5.16.2011

Good Story, Bad Writing

For any girl who grew up close to her mother and/or sisters, the novel Little Women is almost indispensable. A portrait of the lives and loves of four girls raised primarily under a mother's care, it's a tale told with little plot and much feeling. It's a literary idea without the literary prose, and while it draws criticism for various weaknesses—and possibly for not having much appeal to the male half of society—it captures the beauty of mother/daughter and sister relationships like no other book I've ever read.

It's not the only beloved story that gets criticized as poorly written. Stephenie Meyer's husband reputedly attempted to talk her out of getting published because of the potential for criticism, and few popular books have been more universally called out than her Twilight. Mike Duran recently gave a strongly critical (and fair, in my opinion) review of Francine Rivers' Redeeming Love, and got firestormed in his comments from fans of the book. Literary elites turned on Harry Potter en masse when it began its rise to wild fame.

No work of art is absolutely beyond criticism. Of course, 'bad writing' can mean anything from sloppy prose to awkward pacing to believability failures and more. Little Women sort of rambles through the lives of its characters, including many scenes that possessed neither conflict nor much bearing on the story arc. Twilight is the product of an outstanding concept and an immature writer. Redeeming Love falls into a lot of common CBA problems, such as attempting to be gritty and not at the same time, pasting modern thought into a historical setting, and uneven craft. The Harry Potter books have too many adverbs, a handful of inconsistencies, and some pacing issues, but overall are written in an uncluttered comic style that perfectly suits the need of the story—it just isn't Nabokov or Rushdie.

'Good story' can prove almost as difficult to define as 'bad writing', with personal preference often playing more of a role than most of us critics like to admit. All reviews are subjective, and may be affected by the reviewer's dislike of happy-go-lucky Cinderella endings, or insanely tragic Madama Butterfly ones; of literary aimlessness, or genre tropes; of a strongly masculine approach to storytelling, or a feminine.

However we define it, bad writing involves failure of art, which should pursue beauty. But should we ignore a powerful concept that's readable and reasonably executed if it's no more than that? Little Women may ramble and lack narrative tension in places, yet I'm richer for having read it. The same is true for Twilight, Redeeming Love, and especially Harry Potter.

Whatever the answer to that question, of course, aspiring writers have no excuse for trying to push novels they haven't worked up to the best of their ability. It's important to strive for beauty regardless of what we can find on the shelves at the local bookshop. That said, tales with glaring flaws will continue to get published, because someone saw past the weaknesses to something they loved.

What story do you love in spite of its failures? Can you envision a better version? Do you wish the publishing industry had forced it through more revisions, or that a different author had gotten the idea? What are your thoughts on this subject?

16 comments:

  1. "All reviews are subjective [...]"

    I'm not going to say this isn't true, Jenna, because to a certain extent it is, but I think it's wrong. We flatter ourselves that because we can speak, therefore we're competent judges of story and narrative. Actually, as John McIntyre argues, written English is a distinct dialect that has its own rules and conventions; it takes years to master it. These rules and the mastery thereof is--have to say it--objective.

    The mastery of any art is fraught with effort and toil and knowledge. There can and should be objective standards of criticism--in fact there are, we just a) don't take the time to learn them and b) don't realize it. And we don't like to admit it, usually, because its not democratic--it means that some people will be more qualified to criticize a text than others. Ideally this would be the masters of the art, but because of how we practice the art lately, that's sadly not always the case.

    Thus endeth the diatribe...for the moment. :) Great post, Jenna, per usual!

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  2. I'm going to stand by what I said, Mr. Pond, but I don't wholly disagree with you. To a certain extent, we may be talking past each other, so to clarify: I'm thinking primarily of the literary elites' general attitude toward anything the public finds enjoyable, and of the stats and stories that suggest big-name male reviewers, as a group, disdain most work of feminine appeal.

    Certainly, some objective standards of criticism exist, and certainly, some people will be more qualified to criticize than others. I'm not in the least afraid of being undemocratic there.

