If you were to ask what the most important thing about a book is, you'd likely get one of two answers: the writing or the story.
It's a worthy debate. You can't enjoy a book if the story bores you into a stupor, and you can't read a book if the writing is so atrocious that you can't make sense of the story. Both are vitally important ingredients in the recipe of great literature.
But when it really comes down to the wire about which is most important, writing wins hands down. No contest.
I came to this conclusion fairly recently and I'm going to share examples of two essay-length works, rather than books, so if you want to check them out it won't seriously cut into your book-reading time.
I was mindlessly scrolling through Facebook one afternoon when I saw a link to a story about severed feet, still wearing shoes, washing up on Canada's western shore. It sounded like a compelling story, so I began reading.
I noticed some grammar errors here and there, some run on sentences, but nothing that I thought would keep me from actually finishing the story. After all, I had to know what happened! Did they find the owners of the severed feet? Or who severed them? It was a captivating "whodunit" and I needed to know who did it.
But the more I read, the more the article degenerated. As the article fell apart, I decided I'd read it aloud, which I shouldn't have to do because as someone who reads 50 books a year, I know I have good reading comprehension. Nonetheless, the article was crumbling and I wanted to know how the story ended, so I read it aloud. I thought that would help. But it didn't. The sentences were so poorly constructed that my tongue stumbled over words like it was trying to unicycle on a cobbled path. The whole piece was shaky, unsure of itself.
It's possible the writer was a novice and had trouble wielding such a story. It's possible the publication where the piece was published didn't have proper editors. (This I understand---I'm the only editor on this blog.) Maybe, because the story is nonfiction, the events didn't follow a clean narrative arc and the writer didn't know how to write a satisfying story that doesn't follow an orderly chain of events. There could be any number of reasons the story fell apart.
At length, I abandoned the story. I desperately wanted to know how it ended, but I just couldn't read that article any longer. I hated that I was so disappointed by a story that, on the surface, had all the trappings of a fascinating read.
It was perhaps a week later that my boyfriend shows me an article about mayonnaise by Rick Bragg in Gourmet magazine.
By contrast, this didn't sound like something I'd enjoy at all. I rarely, if ever, read food magazines, and I loathe mayonnaise. I find it repulsive. Ketchup or bust!
Somehow my boyfriend talked me into reading the article anyway, and I was enraptured. Enraptured, I tell you, by an article about mayonnaise. It defies all logic. Everything in the article pointed to the fact that I should have hated reading it.
But I didn't. And that's all thanks to the writing.
I never knew mayonnaise could be discussed so eloquently. Who would, except perhaps Rick Bragg? Though the article wasn't really about mayonnaise at all---it was about how he learned that mayonnaise was the secret ingredient to his mother's legendary mashed potatoes, and how there are "mustard people" and "mayonnaise people," and how mayonnaise is intertwined with many memories of his Southern upbringing. I even laughed aloud when he said in New Orleans "you have to go uphill to drown."
Oftentimes the best stories have the most humble beginnings. They take a small thing, like mayonnaise, and make it about so much more. Some writers think they need some grandiose tale---a story that writes itself. But if the story is so fantastical that it "practically writes itself," the author is probably falling down on the job.
Great writers don't need outrageous tales. They just need a little of the everyday because they know that even something as mundane as a condiment can hold worlds inside it. Stories are everywhere and nearly anything can be made into a good story when put into the hands of a deft writer. No need to wait for some outlandish event to occur or some creative epiphany. The story is always there---it's what the writer does with it that counts.