exception of my morality, which I see very much in black and white, I am a relativist when it comes to judging the quality of literature, art, music, and the like. This is a flexible disposition I have acquired by living in the Middle East, learning to abide by cultural norms that vastly differed from my own.

Writing styles can take many forms, with each possessing their own strengths and weaknesses. Whether we consider a specific type of writing style depends entirely on the rubric by which the writing is being judged. Is there a fixed rubric? No, everyone has their own priorities and aspects of writing that they believe to be the most important in a story.

There are very few books in which I found the writing so awful that I could not continue it. And what was torturous for one reader may be tolerable if not enjoyable to another. For example, some people dread trudging through Leo Tolstoy’s work, yet I find his style engaging enough that I’m don’t complain about the length. On the other hand, I tried reaching The Scarlet Letter and I just couldn’t do it. I was bored out of my skull.

No one book is going to please everybody, yet that doesn’t mean writers shouldn’t do their absolute best to create something meaningful for literature, both in story and the physical aspect of prose.

 

 

 

 

My First Book Club

Last week I started my first ever book club! It’s a small group comprising of some neighbors from the various condo complexes that circle the lake that ties our community together. We had introductions over tea, cake, and cookies. Then we discussed the finer details of how we would like the club to function.

The idea for this book club has been in my head for about a year now, but I was too shy to take initiative. I was worried that there would be no desire for one, that it would be totally cliché to start such a club, but it seems there are fellow literature enthusiasts who were itching for a book club just as much as myself.

This is a book club specifically geared towards the classics of literature, both historic and modern. I’m usually not a book snob; I need a healthy balance of literary and commercial fiction to remain a happy little bookworm, but I thought classics would have a stronger glue to make a book club in my area stick together.

We ultimate decided that the first book we shall read this month is Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen. This blog will directly benefit from this club and I will write a book review for each book we read, in addition to the books I read on my own.

I’m glad I started a book club because it taps into one of my weaknesses: engaging with the wider community. I’ve always focused so much on school or work that I rarely took the time to invest in other types of extracurricular activities. This has sometimes times been to my detriment, like when I noticed how bare my resume was in that department.

This can become even more of a problem as I devote more time to my writing aspirations. Part of why I created a book club was because I am spending more time on my writing. One cannot be a good writer if one is not reading regularly. However, I am determined to turn my focus of reading/writing into a social endeavor rather than have it isolate me.

 

 

 

 

 

A Few Words on the English Language

I would like to jot down a few words regarding my relationship with my native language. English is my only mother tongue, despite how I desperately wish that I was bilingual from childhood. I always regret that my father’s side of the family did not retain Danish and that my mother’s side abandoned Italian. As it is, English remained my only language at home.

As someone who has devoted a significant portion of my professional and personal life to mastering other languages, English is not a language that I often take pride in. From my study in linguistics I long ago realized that English, as the global lingua franca, possesses a sociopolitical monopoly over other languages, a monopoly that I do not agree with and believe to be unjust.

While my decision to study the languages I do is partly rooted in personal taste, I must also concede that I can pick whatever language I want to study because I can already boast fluency in the most economically viable language. From my privileged position as a native English speaker, I never need to worry that I’m wasting my time with any other language.

That is not true for others. I remember announcing my decision to learn Turkish to my friends in Morocco. Much to my dismay, some were downright discouraging. “Turkish?” they said. “Why on earth would you learn that? Take Spanish or Portuguese.”

At first I was insulted by their lack of support, but upon further reflection I could see how they were coming from a pragmatic, strategic standpoint. For Moroccans, Turkish holds no promise of socioeconomic mobility, therefore they considered the pursuit wasteful and foolish. Non-native speakers of English must choose their foreign languages wisely so they do not devote too much time and energy to a language that will not yield the career results they want.

From the realization of my linguistic privilege I have sought to deemphasize English. In  that way I internalized international students’ perception of English as unromantic and strictly communicative, so much so that I rarely wrote poems in English. Poetry, as a art form celebrating the beauty and rhythm of language,  was originally a literary exercise for my foreign languages like Arabic and Turkish.

