Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Words vs. Ideas

As I mentioned yesterday, this weekend I started reading Dan Brown's ANGELS & DEMONS, opening the book with fairly low expectations given my mediocre affection for THE DA VINCI CODE. I bought it more out of curiosity then desire, yet halfway through I'm enjoying it. A lot.

Yet as I whip through the 710 paperback pages, I'm often astounded at how mind-numbingly awful most of the dialogue is, how characters in the midst of a race against time can find six pages to expound on Christian philosophy, and why Robert Langdon, an American-born Harvard professor, yells "Bloody Hell!" any time there's trouble.

Yet for all its shortcomings, I'm speeding through ANGELS and enjoying myself immensely. These days it takes me forever to finish reading books for pleasure. Between reading at work, and the deadlines for editing and writing my own books now, I just don't have the time or eye strength to go home and stare at size 6 font. Yet ANGELS AND DEMONS is more than keeping my attention--when I close the book I actually look forward to my next reading session.

Which leads me to my question:

What's more important, when reading a book, listening to music, or watching a movie--Words or Ideas?

The words in ANGELS & DEMONS are pretty terrible, to the point where I wonder if Dan Brown has had a conversation with an actual human being in his whole life. But the ideas are very cool, and even if his religious and technical posturing is full of crap he knows his way around a church and laboratory. So in this instance, the ideas in ANGELS & DEMONS carry much more weight than the words.

When it comes to literary fiction, many people can't stand it because despite the poetic language, there's not much story to speak of (Michael Cunningham's SPECIMIN DAYS was roundly criticized for this). At BEA this weekend, there was talk about how hard it is to break out literary fiction. The reason being, I think, is that it's much harder to promote words than ideas. Promoting THE DA VINCI CODE or THE HISTORIAN is easy. A treasure hunt. A search for Count Dracula. Sounds cool, right?

So how do you get people interested in books that don't inherently "sound cool"? It's all about the writing, but the problem is people don't know how good the writing is until they actually read it or see a glowing review. With books, it's almost always about the pitch. The one line description that gets people to take notice. I mean, can you even think of a one-line description for THE CORRECTIONS that isn't the world's longest run-on sentence?

My favorite show on t.v. right now is "The Shield," mainly because of the words rather than the ideas. On the surface, it's a standard cop procedural. Nothing earth-shattering. But the characters are so authentic, and the conflicts so real and emotional, that even if the plotlines feel recycled you're mesmerized by Detective Vic Mackay's struggle between right and wrong, heaven and hell.

Anyways, at the end of the terrific second season, after Vic and his team cross a line from which they can never return, there's a montage while the song "Overcome" by Live plays in the background. The show rarely uses a soundtrack, but when it does it does to maximum effect. The song fits perfectly over the proceedings, the violins and piano underscoring the moral line that the Strike Team just obliterated and their realization that they've finally become everything they claim to fight.

But if you listen to the song without the show's visual aids...the lyrics make NO sense. None. They're actually quite ridiculous. It's one of the few songs I like where I refuse to sing (even alone) because I just feel silly. But listening to the melody, it gets me every time. The idea of the song, the overarching sentiment, is more powerful than Ed Kowalcyk's quacked lyrics.

So I guess I'd like to pose a question in all this. What's more important: Words or Ideas? In a perfect union you have both (I know I keep harping, but MYSTIC RIVER is a perfect example of an terrific concept bolstered by powerful writing). But what draws you to your favorite mediums: Words or Ideas?

8 Comments:

Blogger Brett Battles said...

Excellent topic. And it's really got me thinking...

I love a good concept, but if it doesn't have the words to back it up, I often feel unfulfilled when I finish. The same goes for stories where the words are great, but the concept falls flat. Though not to the same degree. At least a well written book will get me to be interested in the characters.

If I had to choose between the two, I honestly don't know which way I'd go. It would depend on my mood in the end.

The best, as you mentioned, is when the two come together. Nothing is better than that.

12:47 PM  
Blogger Jason said...

It's especially hard for a first novel or an author you haven't read before, since really all you have to go on is the cover, the publisher's summary, blurbs, and any reviews you've read. You can't very well sit in the store/library to see if you like the words enough.

4:53 PM  
Blogger Brett Battles said...

That's so true, and something we're both up against.

7:14 PM  
Blogger Jason said...

Amen brother, here's to both of us making a dent in that iron marketplace.

7:45 PM  
Blogger Bryon Quertermous said...

For me its all about the words. The thing that always draws me into a book or keeps me reading is the voice of the author. There are books that could not have a lick of plot but I'd love to spend 700 pages just hanging out with the characters.

I'm not a big thriller fan at all but there have been times i know I've been sucked up in fantastic thriller plotting (mostly with John Grisham) but the examples are few.

As for breaking out literary fiction, I think the fact that there is no idea to latch onto for marketing purposes is why so much more emphasis is placed on the author. They look for a prestigious MFA to tout, or prestigious story publications, or a unique personality.

8:41 PM  
Blogger JT Ellison said...

Problem is, if you don't have a cohesive, over arching idea, the words can fall flat. Even beautiful writing suffers when there's nothing substantive to back it up. I think that's wht Brown gets away with the poor writing -- his ideas are fantastic.

4:54 PM  
Blogger Allison Brennan said...

Neither. Character is what draws me in. If I can't relate to at least one of the characters and care about what happens in their story, then it doesn't matter if the concept is fabulous or the writing top-notch.

But if I had to choose, I'd probably lean toward words simply because I like books that are rhythmic and comfortable, where I can lose myself in the story and forget time passing. I can't do that if the narrative is painful.

12:37 AM  
Blogger Jason said...

Totally agree with Allison here. I love reading about characters I believe in, who feel like real people. Then when they're in peril, you have an emotional stake in them, not just a visceral one.

1:00 PM  

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