I just finished reading an article from the Wall Street Journal by a columnist whom I admire and respect. Her articles are usually fresh, engaging in the best way, and provide a nice perspective that usually contradicts–yet inspires–my views on publishing, writing, and the world of books.
The thing is, this article didn’t really contradict my own opinions–at least not overtly.
The part of the article that “ruffled my feathers” was the tone.
Before I go any further, here’s the article: What Makes Bad Writing – WSJ.com, by Cynthia Crossen. Check it out, read it, and develop your own opinions before reading this post any further.
Okay, great. Now that we’re all on the same page, I’ll start the rant.
Crossen opens with a quote:
My book club had a lively discussion last month about the difference between good and bad writing. Can you elucidate?
Ah, wonderful, I think, we’re going to get satirical (as an aside: I love satire and sarcasm a little too much, and “elucidate” means to “clarify,” “make lucid,” etc.).
The bulk of the actual post is fine–actually, it’s quite good. About the level of quality reporting I’d expect from Crossen–she is, after all, a staff writer for WSJ; she should be a fantastic writer.
Mainly, the article is about the subjectivity of “good” and “bad” when it comes to books, or writing, to be broad. Generally I agree with the premise–these are certainly subjective labels, ones which we tend to take for granted in most instances. So far, so good, Crossen.
She continues by bemoaning some ridiculous uses of the English language, found in–not surprisingly–some fiction on the left side of the “trash/quality spectrum” (notice my own subjectivity coming out here?). I agree with her main point that extends throughout the article: we, as writers, should be as succinct and to-the-point as possible. She even quotes the oft-cited Strunk and White’s “Omit needless words” rule.
I agree–actually, though the practice of the method is considerably more challenging, most writers do as well–brevity and lucidity are much more refreshing to our readers than clunky, overwritten prose.
Here’s where our opinions begin to waver: toward the end of the article, Crossen writes:
“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.”
Careful, Crossen–you’re getting awful close to becoming condescending. To which “readers,” of whom you know a few, are you referring?
I sure do like a good ‘ol com-pre-hens-ible story that keeps me a’turnin’ them pages–
Well, it’s much better that way than the opposite: a “story” that’s so dense with word-vomit and incomprehensible dribble that I have no idea what the you-know-what’s going on.
I took AP English (so what?)
I’ve been in the trenches of “British Literature 2201,” or “AP (Advanced Placement) English 4,” or whatever title gives us that false sense of “smartness.” I’ve been that kid forced to wade through Dickens (yeah, I said it. FORCED.) while trying to decipher Pip’s dialogue with Jaggers. Or Piggy. Or whatever. Finny DIES?!?
The Heart of What? This is insane… Who’s Eyre?
The truth is–if you want subjectivity–I don’t like that stuff at all, so to me, it’s not “good.”
If it doesn’t explain to me, in my particular vernacular dialect of my spoken tongue (plus a few passes for being old), exactly what’s going on in the story, I’m out.
Period, end-of-story, done.
Enough about literature.
I’ll assume the subject of my rant’s focus was referring to an overuse of words, not a mixup between antiquation and fourth-grade-English-level writing.
Fine, Dickens, you win this round. But let’s get back to the battle at hand.
Crossen goes on to state (part of the last quote):
“The Da Vinci Code,” for example, or “Twilight” or “Fifty Shades of Grey.”
Okay, fine, aside from the fact that Mr. Brown was literally the reason I started reading “grown up” books in the first place (after a decade-long rail against literature in general–thanks American public school system for allowing me to be “gifted”), I kinda get the Twilight and Fifty Shades references.
If I’d read those two (satire coming–hold on!) wonderful masterpieces of literary note, I may have written rants against those as well. I didn’t though, so I must take everyone else’s word for it and assume that they’re… great.
So, even though I’d like to agree that these three examples probably aren’t the best examples of “literature” (the kind that makes you want to push your glasses up your nose with your middle finger, into that squishy spot between your eyeballs. While drinking tea.), I don’t like how she lumps the examples in with the aforementioned “some readers.”
These “some readers” seem to be people an awful lot like me–people who enjoy a good story. “Some readers” like knowing what’s going on–without needing a thesaurus, a bearded sweater-vest sporting literature professors, or a nerdy stuck-up Honors kid explaining that “A Separate Peace” is really a metaphorical title for something-something-World War II-something and you spelled “seperate” wrong.
These “some readers” like to sit down, open a book, and be engrossed in the story–a concept that for whatever reason seems to have been lost to some “literary geniuses.”
Even still, that’s not Crossen’s fault.
She didn’t write that stuff. When I get to heaven, I’ll have a few words with Dickens (who’ll no doubt be hanging with Clancy) and the Bronte sisters. Hemingway’s cool; we tight.
Instead, my beef with Crossen’s article is her last paragraph, led by the last sentence of the preceding one (reprinted here for context):
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.”
Wait. WHAT now?
Let’s take this in stride.
First, “I sometimes wish I could [focus on the story more than the writing style] so I could enjoy the occasional airport book.”
So, you wish you were a little more like “some reader?”
A little more like little ‘ol Southern me?
A guy who’s been force-fed so much literary crap that even if he believed there was an “educational counterpart to the historic relevance of these works,” he wouldn’t be able to understand it?
And what, by the way, is an “airport book?”
Don’t tell me–Fifty Shades, Twilight, Harry Potter, Da Vinci, etc.?
It’s funny–when I started writing novels, my dream was to write a book that would be sold in the airport bookstores of the world. Not just the big ones, either–the spinning-kiosk-style book holders, featuring the latest crimes, mysteries, and thrillers.
Hell, I almost cried when someone told me The Golden Crystal (my first novel) was akin to “National Treasure meets Da Vinci Code.”
I’m writing for those of us out there who are able to laugh at ridiculously-long sentences, overwritten dialogue, and generally “bad” writing styles, and still be able to spot a damn good plot line that captivates us to no end.
My last rant.
I know this one isn’t Ms. Crosser’s fault, but a commenter on the article mentioned something I want to squash right now, officially:
“What a great (and well-written) article. As far as a reader’s ability to ignore bad writing in order to enjoy a good plot, It’s like a great singer singing bad material vs. a bad singer singing brilliant material. Hard to say which is more bearable. I guess I’d rather hear Joe Cocker sing The Pina Colada Song than Celine Dion scream “I Will Always Love You.”
No, sir, you are wrong. I’m sorry to pee in your snocone, but “a reader’s ability to ignore bad writing in order to enjoy a good plot” is nothing like “a great singer singing bad material vs. a bad singer singing brilliant material.”
Sorry–can’t agree with you on this one. A reader’s ability to ignore bad writing has nothing to do with the writer. But a great singer singing bad material still leaves out the subjective party–the listener. Right?
It’s the listener’s (reader’s) job to discern “good” from “bad,” not the singer’s (in a book’s case “the voice of the audiobook” seems a fitting example). The singer’s job is to sing what’s on the page.
I do want to be the best writer I can be, but even that connotes subjectivity–the best to me can’t be the best to everyone. I guess I’ll just have to be okay with what I got.
And, in my upcoming novel, if you’re expecting an archetypal hero who has a coming-of-age journey to discover his inner manhood through numerous encounters and a plethora of large words, there might be too many heads getting blown off for you to enjoy it.
Update on this post: Crossen’s latest article on WSJ is called “Snubbing the Book Snobs,” and is a really funny read when taken side-by-side with her referenced post here.