|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:
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.
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.
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?