Nathan Bransford, Author


Wednesday, February 20, 2008

How Objectively Can We Judge Good or Bad Writing?

As anyone who has presided over a slush pile, passed on a megabestseller, or read their friend's manuscript will tell you, reading is subjective. Many different people have their own opinions about the same book, and those opinions can vary so widely it's almost impossible to believe they've read the same book. One person will think it's the best book ever, another will think it's the literary equivalent of Heidi Montag's Spencer-directed music video.

Writing? Subjective.

But wait, is it really? I feel that I can fairly confidently judge whether a book has good or bad odds if I were to submit it to publishers, I can categorize a pile of manuscripts into "good" and "bad" writing, and I have to make judgment calls dozens and dozens of times a day. If I didn't make reasonably accurate decisions I'd be out of a job.

So you tell me: how objective or subjective is good writing? How do you know what's good? And who decides what is "good" anyway? Should it be the people who sell the most copies? Experts? Critics? The publishing industry?






62 comments:

Laura (Kramarsky) Curtis said...

Well, there's "good," and then there's "marketable." I am not sure I always know when something is good...I do know when it's not good. Bad grammar, incorrect punctuation, stiff dialog, erratic pacing...those are tells. But if a book is competently crafted, taste starts to come into play. And then, even if something is to my taste, I recognize that it may not be an easy sell.

Is "good" writing something you can sell? Or is it something you like? Because those things surely don't always go together. (And the reverse is certainly true--there's plenty of stuff I read in critique groups, etc, that make me want to retch but that I recognize as both competently crafted and marketable.)

As to who gets to judge...well, that's a practical reality. Agents and editors get to judge before readers unless an author choses to self-publish. If an agent likes the writing, and an editor agrees, and the book gets published, then readers decide.

Critics? I don't read a lot of reviews (the exception being Jan Harayda's One Minute Book Reviews). I talk to people about books, read sample pages, etc, rather than reading critical reviews. (Though there's one reviewer I disagree with regularly enough that I pretty much know if she loves something I'm going to hate it, so I sometimes check with her if I am not sure....)

pamela hammonds said...

I know writing is awesome if I ignore everything else in my life--kids, husband, laundry, my own writing--and find places to hide so I can read. That's the sign of a winner with me. Good writing is a book that is well-written but just doesn't beg for my attention. Big difference and I'm often surprised by what ends up capturing my fancy.

serenity said...

I think someone who looks at writing for a living is definitely qualified to be objective about whether or not something is written well. Surely the subjective part happens like the way a joke is received. Everyone has a different sense of humor. If the joke is off-color at all (or the book extremely unique in style or specific in genre) you really gotta pick your timing and your audience, and it's almost totally subjective to the listener as to whether or not you did.

Laurel Amberdine said...

I think there are some fairly obvious markers of good writing. I don't usually bother to tick them off in my mind, but it's not hard.

Clean, error-free writing. Precise word choices. Believable characters. The characters which are supposed to be sympathetic are also likable. No gaping logic holes. Interesting stuff happens. Setting is clearly presented without being intrusive.

I just finished reading 90+ 5,000 word novel openings for a contest. (I wasn't a judge; I just wanted to see if I could come to any useful conclusions, and I was curious if it would make me crazy.)

Now I can absolutely see how professionals can make quick, informed decisions. And I could also see that there were plenty of novels that were quite good, but I, personally, did not like them.

So, I guess you agents with your "not for me" rejections might not have been lying to us all this time. :)

David said...

There is no such thing as good or bad writing. There is only successful or unsuccessful writing. The most obvious measure of success is market success, although writing can also be successful at appealing to and satisfying a small audience at which it was specifically aimed.

Having said that, I'll admit that it's obvious to me that writing I like is good, and writing I don't like is bad. But I'm not pretending that that's objective.

Scott said...

Writing mechanics aren't so hard to judge. Style and story and voice are tougher, because they appeal (or not) to personal taste.