    But humans are not often as objective as they think they are, and sometimes standards are arbitrary. Those things do concern me. There's a difference between criticizing an author for following a genre trope in a cliched way, and for following the genre trope at all. There's a difference between criticizing a text for plain prose and criticizing for bad prose. And elitism has its trends just as the populace does; postmodernism may be a more intellectual trend than paranormal romance, but it's a trend nonetheless, tending to exclude or denigrate what doesn't comply.

    It is true, of course, that my comments in the post could have been clearer. Does this make more sense?

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  3. Yes, it does, Jenna, and you're right--to an extent, we were talking past each other. I think it was my conflation of the 'book review' with 'criticism' that caused the mistake. Sometimes standards are arbitrary, you're absolutely right to say so. But that argument can cut the other way, say to defend a book like Redeeming Love as being a work of literature. I think we agree on this, though--do you know what I mean if I suggest that the disciplines of the craft are objective but the attainment of art often aren't? (Speaking of which--there's gotta be a better way of putting that!)

    I was made happy by discovering this paragraph at Neil Gaiman's blog today (though I still maintain that there is an objective threshold of excellence below which Art proper does not occur, no matter how much we enjoy the works produced there):

    I think it is a good thing that all people do not like all things equally, by the way. There is, as the Romans pointed out, no arguing with taste, and trying to convince someone that they should like something they don’t or not like something they do is pointless and foolish. We like different things, and it’s part of the joy of being human, and part of the reason that I can make a living making art.

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  4. Wow Jenna, there's so much here to discuss! I'm so glad you posted this. I hope you don't mind if I end up posting a few comments to cover everything I want to say...It's going to be Long:

    I agree with Mr. Pond in that there is an objective threshold for art - an honest reviewer can accept that there is art he likes and dislikes, as well as "non-art" that he likes and dislikes. In the case of literature, Any theme can be a grand literary concept, provided it is executed well. Bad writing destroys even the best concept, and bad writing really does worse damage to better concepts because then the reader recognizes the grand theme, ignores the bad writing, and is still Damaged in his overall understanding of the theme because the flawed writing was unable to give the proper depth to the idea. Mediocrity is really the greatest adversary to true beauty, because it convinces the reader to stagnate.

    The definitions of bad writing and bad story are not as subjective as we sometimes are led to believe, though you're right in that our tastes and prejudices do color our responses to stories. Bad writing is writing that fails to convey the intentions of the author in a clear and beautiful (in the objective sense) manner. Bad writing can be improved by education and discipline, but really good, artistic writing can never be completely learned, it requires an inherent talent, or gift, like any other art. Bluntly and painfully, many writers are not cut out to be writers, and no amount of practice will improve them. There are other writers who do well in their own sphere, but their writing will never be literature. It lacks artistry. For example, you mentioned that the literary elites "turned on" the Harry Potter books when they got very popular. I would say that they didn't turn on them, so much as they simply rejected them as being irrelevent in the Literary sphere. The books aren't literature in the proper sense, just as Little Women isn't literature, so much as it's an entertaining book that makes its readers feel good. Literature is writing as an art form, comparing Harry Potter, or Little Women to..maybe 100 years of Solitude or Anna Karinina would be like comparing an album of snapshots to an Ansel Adams collection. It's the same medium, different results. And there is nothing Wrong with snapshots, they can even do a lot of good: reminding us of someone or something, encouraging reflection and healing..but they aren't Art. They lack what it takes to be art.

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  5. I'm using Harry Potter more than Twilight because I do have more respect for Rowling as a writer than Meyer. And I'm really glad you brought up the tendency of male-critics to dismiss women authors. There is that problem in literary circles, and women writers have to work harder to be taken seriously. I noticed this especially in comparing Dan Brown and J.K. Rowling, who are about the same talent level, writing-wise, (though Rowling doesn't do the obnoxious "plot-jump" that Brown is so addicted to. They have similar tendencies though, and they both lack a full understanding of the subject they chose as a backdrop: Mythology for Rowling, and Symbolism, Academia, Religion, and Life--In-General for Brown. But Dan Brown DOES get taken seriously much more often, I've even heard his stories defended as "so VERY Smart!" by people who really ought to know better. I'm hoping as much as possible that this is due to the genre difference, and not simply to him being male, but it is frustrating in so many ways.

