Sunday, December 11, 2011

Does Bad Writing Exist?

This seems a ridiculous question until asked to define bad writing.

Months back I was reading about how John Locke sold a million books and his response to his critics is unique. He doesn't engage any assertion that his books might be poorly written. Instead, he shrugs and says the haters are simply not his market. There's some virtue in this way of thinking and it is a paradigm shift.

Yet I think this paradigm has its limits. I've tried to follow two commandments in my writing:
  • Thou shalt be interesting.
  • Thou shalt be clear.
Honor those two commandments and I have no quibble with John Locke. Otherwise, I suppose bad writing does indeed exist: It is writing that is unclear and/or uninteresting.

Give Catnip To Cats and Dognip to Dogs
So, are you cool with a writer interrupting a narrative with an extended treatment of discrete mathematics complete with equations? No? Would that constitute bad writing because it's uninteresting? Doesn't Neal Stephenson do that? Or how about an extended political monologue? Didn't Ayn Rand do that?

Mathematics and libertarian politics are--to some readers--what Elmore Leonard calls "the stuff people skip." To other readers the stuff is pure catnip. Some people are bored to tears by that which titillates others. This makes the first commandment of being interesting an audience-dependent thing.

The writer needs to know who's going to be reading his work before he can know how to keep that first commandment. Thus, if you are in any way inclined to read my work, please tell me about yourself.

Don't Make Enemies
 I may surprise you, but less than 100% of the people reading this supporter the Whig Party, belonging instead to the parties of Lincoln and Jefferson. Reflect for a moment on your response to someone writing something that's identifiably from the other side. The contradictory politics distracts from the writing and from the story. There is absolutely no good reason to alienate the 50% of the book buying public who belongs to the other party. (Or in my case the 100%.)

In addition to politics there's religion. Not that many of you are Zen Baptist Puritans, and if you make your book into a tract for Something Else, I'll probably toss it against the wall. Good and evil are concepts that are non-denominational and non-sectarian. C.S. Lewis wrote from a Christian perspective, but nobody would call Narnia a heavy-handed tract because he engaged his readers at the level of good and evil as it runs through the center of human nature. He didn't engage in Bible thumping because it would alienate everyone who doesn't think the Bible to be God-inspired.

There are zero-sum games. I can think of a few topics of conversation that always end badly, because no matter what position I take, the issue is so polarizing and the passions so strong, that someone on one side or the other will be so angry, I'll create an enemy. The only way to win these games is to not play. I just won't go there.

Don't Be Evil
There are some things that warrant nothing less than complete, unequivocal condemnation. Period. Pedophilia? The Ancient Greeks may have tolerated it, if so they deserve whatever hell they're burning in. Nazis? Only Mel Brooks can joke about Springtime for Hitler.

Sometimes you can be ambivalent about gray areas. People of good faith disagree about whether such and such is acceptable behavior or not. That's not the case here. The writer needs a moral compass that's magnetized enough to sense when there is a consensus that a thing is wrong and must not be treated ambiguously.

A friend was deeply offended by a "romance" novel that depicted rape and pedophilia with too casual a treatment. I'll take my friend's word for it that the work stunk. I thought it unworthy of the time and bother of condemning it. But my friend grabbed hold of it and brought every cannon to bear in deprecating the work in the harshest possible terms. If the work was merely bad, she would not be so motivated to badmouth it, but the work was evil, and my friend felt a moral obligation to condemn it as evil--like Captain Ahab pursuing Moby Dick.

Personally, I noticed this a couple years ago when I revisited Edgar Rice Burroughs' John Carter stories. Since these are all in the public domain, I reformatted them to look good on my Sony Reader (This was in my pre-Kindle phase.) I read a few of the novels and then ran into something I hadn't noticed when I first read the books when I was a teen. John Carter's son--the protagonist of whatever novel I was reading--owns slaves, and the antagonist insinuates himself into the young man's household as a slave. Who should I root for? I don't approve of slavery, even fictional slavery on another planet. I put the book down and haven't read anything else by Edgar Rice Burroughs since. 

Don't Be A Writer
Shakespeare said, "the play's the thing." Same goes for the narrative. Your reader is not going to want to read beautiful words. S/he wants to read a story. The words of a story are like the wires holding up Flash Gordon's spaceship. They have to be there, but it's better if nobody notices them. Clear writing is like clear spring water: It is transparent. It is invisible.

I've goofed around trying to write in a style or voice that's congruent with the time and place of the POV character. This is a mistake. Yeah, it's cool to write like a Victorian. I rather like the old stuff better than I like the new stuff. And this lets me write like what I prefer to read. But I hear people remark about the words and I realize they're not thinking about the lifeless body hanging in the locked room . Fail.


  1. I love that you're writing about morals. It's in everything we do but we don't talk about it much. I think most writers like to believe that they can do ANYTHING. But in truth we are deeply constrained by social mores.

    Morals evolve like everything else. It’s sort of sad that you turned away from Burroughs because of this. I guess you have to see it on two levels: what Burroughs was trying to accomplish with his olden-day audience, and what he fails to accomplish now. But reading those books for pleasure? I don’t think I’d do it either.

    If writing is like a dinner party, then most people stick to talking about acceptable things, but there’s the occasional shit-disturber who’s going to stir everyone up in the name of art, or religion, or freedom of expression, or even publicity – I’m thinking of Salman Rushdie, (whose motives I don’t know). I think the best books in the world don’t answer moral questions for you. They spend most of their time just showing you what the questions are.

    Thanks for the post! It’s gotten me thinking.

  2. It's funny. I wasn't intending to talk about morals, but about practicalities--like not cheesing off people who might buy your writing. There's a limit to that. You have to disturb stuff to escape being insipid. Salman Rushdie has notoriety he wouldn't have without writing the Satanic Verses, but would he have a wider audience or a better writing career if he'd played it safe? I think so.

    If I'm going to be moralistic, as opposed to pragmatic, there are times when you can't go along to get along--times where to be silent is evil, or times when saying the acceptable thing is to tell a lie. However, I think those times are not that common.

    Consider Ann Coulter. She serves up red-meat conservatism, and if you're into that, you'll send her flowers. But the way she packages some of her ideas causes everyone else to dismiss her ideas without serious consideration. Ferinstance, she advanced the thesis that policy spokesmen should not be "crying hysterical women," because one's natural sympathy for a hurting, anguished loved-one killed in war would interfere with serious consideration of the issue that person is advocating. She pointed out that it is cynical and ghoulish to do so. BUT NOBODY HEARD THIS because of the way she said it. Did she have a valid point? Maybe. Did she sabotage herself? Most Definitely.

    I think that's wrong. When I write, I intend to tell the truth. True truth applies to everyone. I don't want you to dismiss that truth just because you're not a Whig or a Zen Baptist Puritan.

  3. I love the Zen Baptist Puritan. I might be that person. Or . . . aspire to it.

    This is a really good post. Thanks for the thoughts.

    1. Make that Zen Baptist Puritan Whig just to make sure nobody gets the idea I approve of EITHER political party.


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