Inverarity (inverarity) wrote in bookish,

Saturday Book Discussion: Does good writing matter?

Before I start the SBD proper, I bring you the latest episode of:

Authors Behaving Badly: the Phil Torcivia Edition

When you forgive, you encourage bad behavior.

Phil Torcivia

Phil Torvicia

will unleash his SOCIAL MEDIA ARMY on you
if you give him a bad review.

A fellow author has left a nasty review on one of my books. (See Rachel's review here.) If I forgive her, she'll do this to others. Instead, I'm going to read one of her books (already started and it is god-awful, as expected) and trash the shit out of her in a public forum by posting a one-star review. I also have a social media army I can enlist to assist me in the defensive assault. I hope she learns that her bad behavior must cease.

The review Mr. Torcivia is losing his shit over is a 2-star one that isn't even that bad.

WTF is wrong with these people?

Oh, he's a self-published author. Well then.

"I’m afraid, though, that we must still keep an eye open for those crabs!"


It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents, except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the house-tops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.

Ferretbrain recently had a go at Edward Bulwer-Lytton (who, fortunately, had no social media army) and took the contrarian position that "It was a dark and stormy night" is only considered bad writing because it's now entered literary folklore as a quintessential example of bad writing. I'll agree, to a point, that there is nothing inherently awful about that phrase, but if you try to tell me that the complete sentence above is not just plain bad writing, I condemn you to read THE EYE OF ARGON in its unspeakable entirety.

But, barring prose that's so eye-bleedingly awful that it literally jars you out of the story on a word-and-sentence level, how much does the average reader really care about quality writing? Is there such a thing as "quality writing"?

One of the two excerpts below is from a Man Booker Prize winner. The other is from a fan fiction novel that is currently outselling everything in history.

Can you guess which is which?

Excerpt #1

It was the end of one of these sad little gala displays that I had my first inkling of a change in Chloe's regard for me, or, should I say, an inkling that she had a regard for me, and that a change was occurring in it. Late in the evening it was, and I had swum the distance -- what, a hundred, two hundred yards? -- between two of the green-slimed concrete groynes that long ago had been thrown out into the sea in a vain attempt to halt the creeping erosion of the beach. I stumbled out of the waves to find that Chloe had waited for me, on the shore, all the time that I was in the water. She stood huddled in a towel, shivering in spasms; her lips were lavender. "There's no need to show off, you know," she said crossly. Before I could reply -- and what would I have said, anyway, since she was right, I had been showing off -- Myles came leaping down from the dunes above us on wheeling legs and sprayed us both with sand and at once I had an image, perfectly clear and strangely stirring, of Chloe as I had first seen her that day when she jumped from the edge of that other dune into the midst of my life.

Excerpt #2

"You don't need to knock — just go in." She smiles kindly.

I push open the door and stumble through, tripping over my own feet, and falling head first into the office.

Double crap — me and my two left feet! I am on my hands and knees in the doorway to Mr. Grey's office, and gentle hands are around me helping me to stand. I am so embarrassed, damn my clumsiness. I have to steel myself to glance up. Holy cow — he's so young.

"Miss Kavanaugh." He extends a long-fingered hand to me once I'm upright. "I'm Christian Grey. Are you all right? Would you like to sit?"

So young — and attractive, very attractive. He's tall, dressed in a fine gray suit, white shirt and black tie with unruly dark-copper-colored hair and intense, bright gray eyes that regard me shrewdly. It takes a moment for me to find my voice.

"Um. Actually —" I mutter. If this guy is over thirty I'm a monkey's uncle. In a daze, I place my hand in his and we shake. As our fingers touch, I feel an odd exhilarating shiver run through me. I withdraw my hand hastily, embarrassed. Must be static. I blink rapidly, my eyelids matching my heart rate.

For the record, I find John Banville's writing as boring as it is beautiful. But is it a statement of cosmic injustice that Fifty Shades of Grey has made E.L. James richer than any Man Booker Prize winner will ever be, or a statement about the artificiality and subjectivity of literary taste? Do readers actually care whether or not a book is written well, if they are entertained?

This is an argument that surfaces frequently in writing forums — frequently lodged by aspiring writers who've just received scathing critique about their inability to follow basic rules of punctuation and grammar.

"Readers don't care about things like that!" they rail. "All those 'rules' and 'elements of style' and 'how to rite gud' lectures are a bunch of bullshit that only creative writing teachers and literary agents care about! Readers don't think like editors!"

I would argue to the contrary. It is certainly true that professional writers and editors notice, and can articulate, what it is in a piece of writing that bothers them better than the average casual reader can. Anyone who's been studying the craft a while has heard of things like "show don't tell" and "avoid saidisms" and no one is going to pay to read your shitty Twilight smutfic .... okay, maybe sometimes they are wrong.

But the average reader will notice something is "off" in an awkward, clunky sentence, even if they can't exactly explain why. The average reader will be annoyed by a character who seems to have no motivation for his actions, or feel cheated by a deux ex machina ending, even if they don't know those terms and can't explain exactly why they didn't love the book.

And yet... clearly the market for books that are unrefined product that scratch a particular itch is large... larger than the market for brilliantly-written Pulitzer and Man Booker prize winners. Hence the explosion in YA fiction.

It's not new. Literary taste has not declined. In 1976, this was a bestseller:

“I’m more than glad I let you come with me tonight,” he whispered as he zipped himself up again. “I’m afraid, though, that we must still keep an eye open for those crabs!”

Let me emphasize that my SBD topic today is not literary vs. genre fiction. That is an arbitrary and often silly distinction. Literary prose can be awful, especially in the hands of an author trying too hard to be precious and bookclubbish. And plenty of genre fiction authors write prose that is brilliant, scintillating, evocative, elegaic... choose your adjective. But do readers care? Why do I like Ian Fleming more than I like John Banville, even though Ian Fleming is a crappy writer and John Banville is not?

The rise of self-published Kindle books, while I think something of a fad right now that's destined to taper off to a smaller set of truly dedicated (if largely delusional) writers, does show that there are an awful lot of readers who will buy crap that they know is crap, as long as the story is cheap and entertaining. For the same reason they'll buy a Big Mac knowing that it has little more nutritional value than the container it comes in.

I like to think that the sands of time will wear away the weak, and only writing that is actually memorable will be remembered.

But we do still remember Edward Bulwer-Lytton.

Poll #1852354 Does writing matter?

Do you think good writing matters?

No. Nobody actually cares if u rite like this cause like even the story is good so its great!
Not really. As long as any "bad" writing doesn't get in the way of clarity, it's something only the literati really care about.
People notice, but most don't care that much.
It makes a difference, though it's not the only thing that matters.
Yes. Good and memorable books are usually the ones that are written well. Bad bestsellers are just momentary fads.

Does good writing matter to you?

No. If I like it, it's good writing, and what I like is what entertains me.
Not really. Writing quality isn't the most important thing to me, though it's nice if a book is well-written as well as enjoyable.
Yes, though I can forgive mediocre writing if the book is strong in other ways.
It matters a lot, and a book had better be pretty compelling if the prose isn't great.
I'll put a book down if I don't like the writing, no matter how engaging the story and characters.

Do you think there is such a thing as "good" writing?

Good writing is what entertains me.
"Good" writing should be competent and grammatical; everything else is subjective.
Most notions of "good" writing are just contemporary stylistic prejudices, though really flat or ingenius prose does distinguish itself.
There is room for differences in taste, but good writing is an identifiable quality.
Everyone should be able to agree on what constitutes good writing, if they know what they're talking about. If I think it's good and you don't, you're wrong.

Previous Saturday Book Discussions.
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