    But it's precisely Because women writers are working at somewhat of a disadvantage that we need to be careful about giving bad, of at least lesser, women writers a free ticket to literary standing. If we act as though women writers who produce undisciplined, immature, and overly emotional books are producing Literature, then we're holding them to a lesser standard. We're saying "Hemingway is a good example of a literary male. Alcott is the best we can do as women." and that just continues the bias. It's only when we expect our women writers to write as well, as disciplined, and as relevently as male writers that the scene will begin to change.

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  6. Whew..I'm done. I had more to say, but I lost it when I had to re-set the internet connection. :(

    Thanks for putting up with my long comments, and especially my criticism of Rowling - I know I can get Very Defensive of certain favorite authors (and end up saying nasty, unthoughtout comments in response), you've been uber-patient in all these discussions - feel free to let me know in no-uncertain-terms if you think I've misrepresented her.

    Great topic though, I'm thrilled to be able to discuss this!

    Blessings,
    Masha

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  7. Mr. Pond, those are great words from Neil Gaiman. And you're right, I do agree with you about the difference between objective discipline and subjective attainment.

    Masha, you've made some interesting points, and let me say first that I wrongly phrased the sentence about literary elites and Harry Potter. You are right about the elites rejecting the story outright rather than turning on it, and I simply didn't think the sentence through when I wrote it. :)

    The objective baseline both you and Mr. Pond suggest is necessary for qualifying a work as Art interests me, but I think it will be hard for the world to come to an agreement on where that baseline should land. If Literature-with-a-capital-L is primarily dependent on phrasing according to beauty, then absolutely, not one of the books mentioned qualifies. Where I would let Harry Potter slide in a little is its structuring, themes and symbolism, which have proven capable, time and again, of inspiring academic essays and books (many of which are quite good, in my opinion). I think that in a world where Narnia qualifies as Literature, Harry Potter definitely should. But if Narnia does not count--Lewis is an excellent writer, much better at prose than Rowling, but these are children's books after all--then no, Harry Potter is not Literature either.

    I'd put Little Women about with Harry Potter because of its deeply beautiful portrayal of feminine relationships. Redeeming Love and Twilight both have a few aspects of what might be called literary merit, but even I wouldn't call either of them literature.

    If you're defining the written Art as Literature with a capital L, then same as above. But I tend to think all work created with effort, some objective technical merit, and felt or believed meaning deserves the name of art. With a lower-case A, at least. Again, however, I may not be disagreeing with you.

    Thanks for the added points about the male/female writing and reviewing relationship. I agree that female writers should be held to a standard as high as male--just that said standard should take the female soul into account. Without having wholly educated myself on the details, I suspect that men have set such standards as do exist, and that women's work may differ essentially on every level.

    This may be paranoia, but sometimes I think Dan Brown is taken more seriously because his work creates a fictitiously evil version of Christianity, and people seem to want to believe that sort of thing. However, gender may play a part.

    Alcott is not the best we can do as women (and neither is Rowling), but I will take either of them any day over Hemingway. I read For Whom the Bell Tolls and liked it, but as much as I appreciate its fewer adverbs and infinitely more detail, I fail to see its superiority on the levels that matter most in life, if not art. There's nothing admirable to me about obscenity, brutality, immorality and a bleakly irreligious outlook on life and death.

    Which brings me to one more response I want to make--but I'm going to enlist Chesterton's help, so I'll put it in another comment.

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  8. Now, if I'd had my wits about me when writing the post, I certainly would have linked Chesterton's essay titled A Defence of Penny Dreadfuls. Because here's the deal: at one time, much of the best art was created under the patronage of the Church and inspired by its beliefs. Somewhere in the infinite shifts toward more recent trends like postmodernism, sex worship, and chaos, 'Art' lost its communication with its audience, which I've written about at length before. And I vastly prefer Beethoven and Bach to the supposedly grand new cacophonies I sometimes hear while waiting for one of their pieces at the symphony hall. More--I prefer the Celtic Women or Bryan Adams or even the Backstreet Boys. At least the latter think of ordinary humans as worthy of the honor of communication.

