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Good Writing vs Good Storytelling

A friend - both close and a little odd odd - gave me a novel a few days before I left on a long haul fight.

In The Unlikely Event.

Judy Blume’s first novel in fifteen years, I like to believe that the gift was based on a debate we’d had about Michael’s name for his penis in Blume’s Forever. As opposed to her thinking I’d want to read about plane crashes. While on a bloody plane.

(Ralph. For the record. Although I maintain, stubbornly, that naming a penis Roger just makes more sense).

I hadn’t read any Blume since devouring her back-catalogue in primary school, twenty-odd years ago. Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret? - with its brow-furrowing menstrual pining and complex feminine hygiene appartus - and the title character in Deenie rubbing her “special spot” in the shower. Blume provided me with my first taste of everything salacious. While I’ve never really had idols - nor for that matter even a mentor - reading those Blume books likely did set me on an lifelong journey of skewed discovery.

Prior to opening In the Unlikely Event I read an interview with Blume where she claimed not to be a good writer but a good storyteller.

I’ve been stuck on this idea. About whether there is a distinction. About whether, in fact, it matters.

While I’ve read hundreds of books since novels like Tiger Eyes and Then Again Maybe I Won’t, it’s the Blume books that have stayed with me. Not the most interesting or beautifully written ones I’ve read, but memorable. They spoke to an information-ravenous nine-year-old in an era before the Internet and provided a gentle introduction into the capacity to carve a career from writing about the taboo.

A good writer or a good storyteller?

At 9-years-old I suspect I had no real clue about good writing. Those Blume books lingered on likely because they were doing something that the The Baby-Sitters Club, Enid Blyton, Hunter Davies and Sheila Lavelle books I’d been reading hadn’t. Because we have a tendency to attach disproportionate acclaim to the material we enjoyed in our formative years. Because we remember with excessive fondness our earliest - even if merely vicarious - forays into adulthood.

In The Unlikely Event.

At 35 I’d like to think I’m a better judge of good writing than I was in primary school. This assertion however gets challenged daily when I read gushing praise for books I thought thoroughly wretched or those I adored but got reviewed no further than Amazon.

Equally, when I look at my own writing, some of the pieces I’ve been happiest with are the ones that are least read, and those written in much haste and probably without much heart got devoured. (And don’t get me started about the slew of bizarre (read: bullshit) “good writing” lessons gleaned from too many semesters of Creative Writing at university).

In The Unlikely Event.

In one scene good Greek girl Christina describes first-time sex with her beau, Jack, culminating in him ejaculating on her stomach.

“Like a pool of hot sauce.”

Good writing? Uh, no. Good storytelling? A trickier question.

Something that irritated me throughout the novel were the constant qualifiers: “She looked out the window and saw a moonscape. Or what she thought a moonscape would look like.” Invariably these were the thoughts of her teenage characters. Is it fair then, to think teenagers would actually think of semen feeling akin to, say, a good splash of béchamel on the belly? Mornay? Velouté? Is it good writing if we’re inside the head of a character who isn’t a very good scribe themselves?

To its credit, In the Unlikely Event actually achieves quite a lot. It introduced me to an unfamiliar period in U.S. history - New Jersey in the 1950s where three fatal crashes happened in a six month period - and did so through the eyes of a mind-boggling number of characters. (Too many I thought, but forgiveable).

I finished it, I teared up in the way that I do if any TV show/book/film dares flash forward decades into the future to show who lived, died, thrived. In the Unlikely Event may not be a beautiful piece of writing but it’s a solid read, an enjoyable story and perhaps, if you ask me in a few years, it might even be memorable.

Maybe that’s what matters most in a world where agreeing on “good” is thoroughly fraught.

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