It mostly comes in two flavours.
Flavour the first: now and then, when I hyperventilate over some (more or less) minute detail gone wrong in a play, a story, a talk, or whatnot, some sympathetic soul will try to convince me that it was a negligible hitch in the form – but the substance was there, and substance is what truly matters…
And Flavour the second: either during a writing course or an editing job, I painstakingly try to explain why technique is essential to the telling of stories, and come up against some version of the tired old chestnut: I talk technique when substance, reality, sincerity, heart – or, save and deliver, the Message is the only thing that truly matters.
And this is where my teeth begin to ache – because while there is no such thing as perfection (and, in fact, imperfection may be a good thing), I balk at the idea that substance trumps form.
Why, rather on the contrary, when it comes to all forms of art, form is substance – because form is how we express substance in a way that is legible to others. What is art, if not a formal expression of substance?
An example: when Shakespeare says that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, he rather contradicts the idea he expresses, when you consider that this particular notion of form/substance travelled down the centuries on the strength of the infinitely lovely form in which it is expressed. And besides, the whole story that surrounds the words is there to show how badly Romeo is mistaken, and the deadly relevance of being named Montague… Beyond the exquisite airy nothings that Romeo whispers, Uncle Will knew perfectly well that if the rose were named perchloric acid, it might smell just as sweet, but few would take a good sniff to make sure…
In a novel, a story or a poem, this means that style and content must meld together to form a specific impression in the reader’s mind. “Strong ideas, but so-so writing”, and “Nicely written, but not much to say” both make for indifferent stuff.
On a stage, good writing is not enough: you must also have good direction, good acting, good scenery, good costumes, good lighting – and, most of all, that something-something that comes from the good combination of it all. And mind, I’m not talking about perfection, but all the elements must work together. If even one is missing, the end result will be… middling. Lacking in quality. Wrecked in the shallows between intention and realisation.
And, to my mind, this holds true for any form or art: the soundest, deepest substance is no excuse for a lack of form. And why should it be, when you consider that honing form is the best way to improve the expression of substance?