Over on Rara Avis they're having an interesting discussion about the value of style to a story. In other words, I suppose, can mediocore writing be saved by a damned good story?
The most interesting response so far has come from Dick Lochte:
I partially agree with Jack Bludis' note about the importance of the story.
In the world of blockbuster books, the one in which we now find ourselves,
story trumps everything. If you want to hit the bestseller lists, an
engaging style alone won't be much help; you need a good story, preferably
one with the age-old movie necessity high concept. To have a long-lasting
career as a writer, however, it helps to be able to tell that good story
well. The great comedians, from Bob Hope to Chris Rock, have used jokes that
were honed to perfection. But, as anyone my age who used to try and repeat a
Newhart or Cosby routine to friends can recall, the delivery can be just as
important as the material.
Much of the fiction I read as a youth was pretty lame when it came to style. Story and occasionally character triumphed over all sorts of stylist infelicities.
Even today I can read a piece of badly written fiction if the story holds me. Dick nails it with bestsellers. There story is all. And high concept story at that. I don't know that this applies to bestselling mystery series, however. With these the character's occupation or the milieu seems to suffice for high concept (maybe occupation and/or mileu IS the high concept). I pay particular attention to what Dick says because's he's one of the finest sylists working in the field today.
Stephen King became a much better writer over the years. But I still reread Salem's Lot and The Shining and The Bachman Books with great pleasure. Same with his early short stuff. Some of those stories had the same effect on me as getting stabbed. In a pleasurable way, of course. (And no, I've never been stabbed, though seeing Bush or Cheney on TV puts me in equivalent pain.)
A few weeks ago I reviewed a 1964 Gold Medal novel called Scandal on The Sand by John Trinian. Really fine pb. The structure was masterful and the social observation surpisingly rich. And the plot cooked. This guy knew how to tell a story. And the writing was equal to the other aspects of the tale. Deft turns of phrase; conscious rythms in the sentences; interesting, even entertaining word choices.
I don't know that it has to be either or. But I sure do appreciate a well-turned sentence now and then.