    Now, I've not had a lot of success in getting into the more modern classics of literature. Nothing about Joyce attracts me, and I just couldn't stand being in Humbert Humbert's head--it made me too sick (though I'm not saying Lolita isn't worthwhile; I trust your opinion of it). And I've already ranted about Hemingway.

    But as much as artistic beauty is worth aspiring to--and I always, always will aspire to beauty in my own prose (though I should've given that last comment another read, as I'm already picking grammatical errors out of it)--I don't think we can safely write off popular literature as necessarily vulgar or degrading. Here's where Chesterton comes in:

    One of the strangest examples of the degree to which ordinary life is undervalued is the example of popular literature, the vast mass of which we contentedly describe as vulgar. The boy's novelette may be ignorant in a literary sense, which is only like saying that modern novel is ignorant in the chemical sense, or the economic sense, or the astronomical sense; but it is not vulgar intrinsically--it is the actual centre of a million flaming imaginations....

    More in the next comment--I'm over the allotted character count! :)

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  9. We are in some danger of becoming petty in our study of pettiness; there is a terrible Circean law in the background that if the soul stoops too ostentatiously to examine anything it never gets up again. There is no class of vulgar publications about which there is, to my mind, more utterly ridiculous exaggeration and misconception than the current boys' literature of the lowest stratum. This class of composition has presumably always existed, and must exist. It has no more claim to be good literature than the daily conversation of its readers to be fine oratory, or the lodging-houses and tenements they inhabit to be sublime architecture. But people must have conversation, they must have houses, and they must have stories. The simple need for some kind of ideal world in which fictitious persons play an unhampered part is infinitely deeper and older than the rules of good art, and much more important.... Literature and fiction are two entirely different things. Literature is a luxury; fiction is a necessity....

    Bad story writing is not a crime. Mr. Hall Caine walks the streets openly, and cannot be put in prison for an anticlimax. The objection rests upon the theory that the tone of the mass of boys' novelettes is criminal and degraded, appealing to low cupidity and low cruelty. This is the magisterial theory, and this is rubbish....

    It is the modern literature of the educated, not of the uneducated, which is avowedly and aggressively criminal. Books recommending profligacy and pessimism, at which the high-souled errand-boy would shudder, lie upon all our drawing-room tables. If the dirtiest old owner of the dirtiest old book stall in Whitechapel dared to display works really recommending polygamy or suicide, his stock would be seized by the police. These things are our luxuries. And with a hypocrisy so ludicrous as to be almost unparalleled in history, we rate the gutter-boys for their immorality at the very time that we are discussing (with equivocal German professors) whether morality is valid at all. At the very instant that we curse the Penny Dreadful for encouraging thefts upon property, we canvass the proposition that all property is theft. At the very instant we accuse it (quite unjustly) of lubricity and indecency, we are cheerfully reading philosophies which glory in lubricity and indecency. At the very instant that we charge it with encouraging the young to destroy life, we are placidly discussing whether life is worth preserving....

    ...and the one caveat, which we have of course crossed:

    So long as the coarse and thin texture of mere current popular romance is not touched by a paltry culture it will never be vitally immoral.

    So: my point is not that the books I mentioned in my post are Literature, but that they're valuable, more valuable in some ways than what we exalt as Great Art. I love beauty, but it's hard for me to find beauty in horror, and easy to find it in good even when the good is prosaic and everyday.

    My goal: to write a great story that's also beautifully written. For which, of course, my examples are people like Jane Austen. :)

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  10. Hmm..you've definitely given me a lot to think about, and I doubt I'll be able to respond as fully as your responses deserve in this cafe visit, I'll probably be reflecting for a while now, and hopefully posting some blogs myself on the topic, so as to avoid overflowing your comments :) Thanks for giving such a long and thoughtful response though, it's always nice to have my own long comments responded to in full. I'll try to do the best I can with yours as well.

