Monday, November 24, 2008

Are bad books good for us?

Funnily enough, I started planning this post on Saturday, and yesterday I wandered over to Smart Bitches and saw they were wondering the same thing--as, apparently, was a writer at The Guardian.

I'm not sure I agree, though.

See, I read a bad book this weekend. A bad book (and no, I am not going to tell you what it was, so don't even ask). A book I found almost no--no, make that no, period--redeeming features about. It was badly written and clunky. It was all tell, no show. There was some awful sex in it; really, really bad, complete with orgasms that sounded more like epileptic fits and terrible, unsexy word choices. I was informed characters were smart, when in fact the book showed them to be insipid ninnies; I'm surprised they were able to figure out how to work a faucet. The hero was an asshole, of the self-pitying crybaby type; the heroine was a hateful, childish moron.

Bad characters are one thing, but bad writing is insulting. And this was badly written, oh yes. I cringed. I gave so many snorts of incredulous laughter the hubs asked if I was coming down with a cold.

Now according to the Guardian writer, and the fabulous Bitches, this should be a positive experience, and make me better able to appreciate the really good books I've read. And I suppose to some degree that's true.

But reading that dreck made me think. It made me think about a review I saw once on Amazon, in which the reviewer complained that a character's backstory was not explained in the beginning of the book--in other words, she was upset there hadn't been an infodump.

And it got me thinking. What sort of books did that reviewer normally read, that she expected the main character's entire backstory to be explained right up front? You don't generally find those as much in popular fiction (and by "popular" I mean NY-published books with large readerships.) Oh, sure, you see them on occasion, but I think most professional editors see infodumps for the marks of amateurism they are, and don't buy novels with that sort of thing in them.

Which tells me that in large part, that reader was probably reading largely Bad Books.

I could be wrong, of course. It could simply be that she doesn't read much (or he; I don't remember the name of the reviewer or anything else about them.) Or it could be he or she does read good books and dislikes all of them for the same reason.

But I'm always amazed when I see books I've read and thought were just terrible on a technical level get great reviews. I don't mean books where the writing wasn't stellar but was serviceable, and the plot was good enough to keep me involved. I'm talking about really, truly awful books. The kind we've all read; the kind where, for example, historical characters use modern verbiage, or every other sentence ends with an exclamation point, or entire sentences fail to make any kind of sense despite several readings. (Here's an example of what I mean, that I just made up:

She held a hat in her hands and walked along the river, before it falls and blew away into the night sky with the water flying everywhere and tears hit her shoes.

See what I mean?)

So I see those positive reviews, and I can only assume one of two things. Either the reviewer hasn't actually read the book, or the reviewer is simply so well attuned to terrible prose that they don't notice it anymore, in the same manner as someone living near a dump wll eventually no longer smell the garbage.

Now, I'm not claiming my own writing is so great, either. This isn't about me being better than anyone else. Who knows, maybe the book I read this weekend is actually great, and I'm the dipshit who isn't smart enough to get it (although the reviews of it I've seen elsewhere agree with me.)

But whether or not it's a skill I truly possess, good writing is important to me. Words that snap and flow, images and metaphors that are poetic and clear. Characters who practically climb off the page, but not in a creepy The Ring kind of way. Plots that make sense, and fall neatly into place.

These things are important. Good writing should be both easy and difficult to read; it should resonate while challenging us. It should feel strange and familiar at once.

But once you grow accustomed to reading books where that challenge, that strangeness, that unique voice, isn't present...perhaps good writing becomes harder to see? Harder to recognize? Isn't it possible that, much as a person who only ever eats potato chips may have a hard time eating something more complex--indeed, may begin to hate something more complex, as it forces them to experience something new and different--reading nothing but bad prose may make good writing seem too hard? Too much of a challenge. Instead of wanting to watch a story unfold we begin to want everything up front; we don't want to get to know the characters, we don't want to spend time in the world. We don't want to have to pay attention to what's on the page, in other words.

I'm not saying every book we read has to be incredibly high quality, not at all. And again, I'm not saying I'm such a great writer, either.

I'm just wondering if perhaps bad writing, instead of teaching us to appreciate good writing, only breeds more bad writing. When a writer reads published books as part of their learning process, and those published books are lazy, lousy, and unclear...what does that say to them? What level of work will they shoot for, if they think the terrible book they've just read is where they need to be?

What do you guys think?


Charles Gramlich said...

There are bad books and there are BADDDDDDDDDDDDDDDddd books. I think we can indeed learn from the former, but probably not anything from the latter. Sounds like the one you read fell into the latter category.

kirsten saell said...

Frequently I'll try to read a NYT bestselling book and wonder WTF anyone could possibly like about it--cardboard characters, unbearable redundancy, and all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. My mom recommended one hugely popular author to me, I read the first couple chapters of one of her books and COULD NOT make myself go any further.

I can only assume that, to borrow your analogy, they are the literary equivalent of potato chips. Potato chips are popular for a reason. They're full of salt and fat (neither of which are particularly good or good for you, but they do have their appeal) and easy to eat (no knife, fork, or thought required).

Me, I've always been more of a filet mignon, roasted asparagus and wild rice kind of person. I want to walk away from a book feeling pleasantly full, not salt-bloated and nauseous.

Seeley deBorn said...

I'm going to KIS's house for dinner.

It's usually the NYT bests that people cite as breaking all kinds of rules; and if those geniuses can do it, why can't they? Why someone who has never sold a book thinks they can get away with the same bends that someone who sells on name alone is beyond me.

When it comes to new authors and bad books though...someone, somewhere liked it enough to risk cash to produce it. Maybe that person saw something in it that the rest of us missed, or maybe that person is now unemployed. It's too bad that the thing is taking up valuable shelf space in a bookstore, but it's more than likely that the author (NYTs being the noted exception) will never publish another book. And yeah a few people might aim lower because of it, but aiming low won't get them far.

But then, this kind of thing happens in all mediums. Crappy books should come as no surprise. Look at all the crappy movies out there. And all the people who like them. (I don't care what anyone says, Starship Troopers was awesome)

kirsten saell said...

Heh, Starship Troopers was awesome because it was crappy. It managed to be crappy, but with charm.

The Man said...

It’s all about volume. Books are a one buy one read venture. I am sure that a large majority of books sold for mass consumption have a fog index of six or below. Simple and suited for the masses. Publishing is a business, and it’s not about making you appreciate writing it’s about taking your cash.

laughingwolf said...

the man nailed it, methinks

i buy/read [mostly] 'good' books, but two really 'bad' that fit dee's format i bought/read were l.ron's 'dianetics' [tossed it] and one by a kung-fu master [tossed it, too] who could not string words together to make an understandable sentence, though an 'educated white man'....

Seeley deBorn said...

Starship Troopers was not crappy.

kirsten saell said...

Hah! I beg to differ. The mere fact that it starred Caspar van Dien, Michael Ironside, Denise Richards, Neil Patrick Harris and Clancy Brown designates it as crappy. But, as I said, there is crappy-good, and crappy-bad. Strship Troopers was spectacularly, catroony crappy-good.

And the fact that I could name all those actors without even thinking will tell you how many times I've watched it... :D

Robyn said...

I agree with kis- ST was crappy-good. Sarah Brightman's video I Lost My Heart to a Starship Trooper was crappy-bad.

EL Montague said...

Bad is just bad. However, I've seen lots of bashing that I don't agree with of popular works, prime examples - Twilight and Harry Potter. Both get lambasted for being a low form of writing, but generate a firestorm of buying. They might be McDonald's to someone else's five-star restaraunt, but what I want to know is what they did right.

So, if what you read is just bad, toss it when you get bored. If it's bad, but doing well, why?

December/Stacia said...

Yes, Charles, this was BAAADD. I actually enjoy bad books on occasion, like I said, but this was just awful. No redeeming qualities, really.

And it wasn't a Bestseller or anything, kis; far from it. I totally get the anaology; later in the comment thread EL mentions Harry Potter, and I love those books. I know there are some parts of them that aren't soaring prose, but overall I think they're fine--and fun, which is more important to me. But I do get what you mean.

Oh, Seeley, I totally know what you mean. Just because someone with a guaranteed audience can get away with it, doesn't mean you can. I've also seen people bitching about certain epubs that authors who've been with them a while get more leeway in their contracts, and while that doesn't make me happy, again, it's not like it's some bizarre discriminatory practice. Do these people honestly believe every publishing contract in the world looks exactly the same? Sheesh.

Oh, and I've only seen Starship Troopers once, and thought it was bad fun until the big death at the end, which I thought sucked.

And that's very, very true, Man. Not every book is going to be great, and that's fine with me; hell, if every book had to be great I doubt I would be published! :-) But there's a line between just okay and terrible, and the book I read crossed it; in Mark Twain's words, it stamped upon it.

Laughingwolf, you bought Dianetics?! Doesn't that put you on some creepy list somewhere? :-)

*nods* Like I said, EL, I'm far from a snob. I love the Potter books--haven't read Twilight. As long as the writing is capable and gets the point across, that's fine; frex, I think Tolkein was a terrible writer, but the story is so great it doesn't matter. But this book...oh, just bad. Bad writing, bad characters, bad, silly story...just BAD.

Thanks for stopping by!

BernardL said...

I confess. Because a whole bunch of my buddies in the service thought the Ring Trilogy was fabulous, I read them. For years afterward, whenever I heard or read the word Hobbit, my barf reflex kicked in. :)

I agree with your premise, D, I don't learn a thing from a bad book; but they do make me want to contact the author, and find out how he/she managed to get it published. :)

I loved Starship Troopers: both the movie, and originally when I read the novel.

kirsten saell said...

Hee, Bernard. My ex's only experience with Tolkien before the movies was a book called Bored of the Rings. He said it was much better than the original...

Anonymous said...

It will get worse, me thinks.

I agree with everything kirsten said about Starship Troopers.


BernardL said...

'Bored of the Rings'... LOL! Thanks for that one Kirsten.

December/Stacia said...

Lol, oh Bernard, they really were badly written, weren't they? All that melodramatic speech, and then we watch characters do things and have to sit and listen while they tell other characters the full story we've just read. It fails simply for including the Tom Bombadil character, IMO--a totally useless waste of space.

Bored of the Rings is fun; I have a copy too. It was put out by the Harvard Lampoon. :-)

*sigh* Yeah, V95, it probably will...

writtenwyrdd said...

I think that a stinko book is not going to teach most people anything but to have a taste for bad, lazy writing. Those of us who read critically (usually writing) are going to possibly take away what NOT to do; but I say from personal experience that the irritation of bad writing outweighs any possible benefit.

A bad vampire novel did inspire me to take my writing seriously and write the trunk novel!

RfP said...

"I'm just wondering if perhaps bad writing, instead of teaching us to appreciate good writing, only breeds more bad writing."

I have a feeling that's true, depending on what sort of "bad" it is. There's bad that captures a reader's imagination despite the infodump or poor characterization or whatever (e.g. Lord of the Rings): big ideas, uneven execution. Then there's bad that's simplistic, childish writing (e.g. Julie Garwood's latest: omfg: no ideas, crap execution, early-grade-school reading level). And there's bad that's flat-out wrong: poor word choice, grammar, etc.

I think the big-ideas books are in a different category, but the latter types of "bad" breed more of the same. Just look at the huge audience for crummy young-adult fiction, and for anything that can be skimmed while watching TV. It would be different if that were people's maximum reading level, but for most people it isn't. It's partly about lifestyle, but it's also a habit, an expectation, and a loss of linguistic muscle due to lack of practice.