THE BLOG
07/09/2012 10:11 am ET | Updated Sep 07, 2012

Writers Versus Storytellers: An Epic Battle? Not Really.

This post originally appeared on Quora.

2012-07-08-chartmann.jpeg
By Cristina Hartmann, Writer

I've been rolling this question around in my mind for a while: why do certain authors captivate the imagination without seeming to have a droplet of writing skills?

It causes much grief when we see books such as Twilight, Da Vinci Code, etc. gain bestseller success, while finely crafted books lay unread and collecting dust on the bookshelves. These two examples aren't what most would call "good" books in the literary sense. Their language hovers slightly above a fourth-grade level. Their characters defy the concept of "character development." The plots veer towards the silly and improbable.

Yet, people love them.

There are other books that have prose that tickles the five senses, characters that have deep, complex layers, and plots that excite. These are what critics would call "good" books. These books win literary prizes. The aforementioned books don't.

To me, these books seem so different that it's almost unfair to compare them at all. I feel like I'm comparing apples to oranges when I put a Danielle Steele novel next to The Great Gatsby.

So, maybe we shouldn't compare them at all. Perhaps these two types of books come from very different creatures: storytellers and writers.

Storytellers are the Makers of Mass-Produced Writing.

Now, I don't want to disparage either mass-producers or these storytellers. Authors like Meyer and Dan Brown don't seek to elevate their craft, but their stories sell. Mass producers, like these authors, just want to sell stuff and fulfill a function. Meyer and Brown are what I'd categorize as pure storytellers.

Pure storytellers tell a story that hooks a large audience, compelling them to read pages upon pages of twists and turns. Their writing never reaches the "exquisite" level, or sometimes even the "decent" level. Their prose can be hackneyed, cliche-ridden, and simplistic. Their characters feel flat and unrealistic.

Yet, their stories zoom to the top of the New York Times bestselling list.

Like mass-produced furniture, storytellers emphasize functionality over artistry. They look for things that will please a lot of people, such as exciting plots, improbable events, and relatable characters. Mass-producers of furniture make couches and tables for people to use, not to serve as pieces of useful (?) art. Storytellers don't seek to revolutionize the literary world. They just want to entertain people. People want to be entertained in a mindless way, just like people want a simple piece of furniture to sit on.

Just like furniture gains, there are the good ones (IKEA), and there are bad ones (no-name shops). The writers of the IKEA variety like to inject some spirit, some modernity, and some sass into their writing. Think: George R. R. Martin, Alexandre Dumas, and arguably Stephen King. The writers of the no-name brand variety may look the same from far away, but upon closer inspection, have shoddy construction. Think: Dan Brown, Stephenie Meyer, among others. Beware of the latter, you may fall down when you sit on those things.

Writers are Fine Craftspeople. One must have the right background to appreciate their art.

Writers want to contribute something to the craft. They want to create a work of art. They don't care about pleasing the masses. They oftentimes write beautiful prose that makes people gasp. They explore the underbelly of human nature.

These are the books that, as you read them, you think, "This is some fine writing." You'll recommend the book to all of your friends. All but one or two will never pick up the book, let alone enjoy it. It's a piece of art, but not appreciated by everyone. It's just not entertaining enough. The story may peel away our poor veneers and expose baser truths, but it just doesn't leave you breathless.

Unlike storyteller's stories, you don't feel like you're riding some kind of high when you're reading these stories. It takes some experience, education, and desire to appreciate any kind of craft, either in writing or in furniture. You learn to notice the beautiful seams and delicate details, but most people only see flat lines and somewhere to sit (or read).

Just as for storytellers, there are the good and bad craftspeople. The good writers focus on creating the best work possible. The bad ones put together a piece of overweening pretentiousness that plays at art, but isn't really art. I'll take the former but leave the latter. In a way, the latter is worse than bad storytellers since they're not even a guilty pleasure.

Storytellers and Writers Can Play Nice.

You can't compare IKEA with a hand-crafted, one-of-a-kind Shaker furniture. It's not a fair comparison. These companies, just like writers and storytellers, have different goals. Their readers get different things from these books. Storytellers want to enthrall people, and their readers want to be entertained. Writers want to create a work of art, and their readers want to appreciate art.

Instead of criticizing storytellers for their lack of artiste, one should think about whether these storytellers achieve their goal. Look at the plot, the excitement, and the enthrallment of these stories. Fine prose isn't their goal, nor is it something their readers care about, so should critics care? I'm not so sure. I know that, technically speaking, Twilight is a piece of crap, but the series seems to evoke some of teenage girl's most fundamental fantasies and entertain them at the same time. I'd have to say despite its glaring flaws, Twilight entertained many a reader. So, it did 'succeed' at its goal.

For writers, we can apply the more traditional metrics of "literary criticism" and see if they, in fact, produce a work of art. We shouldn't expect a plot that makes us feel like we're on a high-speed train full of illegal europhic drugs. We should expect a more finely crafted and subtle work.

Of course, there are some people out there who are both storytellers and writers. These are the best of the best. Their stories combine fine art with plot lines that make your heart beat faster. These men and women are the ones that we must truly prize.

For the writers and storytellers, it's only fair to consider them in their own contexts. To compare Twilight with Infinite Jest does both a disservice.

More questions on writing: