Sunday, November 25, 2012

Does Bad Writing Exist?

Two-buck Chuck: You get what you pay for

Her gaunt six-foot frame resembled an Erector Set  construction of joints and limbs. Overhanging her precarious body was a jaundiced face whose skin resembled a sheet of parchment paper punctured by two emotionless eyes. ~ Deception Point by Dan Brown

Until recently, it seemed so obvious to me that writing came in a variety of qualities that I assumed everyone agreed. Some novels are written well, and some are not. Pulitzers and Bookers are handed out for “good writing,” and just as that exists, so does “bad writing.” It’s like wine: you’ve got your two-buck Chuck on the one end, your Domaine Drouhin on the other. People have their individual tastes, but the rankings are generally accepted, as is the notion that some wines are objectively better than others.

I’ve discovered a populist line of thinking that pushes back against this, and insists that unlike wine, writing cannot be judged in any objective way. Instead, novels are like cilantro. One person loves it, another hates it, it’s only a matter of personal taste. Nobody can say cilantro is “bad.” It is merely “liked” or “disliked.” It’s subjective, and there’s no debate to be had.

While I was first wrestling around with this idea, the 2012 Pulitzer Prize in fiction was awarded to exactly nobody. That’s right: the Pulitzer board announced that none of the finalists (who were David Foster Wallace, Denis Johnson, and Karen Russell) would receive the award. Novelist Michael Cunningham was one of the jurors, who were responsible for selecting the finalists. He was not on the board, he merely helped winnow the field. After the no-prize announcement — which shocked the jurors as much as anyone else — Cunningham wrote an op-ed piece for the New York times, describing the winnowing process and mulling over the vagaries of ranking something as subjective as art. “First, and probably most obvious, the members of any jury are possessed of particular tastes and opinions, and, however they may strive for it, absolute objectivity is impossible,” he writes. Their Pulitzer jury may simply have picked books that board hated, he explains; it could have gone another way with a different jury. Cunningham goes on to say this:

Utter objectivity, however, is not only impossible when judging literature, it’s not exactly desirable. Fiction involves trace elements of magic; it works for reasons we can explain and also for reasons we can’t. If novels or short-story collections could be weighed strictly in terms of their components (fully developed characters, check; original voice, check; solidly crafted structure, check; serious theme, check) they might satisfy, but they would fail to enchant. A great work of fiction involves a certain frisson that occurs when its various components cohere and then ignite. The cause of the fire should, to some extent, elude the experts sent to investigate.

So utter objectivity is impossible, but is any objectivity possible? I can’t shake the conviction that writing runs along some observable continuum of quality. We may quibble over the details, but some novels are clearly better written than others, aren’t they? If there’s no such thing as quality, I could set your proverbial hundred monkeys typing, and the result would be no better or worse than Proust or Poe. It’s all in the same sea of subjectivity. I don’t think too many people would agree with that.

Hipster Kitty
First, let me get one thing out of the way. While I do think some writing can be judged as “bad,” I don’t base that judgment on the novel’s sales. I say this because I’ve been accused of simply hating things that are popular, like I’m some sort of literary hipster. I like George RR Martin’s Song of Fire and Ice series, and Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series, both mega-bestsellers. Both writers are, while not literary, certainly capable. They know their craft; they avoid the pitfalls of bad writing. I do find it puzzling that some books with actively terrible writing are popular. Two-buck Chuck is popular, too, but at least you can get drunk off it. The popularity of cheap alcohol is less mysterious to me than the popularity of crappy writing. What do people get out of bad books? Is it elitist of me merely to ask that question?

Second, I wonder if those who believe bad writing does not exist feel the same way about other arts: dance, theater, sculpture, painting. I am clueless about classical music. I accept the judgment, from those who have studied it, that some compositions are clearly excellent, and others less so. This doesn’t mean I won’t enjoy a “bad” piece, but I allow that it may be derivative, or flawed in some other way. Just as it takes training to be a good artist, it takes training to appreciate art. You have to know what to look for.

Training is key. Art is not like peewee soccer: you shouldn’t get a trophy just for showing up. Some people are better at their crafts than others, almost always because they’ve worked their asses off. Effort should be recognized and rewarded. Just as you can see the painstaking labor Picasso put into mastering his craft, you can see the labor Michael Chabon puts into his. You can see Barbara Kingsolver’s craft improve dramatically from 1988’s The Bean Trees to 1998’s The Poisonwood Bible. The woman was working.

It’s easier, more pleasant, and less controversial to point out excellent writing. But if good writing exists, it makes sense that bad writing also exists. Many novels are written with little effort and no attempt to master the craft. We can call it “bad writing” because that’s what it is. We shouldn’t be called elitist for acknowledging this truth. Much is chalked up to talent, but what really matters is effort. Good writers have poured blood, sweat, and tears into their work. Conversely, most bad writing is the result of laziness: the writer hasn’t bothered to master the craft. Bad writers who are successful often are producing the literary version two-buck Chuck: they crank out content because there’s a market for it, not because they take any joy in craftsmanship. I suspect some writers do put effort into it but have a tin ear for language, which is more unfortunate. You hate to see hard work fall flat, but some people just don’t have the chops: true for so many areas of life. Most success comes from tens of thousands of hours of practice, but there is something to be said for natural abilities.

I've hesitated to come up with examples of “bad writing,” since people get passionately defensive about the writers they like, but I'm going to refer back to my opening quote: Dan Brown is the Charles Shaw of the literary world. Look at that quote. Does the man even know what “precarious” means? Of the many ways writing can go wrong, flouting your lack of vocabulary has got to be in the top ten. We all make mistakes, but Brown is consistently bad. Not only does English seem a foreign tongue to him, but he has this awkward habit of overdescribing in the most laughable way. From The Lost Symbol: He was sitting all alone in the enormous cabin of a Falcon 2000EX corporate jet as it bounced its way through turbulence. In the background, the dual Pratt & Whitney engines hummed evenly.” From The Da Vinci Code: Yanking his Manurhin MR-93 revolver from his shoulder holster, the captain dashed out of the office.” Yes. Pawing through my 1979 copy of Strunk & White, Third Edition,  McMillan Publishing Company, 866 Third Avenue, New York, New York, I found something about not overwhelming the reader with pointless trivia. Brown seems unfamiliar with the concept. Bad. Writing.

I hope I’ve made the case that good writing does objectively exist, and is achievable not through magic or the wave of a critic’s wand but primarily through effort. The “frisson” that Cunningham talks about may be impossible to pinpoint, but quality writing does contain certain elements that can be enumerated. Bad writing does, too. I intend to expand on what these are next time, but for now I want to turn it over to you, dear readers: Does bad writing exist? Does good? What do you think the elements are that define either one?


  1. I have an unnecessary punctuation ribbon! (Even in 'previewing' this comment, I shuffled some commas around.)

    Okay, first -- well, after the ribbon bit -- I think truer words about novels have never been spoken. They are, indeed, like cilantro (which I love and which a boy I once loved does not. (Love cilantro, I mean. He called it 'horrid.'))

    I need to tell you, Steph, that I am in the process of having my over-inflated ambition balloon popped. It is a bit like having your cherry popped, just as painful and you wonder what the hell was the big deal?

    Well, with what excellence this article was executed, I have to say that, no, you have not made your case that there can be any objective rule by which the quality of art is graded. It's ambitious, to be sure (and not in a balloon which begs bursting sort of way) but can anyone make that case definitively? I'm going to go with -- just my opinion, here -- no.

    I think you were wise in refraining from coming up with examples of bad writing because they would be less instances of such as they would be clues for us, your readers, into your person. What we love and what we hate is no final authority on the quality of those things as much as they are opportunities to connect with another human being. It could be, in the end, that the purpose of art is neither to impress nor incur disdain, but to help us discover 'our people.' The spark that ignites between two friends when they laugh at the same thing is among the very best the human experience has to offer -- and this is often afforded by art, at which some, no doubt, will turn up their noses in a sneer.

    But, I feel myself getting wordy. And sometimes what we want so much to communicate gets lost in those many words.

