Thursday, September 16, 2010

In case you wondered ...

... Why awful writing is tolerated.


  1. Hmn.

    Despite all disclaimers, this does indeed smack of a certain kind of elitism. Not necessarily in an obvious way, but rather along the lines of making the assumption that one can claim to assess what's good and what's bad. And the usual BS about genre writing rears its head, too: that is, the idea that "literary mainstream" fiction is somehow inherently better writing than genre writing. That's a fundamentally elitist idea, and always has been.

    So, while I agree that bad writing is often more tolerated than it ought to be, the real difficulty is in defining what's good and what's bad. And sometimes those who claim to be able to choose betray their arrogance in their assumption that they can tell us, too. Which comes to the difference, again, between an honest review and a grand sweeping critical-theoretical position.

  2. I agree, Art. Sure, bad writing ought not be tolerated. But the writing in "literary mainstream" fiction is not always that good.

  3. Art Durkee attributes an idea to me that I did not—and never have—enunciated: “the idea that "literary mainstream" fiction is somehow inherently better writing than genre writing.”

    Bad writing, which is composed in ready-made phrases rather than the exact words, has its counterpart in bad reading, which interprets by means of ready-made assumptions.

    The more difficult truth (too difficult for Art, apparently) is that I have challenged the whole notion of “genre writing,” and celebrated at least one writer who is usually dismissed as a genre novelist.

    Perhaps the best thing from now on is to take seriously the “disclaimers” rather than substituting your own superior (and spurious) knowledge.

  4. I was responding to the whole discussion, which includes some of the comments made. I guess I didn't properly cite chapter and verse, sorry for that. But the tone of the whole discussion, as I said, despite disclaimers, remained pretty nose-in-the-air. (If it takes one to know one, I don't plead not-guilty, but if it takes one to know one, I also affirm that this does not in itself discredit the opinion as formed.) As for who is more full of themselves, I make no judgments, I merely reiterate that proclamations that one's own judgment is superior to another's are inherently elitist.

    As for DG's definition of what constitutes bad writing, that's a pretty good definition. It works well on the level of craft and technique. It is certainly obviously bad when clichés abound, when descriptions are stock phrases rather than original metaphors, when the tone is flat and monotonous throughout.

    But there are other criteria than the purely craft-oriented. One of these is, is the work compelling aesthetically? does it transport? does it open up more worlds than it encloses? Those are criteria that bad craft in writing can certainly inhibit or destroy, but definitions of bad writing focused on craft also tend to miss discussing the aesthetic response. (One reason movies like "Plan 9 from Outer Space" are so enjoyable is *because* they are so very bad.)

    And at the same time, on the purely craft level, flashy writing full of original metaphor doesn't in itself constitute good writing, either. Pointlessly flashy writing, which does not serve the story, gets in the way of enjoying the reading experience nearly as much as do stock phrases and clichés. Which is why some writers lauded (in some cases over-praised) for their style and original voice are just as un-fun to read as the worst pulps.

  5. Bad writing deserves to be looked down on. Writing is not therapy; if it's not skilled, it's inferior.