Precision vs. Ambition

I’ve been avoiding blogging about The Tournament of Books too much this year because if there’s one thing I learned based on previous years, it’s that faithful DGLM readers don’t seem to be particularly interested. But here I am bringing it up again—this time just to get to a point that I hope will be of more general interest.

This year, I actually read all 16 books competing, so I had firm opinions of what I thought deserved to win. My hopes have not exactly been met. But in reading the judges’ decisions and the commentator’s feedback, I feel like I’ve learned a bit about myself as a reader, which is really (I think) what the whole process is about.

The tournament’s judges seem very interested in rewarding ambition—crazy ideas and sprawling narratives have beaten out quieter, cleaner storytelling. I’ve always thought of myself as the kind of person who is more interested in a noble failure than a middling success. As it turns out, I may have been wrong about myself!

This was clear to me in the match-up between Haruki Murakami’s (endless) 1Q84 versus Natacha Appaniah’s slender The Last Brother. One book creates a new universe for its characters and sends them careening through it. The other is a brief snapshot of a historical moment. While I may not have been wowed by Appaniah’s work, I also didn’t find myself wanting to set it on fire while cursing the heavens. Seriously—that last 300 pages of 1Q84 made me doubt my faith in life itself.

In another opening match, Alan Hollinghurst’s stunning, tightly controlled, incredibly dense novel about the generational effects of one poet on the people whose lives touched his was deemed too cold while Tea Obreht’s meandering The Tiger’s Wife was swept on to round 2. Now, I like Obreht more than some other folks here, and I think she’s immensely talented. But The Tiger’s Wife is a messy novel that shows more raw talent than it does control whereas Hollinghurst’s work is taut and cohesive.

So as I read through the comments and various readers’ reactions to these different books, I find that this (admittedly limited) readership seems to fall for writers who bite off more than they can chew because their books are lively and because (and I fully agree with this), nothing will be brilliant if its creator’s ambitions aren’t equally great.

And yet…book for book, I preferred the novels that achieved their ambitions, whatever the size, substantially more than I did those that reached for the sky and ended up grasping air.

Here’s where it falls to you: assuming, of course, that you can’t have both, what do you prefer: precision or ambition?

9 Responses to Precision vs. Ambition

  1. Bethany Neal says:

    I’m thinking precision. Ambition tends to lead to “that novel could have been so good, but…” reactions. I don’t know though. I kinda like sussing out how I would’ve switch things around to achieve that ambition. It’s part of the fun of reading for me. Still, I think I’ll stick with precision.

  2. I prefer ambition just a bit over precision. Perhaps it’s because I’m into SF and fantasy, and thus I’m used to big ideas and visions. More likely it’s because even if I’m a bit disappointed when a book doesn’t quite live up to the author’s ambitions, I think about it for a long time after (even if those thoughts are, as Bethany Neal above me noted, “That novel could have been so good if…”). A book that is precise but not ambitious isn’t as likely to leave much of an impression on me.

    I think this is similar to asking if you would choose technique over story, if you could only have one. I’d rather have a good story that’s not told as well as it could be than a boring but technically perfect tale.

  3. Lorelei says:

    If I’m offered a perfectly executed “B+” book versus a flawed “A+,” I’ll go for the A+ attempt every time. There are just too many perfect B+’s out there, and they all blend into each other.

    That said, I certainly don’t think 1Q84 was ambitious; it was just long. And the ending made me want to fly to Japan and kick the writer in the shins.

  4. Jenny says:

    I think I’m very heavily on the side of ambition as far as my reading goes. Partly because I think that the cleaner, more polished stories have fewer lows – yes – but their highs don’t go as high. Obreht’s novel meanders quite a bit, as you said, but I responded pretty emotionally to the story. And as a *reader* that’s all I really want.

    And, as a writer, I appreciate it when an author reaches. I’m not done with 1Q84 – really, who is? – but I like that Murakami is stretching himself. There are other pieces he’s written that are not as ambitious. I’d like to think that when I reach a certain skill set that I need to demand something else of myself. No sense playing it safe. The only way to get better is to push.

  5. Kaitlyne says:

    Geez, that question isn’t as easy as it appears on the surface, is it?

    This seems a fitting question considering I just finished a book that, in my mind, falls into the failed ambition category. It was the first book I’ve read in a long time that I couldn’t put down. I read the whole thing in about a day. I was highly impressed–until the ending. The author did something that struck me as an obvious attempt to be edgy and dark and shocking (and I could go on ranting about this but I won’t lest I give it away), but it was just so ridiculous that it literally ruined the end of the book for me. Instead of finishing it because I enjoyed it, I finished it for the sake of being done.

    While discussing it with my SO later, we agreed that the author had tried to do something that had potential to be awesome and just couldn’t quite pull it off. Did I enjoy the book? I guess so, but at the same time that potential was so darn high that when it failed, it made the disappointment that much more frustrating.

    I’m not quite sure if that’s exactly the same thing you’re talking about and I haven’t read the books in question, but I think that I both prefer ambition when it’s done well, and am simultaneously more frustrated by the ambitious books that fail. And I’m the sort who can forgive a lot in terms of writing problems as long as the story is amazing. However, if I had a choice between a precise book and a failed ambition book, I’ll take precise any day just because then I don’t want to rant to everyone I know about how irritating it was. 😉

  6. Melissa Stacy says:

    Great question! I love precision, because when an author is concise, the prose always sounds more like poetry, and I love dense storytelling. I often feel like a precise writer is writing for a purpose– namely, to entertain me, the greedy, selfish reader– who wants to be entertained and deeply moved without losing my mind in twenty-kazillion details. Some writers will throw a million details at me, and some writers will pick the one detail that tells me the most– and I really appreciate the writer who sits there and figures out what that one detail might be. I also appreciate a writer who understands how readers read, and what emotional buttons he/she is pushing with each sentence and scene that goes onto a page. It takes a lot of effort to build a climax effectively, and to write sentences that sing without all being operas. Books like The English Patient and The God of Small Things are two of my favorites for this reason.

  7. Kaye Draper says:

    I think I fall into the ambitious category. As reader, I want to be swept up in the world or characters. I’m not going to be thinking of technique when I’m reading for escape or enjoyment. I think writers should aim for a middle ground, matching up technique and ambition. With anything in life, there are always extremes.

    • Kaitlyne says:

      I don’t necessarily need amazing technique if the story is great, but I have to admit whenever it’s there it stands out. It adds an extra level of enjoyment and generally leaves me impressed.

  8. Heather says:

    This question is too hard to answer. I’m an extremely ambitious person and have a massive fear of failure. That said, I’m also a perfectionist. That’s why I never let myself lose.

    As for writing, I couldn’t say which I’d prefer to be. I guess I’d go with ambition but I’m yet to query anything because I always get annoyed and put it away until I’m ready to either revise or rewrite. Damn, it’s annoying.

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