Funnily enough, I started planning this post on Saturday, and yesterday I wandered over to Smart Bitches and saw they were wondering the same thing–as, apparently, was a writer at The Guardian.
I’m not sure I agree, though.
See, I read a bad book this weekend. A bad book (and no, I am not going to tell you what it was, so don’t even ask). A book I found almost no–no, make that no, period–redeeming features about. It was badly written and clunky. It was all tell, no show. There was some awful sex in it; really, really bad, complete with orgasms that sounded more like epileptic fits and terrible, unsexy word choices. I was informed characters were smart, when in fact the book showed them to be insipid ninnies; I’m surprised they were able to figure out how to work a faucet. The hero was an asshole, of the self-pitying crybaby type; the heroine was a hateful, childish moron.
Bad characters are one thing, but bad writing is insulting. And this was badly written, oh yes. I cringed. I gave so many snorts of incredulous laughter the hubs asked if I was coming down with a cold.
Now according to the Guardian writer, and the fabulous Bitches, this should be a positive experience, and make me better able to appreciate the really good books I’ve read. And I suppose to some degree that’s true.
But reading that dreck made me think. It made me think about a review I saw once on Amazon, in which the reviewer complained that a character’s backstory was not explained in the beginning of the book–in other words, she was upset there hadn’t been an infodump.
And it got me thinking. What sort of books did that reviewer normally read, that she expected the main character’s entire backstory to be explained right up front? You don’t generally find those as much in popular fiction (and by “popular” I mean NY-published books with large readerships.) Oh, sure, you see them on occasion, but I think most professional editors see infodumps for the marks of amateurism they are, and don’t buy novels with that sort of thing in them.
Which tells me that in large part, that reader was probably reading largely Bad Books.
I could be wrong, of course. It could simply be that she doesn’t read much (or he; I don’t remember the name of the reviewer or anything else about them.) Or it could be he or she does read good books and dislikes all of them for the same reason.
But I’m always amazed when I see books I’ve read and thought were just terrible on a technical level get great reviews. I don’t mean books where the writing wasn’t stellar but was serviceable, and the plot was good enough to keep me involved. I’m talking about really, truly awful books. The kind we’ve all read; the kind where, for example, historical characters use modern verbiage, or every other sentence ends with an exclamation point, or entire sentences fail to make any kind of sense despite several readings. (Here’s an example of what I mean, that I just made up:
She held a hat in her hands and walked along the river, before it falls and blew away into the night sky with the water flying everywhere and tears hit her shoes.
See what I mean?)
So I see those positive reviews, and I can only assume one of two things. Either the reviewer hasn’t actually read the book, or the reviewer is simply so well attuned to terrible prose that they don’t notice it anymore, in the same manner as someone living near a dump wll eventually no longer smell the garbage.
Now, I’m not claiming my own writing is so great, either. This isn’t about me being better than anyone else. Who knows, maybe the book I read this weekend is actually great, and I’m the dipshit who isn’t smart enough to get it (although the reviews of it I’ve seen elsewhere agree with me.)
But whether or not it’s a skill I truly possess, good writing is important to me. Words that snap and flow, images and metaphors that are poetic and clear. Characters who practically climb off the page, but not in a creepy The Ring kind of way. Plots that make sense, and fall neatly into place.
These things are important. Good writing should be both easy and difficult to read; it should resonate while challenging us. It should feel strange and familiar at once.
But once you grow accustomed to reading books where that challenge, that strangeness, that unique voice, isn’t present…perhaps good writing becomes harder to see? Harder to recognize? Isn’t it possible that, much as a person who only ever eats potato chips may have a hard time eating something more complex–indeed, may begin to hate something more complex, as it forces them to experience something new and different–reading nothing but bad prose may make good writing seem too hard? Too much of a challenge. Instead of wanting to watch a story unfold we begin to want everything up front; we don’t want to get to know the characters, we don’t want to spend time in the world. We don’t want to have to pay attention to what’s on the page, in other words.
I’m not saying every book we read has to be incredibly high quality, not at all. And again, I’m not saying I’m such a great writer, either.
I’m just wondering if perhaps bad writing, instead of teaching us to appreciate good writing, only breeds more bad writing. When a writer reads published books as part of their learning process, and those published books are lazy, lousy, and unclear…what does that say to them? What level of work will they shoot for, if they think the terrible book they’ve just read is where they need to be?
What do you guys think?