Re the following comment, from the New York Times Book Review’s “By the Book” feature:
Can a great book be badly written? What other criteria can overcome bad prose?
Reading Theodore Dreiser’s work has been likened to finding a very powerful Russian novel in a really bad translation. Tone-deaf works of fiction rarely achieve lift-off. Nabokov, last century’s master finisher, perfected his every sentence on its separate note card. Exquisite sentences make for wonderful books. In my view, bad sentences can only make bad ones. — Allan Gurganus
— “How the Bible Divided, and United, Allan Gurganus and His Father,” The New York Times Book Review, January 10, 2021
Perfectionism can suck the juice out of a novel.
I’m sorry, the present writer (yours truly) finds Lolita unenjoyable and unreadable, and too clever by half.
James Joyce was a genius of literature and language. His novels can also leave the reader feeling emotionally empty. His characters are mythological stand-ins, types. We peer into their minds, but they themselves don’t seem fully recognizable as idiosyncratic people the way a Dickens character such as Pip or Mr. Micawber does.
If we are going to relegate writers to inferior status on account of stylistic gaucherie, we have a problem when it comes to novelists such as Defoe, Balzac, and Dickens. (And I don’t deny Dreiser’s atrocious style.) They wrote in haste and often carelessly. It’s easy to find evidence of this. Even Shakespeare did, but then his genius trumps all such pettifoggery.
Note the following comment by a reviewer on Amazon.com:
[Our Mutual Friend] is the last of Dickens’ novels and contains some stylistic quirks. He talks a lot about “dust” which is presumably a metaphor for something, but he never says what. … His prose is also sometimes curiously mannered. He has lists of things which he repeats in numerous consecutive sentences. At other times he writes in a kind of shorthand using incomplete sentences. However, these eccentricities aside, it is as good an example of his work as many others. There are plenty of characters and caricatures to enjoy and many sub-plots to follow. As ever, you can trust Dickens to bring them all to a conclusion by the last page. He is also pleasingly sarcastic about social conventions, politics and money. There is no need to reveal any of the plot except to say that the action takes place in London and is centered around the river Thames. If you like Dickens, you will not be disappointed.
— Martin Grundy, review of Charles Dickens, Our Mutual Friend, Amazon.com, August 16, 2014
In other words, as always, Dickens manages to deliver, sloppiness and haste of composition aside.
— Roger W. Smith
January 11, 2021