The essay of my discontent

I was pretty good at handling senioritis until my last essay in high school. We read Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, and I hated every minute of it. So, knowing that I could safely fail the essay and still get the heck out of there, I decided to write the essay about how much I despised Heart of Darkness.

However, as I began writing, I realized that Heart of Darkness is really very well written. There is a reason high schoolers are forced to read it. My problem with it was the content–the utter bleakness of Conrad’s perspective of humanity. I didn’t agree with him in the least, and so I wrote my essay on how his great writing really contributed to how terrible the book is.

So what makes a good book? The quality of the writing or the quality of the content? Or is it not so much the quality of the content as much as content that agrees with your Weltanschauung? Or conversely, content that makes you question and probe your views of the world? Can beautiful writing make up for a dragging plot? Can sheer level of entertainment make up for low-quality writing? Can deep, thought-provoking concepts be conveyed in less than stellar writing?

I really don’t know. I’m not even sure where I fall on the spectrum. This is why the book business is such a gamble: there is no set grading scale for a book. Every book with affect every person in a different way. Every person will see every book through different eyes. There is a dizzying amount of variables on both the author’s side and the reader’s side.

What do you think? Is writing style or content more important? Can you enjoy a book deficient in one or the other?


  1. Writing style is one thing. Writing content is another. Writing ability is a third. I will promptly pitch a book that has more errors in it than I can stomach. I’ll say “No, thanks,” to content that turns my stomach. Style needs to be appropriate for the content, and if it’s a jarring mismatch, with nothing to gain from the effort of trying to reconcile the two, I’ll probably give up on it, sooner or later. I do have favorite styles, but style is not as absolute as the other two qualities (otherwise, I wouldn’t like more than one).

    • Do you mean that if the three things – style, content, and ability – are strong, the book will be strong?

      “Strong.” That’s the word I like to use. I might not like the content, but if the book is strong (great style, great ability), I will be more inclined to think twice about the content. The book would “influence” me, you know?

      And great post! I totally get what you mean by the book industry as a gamble. I always feel so alone because none of my close friends seem to share my taste of literature and music, and it makes me wonder if I’m just the odd sheep and no one will like the literature and music I produce because my taste is so different! But if you look around, there are audiences for many of the writers and artists I follow. So I can’t be the ONLY weird one πŸ˜‰

      Perhaps it’s also about finding your niche in the industry. Marketing and networking :/

      • “Strong” is a great word. Sometimes it’s hard to say whether a book is “good” or “bad,” but there are definitely elements that can be strong and weak. And a strong book would definitely bring more influence to the table than a book that is enjoyable, but maybe a little weaker. Great choice of words!

        And I totally know how you feel. Sometimes I feel like I am the only person on earth who likes certain books or musicians. But the nice thing about the Internet is that you can find others with similar tastes. Networking seems like a scary word to me most of the time, but if you think about it as just finding people like you, it suddenly sounds a lot more fun. Thanks for your insightful comment!

  2. Writing is an art, and is inherently subjective. There are no absolutes in art–what appeals to one person is wholeheartedly rejected by another. Moby Dick is a classic, but I couldn’t make it past Chapter 2. The Great Gatsby is another classic, but all the way through it I kept wondering why the book is considered a classic, because it was “meh” in my point of view. I won’t touch Vonnegut because his style is too “out there” for me, but the content is good.

    I think there are probably examples of every variation of style and content that have been received as both brilliant and not so much. Anyone remember The Celestine Prophecy? I enjoyed the content, but the writing was not the best. It was a bestseller, yet panned by many. Then 50 Shades of Grey comes along, and becomes a bestseller, but again is criticized for poor writing in the grand scheme of things.

    I think both content and style have to be appealing to the reader, but everyone has a different view of what content and style is readable.

    • “Writing is an art, and is inherently subjective.” Yes! That’s why all those “how to be a bestselling author” articles are useless. That kind of advice is based on the falsehood that writing is a “craft” that, if done “right,” will result in sales. But art and craft are two very different things.

      The purpose of a craft is objective and tangible: to perform a task. A basket, made “right,” is guaranteed to find a buyer. But writing books is not like weaving baskets. A story, written “right,” is guaranteed nothing, because it’s an art, not a craft. The purpose of art is subjective and intangible: to communicate. Writing is the ultimate form of communication.

      Ability, style and content all contribute to how an artist’s message is received, but whether or not the recipient (patron) chooses to keep communicating (by trading time and/or treasure for it) is another matter.

    • Yes! Sometimes I feel guilty because there are classics that I just can’t read. And again, there are classics I love that many people have told me are insufferably dull. Everyone is going to have different tastes. I love your line: “There are no absolutes in art.” So true.

      Great examples and comments! Thanks so much for sharing! I really appreciate all of your comments, you’re awesome!

  3. Sometimes after I’ve read a book I say, “I really enjoyed that!” Sometimes I say, “That was really well written.” Sometimes I can say both things, and sometimes I can’t. I think what helps me appreciate every book I read is realizing that someone really enjoyed it AND thought it was well written. Something can be well written and unenjoyable (for some people) and something can be poorly written, but a fun time. Which gives me hope for my book.

  4. Pingback: Weekend Wrap-up: Writer Potential, F-words, Ebola scares, and the One Lovely Blog Award | breakfast with words

  5. Pingback: Classic! | BumblesBooks

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