    I'm glad that we're not quite arguing whether the books are or are not Literature, that takes away whole long and circular discussion. :) And I know You'll be happy to know that I've hunted down some of the "Harry Potter as symbolically valuable" books and essays you mentioned in one of our previous discussions, and am waiting for them to arrive in my mail-box. I'm looking forward to reading them and understanding the arguments.

    I would say, Harry Potter-wise, that in relation what might make Narnia Literature while leaving Harry Potter outside of that definition is precisely the quality of writing. Narnia can pass as Literature because Lewis is an artist with words. It's his writing that gives his story richness and beauty, if he were a lesser writer, the Narnia books would be merely fantasy fiction, and perhaps less enjoyable than Harry Potter, because weakly written allegory is generally worse than weakly written straight fiction. Artistic ideas don't make one an artist, everyone has them, it's the ability to make that idea live in reality that does make the artist. Lewis demonstrates this ability in the majority of his writing, and Narnia is no exception. I hope that clarifys why I at least would make a distinction between the two.

    I don't think that makes pop-fiction vulgar or degrading, at least by definition, I'm sure some of it is. It does have value, just a different sort of value. Like the snapshot analogy from my other comments, pop-fiction provides certain goods: entertainment, enjoyment, and even some opportunity for thought and reflection. Pop-fiction also presents a snapshot of the culture that created it and made it popular. It gives us a way to understand people.

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  11. G.K. Chesterton..I loved the imagery in his Man Who was Thursday, but I've never been able to really like the man or the majority of his ideas - in part because I've never been able to really forgive him for being a misogynist and racist, and in part because of that rejection of art that is present in most of his books, even the very artistic Thursday. That he can say "Literature is a Luxury, fiction is a necessity." indicates that artistic rejection. I don't believe that Beauty in any of its forms can be considered a luxury, especially in comparision with entertainment (fiction), which is nice, but in no way feeds the hunger of the human soul for the Beauty God created us to pursue. The hunger for beauty and art is the hunger for God, and it can never be replaced or usurped by mere distraction, no matter how enjoyable. I hope I'm explaining this clearly, let me know if I'm failing.

    Jane Austen is fantastic, we can happily agree on her literary merit. And decidedly feminine, without falling into the weaknesses of some female writers. But I have to defend Hemingway. I rediscovered his quality by reading "A Moveable Feast" and it's much more appealing to a non-Hemingway person than some of his novels. You should give it a try, the food descriptions alone are fantastic, and it gives you a taste of his goals and direction as a writer. It's sort of a reflection on his time in Paris.

    I have similar suspicions about Dan Brown..and I have to apologize, I'm rereading him now (just a bit) and I was unfair to Rowling, he's not quite on her level. His writing makes me sad.

    Hmm..I have more to say, but the cafe is closing and my brain is fried - too much Dan Brown.

    Let me know if any of this is helpful and clarifying - your comments were both Helpful and Clarifying, I enjoyed reading them!
    Blessings,
    Masha

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  12. Shoot--I hate it when I type up a whole comment, and Blogger. Let's see what I can recall...

    Masha, your comments are always welcome. I look forward to your further thoughts, whether you post them here or at your blog! I'll watch for them.

    I don't think pop fiction--at least, if we're talking about Little Women and Harry Potter--is just entertainment or distraction or even a little food for thought. There are books like that, certainly. But I think these, and others like them, are ever so much more. They're celebrations of human greatness, of love and virtue, and of taking a clear stance against the very real evil in the world. That is what Chesterton was getting at, I think. That is beauty, and it absolutely is a search for God. Of course, if a book aims at such things but reads awkwardly, I will still find it less than beautiful. But Rowling and Alcott can at least write solid, serviceable sentences that won't generally trip up the reader.

