My book club had a lively discussion last month about the difference between good and bad writing. Can you elucidate?
A few weeks ago, I was reading “People Who Eat Darkness” by Richard Lloyd Parry and came to this sentence on page three: “Exhausted tubes of toothpaste curl on the edges of the sink, sodden lumps of soap drool in the floor of the shower.” My heart sank. I couldn’t read a whole book written with such strained, anthropomorphic racket. Unless Mr. Parry calmed down, which in the end he mostly did, I would not be able to finish this otherwise absorbing story.
It’s impossible to define bad writing because no one would agree on a definition. We all know it when we see it, and we all see it subjectively. I remember going almost mad with irritation at how many times Carolyn Chute used the phrase “fox-color eyes” in her best-selling novel “The Beans of Egypt, Maine”—bad writing, I thought. On Amazon, other readers called it “brilliant.”
Similarly, this second sentence in Gail Jones’s novel “Five Bells” was the last sentence of hers I read: “Before she saw the bowl of bright water, swelling like something sexual, before she saw the blue, unprecedented, and the clear sky sloping upwards, she knew from the lilted words it would be a circle like no other, key to a new world.” Professional reviewers described Ms. Jones’s prose as “intensely lyrical” and “poetic.”
I’m tempted to say that the only universally acknowledged characteristic of bad writing is that you can’t understand it, but even that’s not true. In the late 1990s, the journal Philosophy and Literature sponsored a contest to identify the worst sentences in published academic prose. I cite this third-place winner only because it has the rare virtue of being short: “The lure of imaginary totality is momentarily frozen before the dialectic of desire hastens on within symbolic chains.”
William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White in “The Elements of Style” would respond to what seems like intentional obscurity—both in academia and fiction—by saying, “Be obscure clearly! Be wild of tongue in a way we can understand!” “The Elements of Style” remains the single best primer on writing English with “cleanliness, accuracy and brevity,” and if writers take only one piece of advice from it, let it be “Omit needless words!”
A woman reads a book near posters of the ‘Twilight’ saga.
Roger H. Garrison, author of “How a Writer Works,” described bad writers as those who fall victim to the “tides of phony, posturing, pretentious, tired, imprecise slovenly language, which both suffocate and corrupt the mind.” That’s a good start, but I’d add repetitious, smug and disrespectful of readers’ time.
The lean editing staffs of even the most reputable publishers mean that authors aren’t likely to get the Max Perkins treatment anymore (read A. Scott Berg’s biography, “Max Perkins: Editor of Genius,” to see the kind of help Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Thomas Wolfe got with their writing). Typos have become a fact of life even in well-published books now, and I’ve trained myself to ignore them, but I am often shocked by how badly some books need to be trimmed. Overwriting is definitely bad writing, and there is a lot of it out there.
The vast majority of the subjects of Nick Page’s book “In Search of the World’s Worst Writers” are overwriters. “Amanda McKittrick Ros (1860-1939) is the greatest bad writer who ever lived,” Mr. Page writes. As evidence, he quotes this line from one of her novels: “Do not sit in silence and allow the blood that now boils in my veins to ooze through cavities of unrestrained passion and trickle down to drench me with its crimson hue.” C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, among other Oxford literati, reportedly held contests to see who could read her work longest without breaking into guffaws.
Some readers, and I know a few of them, don’t care how a story is written as long as it’s comprehensible and keeps them turning pages—”The Da Vinci Code,” for example, or “Twilight” or “Fifty Shades of Grey.” Responding to a question about “Twilight” on a Yahoo Answers page, a reader wrote, “I never quit reading a book because I think the style of writing is bad. It may not be bad, just different from what I’m used to. Focus on the story more than the writing style.”
I sometimes wish I could do that so I could enjoy the occasional airport book. Unfortunately, I feel as the mystery writer Dorothy L. Sayers did: “The most intricate plot ever woven will never carry bad writing,” she wrote in “Style in Crime Stories—Why Good Writing Pays.” “But good writing will often carry a thin plot, and really inspired writing will carry almost anything.”