    To sum up:

    'A great work of fiction involves a certain frisson that occurs when its various components cohere and then ignite. The cause of the fire should, to some extent, elude the experts sent to investigate.'


    Really looking forward to sushi. Oh, wait, that's a lie. But it is the truest of truths that, perhaps with your esteemed encouragement, I will get there. (Lunch venues can be so subjective, can't they?)

    1. Well, I allowed my editors (daughter and husband) to pressure me into giving at least a few examples, so I picked on poor Dan Brown. :) They thought the post needed some kind of anchor, some reference point. But if what makes "good writing" is subjective, what makes "bad writing" is even more subjective. What was that quote about porn? Potter Stewart, the Supreme Court justice, said it's impossible to define, but "I know it when I see it."

      It is now my mission to get you to eat sushi. And love it. YOU WILL LOVE IT.

  2. Bad writing is a pitfall no author can avoid. Perhaps it has to do with lack of editing, ot a hurry to get the book on time, but you are constatly finding exapmpls that make yur teeth clench. Oscar Wilde, who said "there are no bad books just por poortly written ones), had not one single piece of bad writing im his work. On the oher hand, modern schools place suc little time or interest to train students to excell in writing skils that you get authors that are ignorant of grammar or lack the simplest rules, So you get Stephanie Meyer's unnecccessary chapters and Dan Brown´s ridiculous similes, L.L. James... don´t ge me started on her. Even our beloved Martin is guilty of pages that deserve the garbage can for destiny, specially in Dance with Dragons that seems literally pulled out of his ass.

    1. You're so, so right about the mechanics thing. If there is one type of "bad writing" that is objective, it's the one we all fall victim to at some point: grammar and punctuation mistakes. Typos are one thing, of course, but some writers never bother to learn about something as essential as subject-verb agreement. To me, that's a clear-cut case of bad writing.

      I haven't made it to Dance with Dragons yet, but I have noticed that as writers become more famous and the pressure increases on them to crank out content, the quality of their writing sometimes plummets. Some writers get better with time and practice (Kingsolver) but maybe Martin is one who gets worse. ((sigh))

    2. Martin is under so much pressure that he belongs in a different category altogether. However, I hate the double standard. On one hand, the novice gets pressured by all sorts of stylistic demands. On the other, there seems to exist complete indifference towards bad writing, and a lowering of expectations regarding style in the publishing industry when it comes to authors that reached a “bestseller maker” status. The disregard seems to apply to the editors as well. I have the complete (up to A Feast for Dragons) ASOIAF paperback collection, edited by Bantam. As I read it, I keep on stumbling into typos! At some point, Mance Ryder is called “Dance” Ryder, and the sweet-smelling rushes that cover the hall at Winterfell Castle became “sweet-swelling rushes!”

  3. There's a busy debate on my Facebook wall, where I shared this post: It's open, so anyone can read it. (Not sure if anyone can comment.)

    I want to join in, but am a bit frantic today. Anyway, glad it's provoked discussion!

  4. It's sort of like sorting out music. It gets written all the time. What will stand the TEST of time?

    1. The "test of time" is a good point. Although ... does that reflect anything objective, or does it merely reflect the subjective whims of a generation? It seems you could argue it either way, depending on your viewpoint. Lady Chatterly's Lover was so "bad" in its day it could literally not be published. Now, it's almost ho-hum. (And contains, in my own subjective opinion, some of the most gorgeous writing I've read in recent years.)

    2. Mm, but when it came to writing style D.H. Lawrence stood way above L. L. James and those of her ilk.

  5. I don't think writing (or any other artform) is *totally* subjective either, but it's definitely not as objective as determining the quality of a wine. Like Cunningham says, there are certain standards that have to be met for a piece to be considered "of quality". HOWEVER, I don't think the lack of some of those elements qualifies something as *bad* writing either. Let me explain. To me, prose is not as essential as it is to some readers. Dan Brown may have odd descriptions, but his plots and characters are interesting. So he compensates for his lack of literary skills with imagination and storytelling abilities.