    I'll concede you the point about Lewis' writing in Narnia. It's vastly better than Rowling, who is better in her turn than Meyer or Rivers (can't answer for Brown as I've never read him, but I'll take your word for it). But I think this might be at the heart of where you and I disagree, or are perhaps talking past each other: I would claim that there are several levels to a novel at which beauty, and therefore art, are possible. And while I wouldn't argue that the prose side can be coolly dispensed with when elevating the symbolism and structure and theme and meaning, I think the rest of that still counts as art.

    Also, I think Chesterton was primarily rejecting beautifully written vice--the pursuit of beauty without the pursuit of truth and virtue that ought to accompany it. I am shamelessly with him in this, but that does put me opposite most high-level literary criticism.

    Of course, I love Chesterton, especially his Orthodoxy (have never run across misogyny and racism, but I've not read nearly everything he wrote). Regarding this, though, see Mr. Pond's quote from Neil Gaiman. Differing opinions are part of life, and I respect yours. :)

    It's good to hear your defense of Hemingway, and I'll have to give A Moveable Feast a try one of these days.

    Blessings to you, too, and thanks so much for sharing your thoughts!

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  13. Weird. I very much thought I wrote "I hate it when I type up a whole comment, and Blogger eats it." Oops. :)

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  14. Returning late to the party. :D

    A lot of good points here. I completely agree on the JKR/CSL distinction, and why Narnia might be great art whereas HP is merely good (to use a horribly rough scale!). But there's too much to comment on, so let me draw out only a few points.

    Masha, I'm afraid I have to disagree with you when you say, @ 4 'Any theme can be a grand literary concept, provided it is executed well.' The classic deconstruction of this theory is, of course, Dr Johnson's stanza:

    I put my hat upon my head,
    And walked into the Strand,
    And there I met another man
    Whose hat was in his hand.


    It's technically flawless. It does everything that poetry and rhyming tetrameter should do; from the standpoint of construction, it's impeccable. But as Wordsworth pointed out, 'the matter expressed [...] is contemptible.' Despite its technical perfection, it's not art. It's not poetry. It's doggerel. This cuts against much of the fashions in current arts, of course, but I think Dr Johnson was right. There seems to be a threshold of subject as well as of style.

    Jenna--thanks for saying that you 'prefer' Backstreet Boys to the 'vast cacophonies' of modern music! I mean for admitting that has to do with taste, as we've discussed. Stravinsky or Lutoslawski or Messiaen (a devout Catholic, btw)all benefit from close listening and study, and reach depths of emotional and artistic profundity that the BSBoys don't even approach. Art is a continual exploration and discovery, challenge and interrogation, and that's what these composers do admirably. In a sense, it is an acquired taste, like a bold red wine. Or, to mix metaphors, perhaps it requires learning a different language than the baroque or classical. And it may be a taste worth cultivating. Though to continue the awful metaphor, it's not necessary in any sense, and there's no denying the exquisite beauty of a delicate Baraoque White. :)

    The supreme danger--and I know you and I agree on this--is to mistake taste for critical judgement; they're that's one of the main problems of much criticism. And the serendipitous moments come when taste as great art happen to coincide.

    A thread for long posts! Goodness, do I scent another blogalectic brewing? ;)

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  15. Mr. Pond, I posted this with a vague suspicion that it had blogalectic-brewing potential, at least. :)

    Lou has a CD of Messiaen, and I can enjoy some of it. Much more artistically admirable, overall, than any boy band. I enjoy the BSBoys, but would never call them great art. :) But I do think, on principle, that reserving communication to an elite audience is a bad direction for art to have gone. I'm not saying Messaien and friends shouldn't exist, of course; just referring to the overall idea.

    I wholeheartedly agree, of course, that taste and critical judgment ought not be mistaken for each other.

    Thanks for joining in again!

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  16. Hey, Masha, Mr. Pond just sent me an email about doing a blogalectic (our word for an extended blog-based debate) on these ideas, and he wondered if you might want to join in. The idea is that we'd each write a post per week for 6-10 weeks, responding to each others' posts and putting forward our own thoughts. If you're interested, send me an email at librarylily at gmail dot com and I'll get you in the loop with Mr. Pond and me. :)

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