But I do love to write, especially fiction. It is through the written form of prose that I can admire the English language as something beyond mere communication, a language that can be beautiful and artistic. When I’m describing a character’s emotions or painting the picture of a scene with words…that is when I truly connect emotionally with English.
Blogging has also increased my appreciation for English within the last few year. From journalistic articles to more personal narratives, I’m using English more often to express my feelings to what in going on around me, both at the macro and micro levels.

I still have a long way to go in fully appreciating the mother language that has been given to me, but hopefully through blogging, creative writing, and more poetry in English, I can see my native tongue as one that has its own charm that shouldn’t necessarily be concealed in my personal life due to wider societal issues with intolerance of linguistic diversity.

Anna Karenina vs. The Duchess

I find it surprising that no one has thought to compare these two movies before. Both are period dramas starring Keira Knightley retelling the lives of two aristocratic women. Both films were excellent is providing strong, multidimensional female leads, one who finds wisdom after being broken and one who falls from grace and succumbs to madness.

The Duchess is the adaption of Amanda Foreman’s biography of Georgiana Cavendish, the 6th Duchess of Devonshire. Born Lady Georgiana Spencer, she was the great-great-great-great-aunt to the late Princess Diana. She married the duke of Devonshire on her 17th birthday. The duke was an emotionally stunted man who was only concerned with having a son, something Georgiana did not provide him until many years into their marriage. She eventually has an affair with the uprising politician Charles Grey until she is forced to break it off when the duke threatens to take her children away. She is also forced to relinquish her illegitimate daughter to the Grey family and lives the rest of her life as the Duchess of Devonshire.

Anna Karenina is the adaptation of the 1873 novel of the same name by Leo Tolstoy, one of my favorite classics of all time. Anna is the dutiful wife of a high-ranking imperial official who is swept into a passionate love affair by the dashing cavalry officer Count Vronsky. Ultimately the affair is discovered and Anna attempts to live her life as Vronsky’s mistress, only to find that all of society has ostracized her. That combined with her increasing erratic jealousy plunges her into insanity until she commits suicide by stepping in front of a train.

Between the two women, Georgiana is the character that inspires the most sympathy. Her husband had already had his own string of affairs before Georgiana has hers with Charles Grey and it is clear that the duke is not genuinely hurt by her actions, only concerned with his reputation. Anna, on the other hand, has her affair with Vronsky when her husband, albeit not overtly affectionate, was still emotionally devoted to her. Georgiana is also the opposite of Anna where she was willing to sacrifice her personal happiness with Grey to remain in her children’s lives, whereas Anna was prepared to leave her son to be with Vronsky.

In the beginning I had sympathy for Anna. Though her husband was not cruel, they did marry out of convenience, thus Count Vronsky could possibly be considered Anna’s first “real” love. My sympathy for Anna came to an end, however, after she decided to return to Vronsky upon regaining her health from the difficult childbirth of her illegitimate daughter. She thought she was going to die and didn’t want to depart this world without obtaining Karenin’s forgiveness. When she didn’t end up dying, she wanted to go back to Vronsky, illustrating that her husband’s forgiveness meant little to her in actuality. She only wanted it to soothe her own conscience in the face of death.

Any sympathy I had for Anna after that was purely at a societal level. I condemned Anna personally, but could still bear witness to the unjust double standards that the Russian aristocracy had in regards to male and female adultery. Anna’s brother, Oblonsky, is depicted as a benevolent character, even though he himself is notorious for having affair after affair without remorse.

If there is a weakness in Georgiana’s character, it is her naivety and her desire for attention. Since she does not receive affection from her husband, she seeks it superficially by focusing on the public who adores her. Her dissatisfaction with her home life leaves her susceptible to various addictions, her biggest one being gambling. The stark contrast between her image as a public figure and her private life has been compared to other modern celebrities like Marilyn Monroe.

Both films hold a special place in my heart because they show two strong women who reacted very differently to the limitations placed upon their gender during the 18th and 19th centuries. Georgiana was able to gain much political influence in her own right in the Whig Party while delicately maintaining deference to her husband, while Anna Karenina brazenly defied her husband and society’s expectations of her, though that ultimately lead to her downfall when she could no longer rely on Vronsky to remain faithful to her. It was not society that directly crushed her, it was the sense that her relationship with Vronsky was not longer healthy and thus no longer “worth” the scorn she was enduring from society.

I strongly recommend anyone to go watch these two amazing historical dramas. Both films are available on Netflix. You will not be disappointed.