    Here's another example: millions of readers consider "One Hundred Years of Solitude" a masterpiece, but I've never been able to finish that book (don't hit me please, I have enjoyed other novels by Garcia Marquez). To some readers prose is the most important aspect of a novel, to others it's plot and the ability of a writer to keep us entertained.

    Painting can be even more subjective. Before modern art was born, the skill of drawing realistically was the measure of quality for an art piece. Now it's unimportant. Ideas are what matter (mostly to art critics). Some consider Picasso's later work hideous and prefer his earlier style, yet others (the most "qualified" critics) consider him a genius. Who is right and who is wrong?

    The thing about art is that our perception of it (and of its quality) changes with time and from one culture to another.

    1. You've got a good grip on this, Lorena! I was thinking about Dan Brown, and why he is so popular, and why so many other books like his (Stieg Larsson's, Michael Connolly's) sell so well. It occurred to me that plot-creation is a totally different skill than what I have long considered "writing." I know this is super-obvious to everyone else but hey, I'm a slow learner. I tend to focus so much on each sentence, and what is being evoked. I want a picture created in my mind, I want emotion, I want mood, I want character. Plot is like ... whatever. Not completely unimportant, but definitely secondary. I guess I knew that much, but I hadn't considered the fact that it's a SKILL, a really truly separate skill. A chef might be great at roasting but horrible at braising. So Brown, Larsson, and Connolly aren't actually terrible. They just have a skill set I don't value. (Apparently, I share this value with "literary" critics.)

      Much to contemplate. It's hard to get out of your own skull sometimes, you know?

  6. I think it's a sign of the writing times that no novel was chosen for a Pulitzer this year. I have noticed through all my years of reading that the quality of writing has slowly gone down the tubes. It seems what people want on the shelves nowadays are the hot-ticket books, like James and Brown, but most people can certainly agree bad writing is out there when reading one of their novels. I wholeheartedly love your Brown examples and think he makes a great case for bad writing. Would I want my novels to be known for laughable writing? No, but unfortunately I've come to understand that most of what's getting published is along those lines. I don't care how exciting the storyline might be, if the author can't pull his head our of his arse and learn some tricks of the trade then poor quality should not be commended.

    I'm currently reading Sarah's Key, and although an interesting topic, I care very little for the characters. De Rosnay is a little out of her element with this novel. Whoever edited the book did a poor job and there are many things I come across that make me cringe (ex: grammar issues, over-explanation, unbelievability with characters, etc.) Unfortunately, de Rosnay's uneven writing makes the topic hard to want to read.

    P.S. I think that's me sitting at the "Unpublished Author Pizza Party"! ; )

    1. "I have noticed through all my years of reading that the quality of writing has slowly gone down the tubes." See now, I am totally the opposite. I think writing has, like almost everything else, gotten better and better and better. The books I loved as a child don't compare even remotely in quality to the books my kids are reading now. Plotty fiction has gotten plottier, literary fiction more literary. Everyone has their specialty, and they specialize the hell out of it. Can't break in, otherwise.

      When the no-Pulitzer announcement came, it was interpreted by many the way you interpreted it: newer authors just can't write. But I thought Cunningham had a good point: he says it's not that modern authors can't write. It's more a coincidence: the stuff he and his fellow jurors picked out (books they loved) just didn't happen to overwhelm the board. The board has to have unity when they pick a book: they have to agree. If everyone adores a separate book, none gets picked.

      Eleven times in history, no Pulitzer has been awarded. Eleven times! It shocked us because it's been so long: not since the 1970s has no prize been awarded.

      "If the author can't pull his head our of his arse and learn some tricks of the trade then poor quality should not be commended." Oh, I so agree. I was saying above that Brown and his ilk are very good at plotting, which is a skill I don't value much. But why can't these kings-of-plot be bothered to learn the basics? I suppose the answer is, "because they don't have to." Like the two-buck Chuck makers don't have to fuss over "terroir" or how long their dreck is fermented. It still makes me squinty-eyed though. >:(

      I am glad to hear that about Sarah's Key. I have long had that one on my must-read list; will probably remove it now.

      I am totally in on that pizza party.


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