I was thinking about this the other day. If an agent or editor passes on something that goes on to be a mega-seller necessarily a bad thing? What if the book's success was partly a result of all of the elemnts coming together at the right time, including the right agent and editor.

How can you say for sure whether a particular book would have done as well if it had been put out by a different house?

Anonymous said...

I might not be able to define good writing, but I know it when I see it.

-- Potter "Lurker Monkey" Stewart

Taylor K. said...

I think judging good or bad writing is much easier then judging good or bad poetry. Books (and movies) with bad writing can do great, however, so marketability (I think I'm spelling that wrong) is often important. That is why 'hacks', as they're called, can be so successful. Sometimes knowing what sells is more impotant then writing well. Don't believe me? Just ask why people went to see "Into the Blue" or "Fool's Gold." It wasn't to see Jessica Alba's oscar caliber performance in the first case. ;)

Despite my knowledge of this, it bothers me more in books then in movies. I can't stand it when I can tell a writer only got attention because they used the f word ten times is a sentence, or they wrote some extremely sexual scenes. That's not talent. That's shock value. While it may have a place in movies, I don't like it when someones use of such things to disguse their terible writing garners them unearned praise. I say all this to conclude that it is pretty easy to objectively say what is good or bad writing, but shock value and marketability enables bad writing to seep through the cracks occasionally.

Taylor K. said...

Doh! Look at all those spelling mistakes. Darn laptop keyboard! :)

Just_Me said...

There is bad writing. The kind done without a spellchecker or without punctuation. The technical errors make it hard to read. But even published books have technical errors sometimes.

Good writing, I think, is more subjective. What I think is wonderful and engaging may not hold the interest of someone else. A captivating main character may not be enough to hold my interest if the plot and action aren't to my taste.

I think that's why agents don't always take all genres. If they don't like reading high fantasy they won't represent it, it'll never be right for them.

jjdebenedictis said...

I'll define the word "good" to mean "enjoyable".

But then all the yoinky weirdness of being human enters the equation. People enjoy--and dislike--very different things.

A story can be "good" for having one or several of the following traits:
1) Good technical writing (no errors or typos)
2) Good artistry ("beautiful" writing)
3) Good storytelling (reader is enjoying the yarn enough to stick with it)
4) Good hook (a great premise for the story)
5) Good pacing (reader can't easily find a place where they feel able to put the book down)
6) Good construction (the story plots an satisfying arc from a character's initial state to their final state)
7) Successful experimentation (think literary fiction: the writer crafts the story using techniques no one else has used before and it works)

Et cetera.

Good pacing and good storytelling are probably the two that make a book the most marketable. However, a book can be considered "good" for any of the above, and some people will find it "bad" despite any of the above.

To me, the writing is truly bad when it does none of the above. However, it can still be "good" on any number of levels without being publishable. Being publishable means the book will be "good" to a large-enough number of people that the publisher will make a profit.

Kimber An said...

The mechanics of good writing is objective and anyone can learn how to do it.

Good storytelling is totally subjective, however. For example, I've never read a Harry Potter book or watched any of the movies simply because nothing about it appeals to me.

I think good storytellers are born AND made. As a book reviewer, I've read tons of books. I've read many examples of good books which could have been GREAT! if the author was more skilled.

Lupina said...

Like any type of art, the elements of good writing can be judged both objectively and subjectively. All the conventions of grammar and construction can be there, "rules" such as avoidance of cliche and passive voice may be followed to the participle, but if the voice is not there to make the words sing we will not be persuaded to keep reading. A Sunday painter may produce a creditable rendering of a vase of sunflowers, but probably not anything as eye-popping as a Van Gogh. And who should get to judge? Sad but pragmatic as it is, we are set up so the marketplace fills that role. Agents and editors are the door to the marketplace...so they do get to judge all but the great unwashed self-published.

Adaora A. said...

Do I gather correctly that you thought the video was like pouring acid on your eyes? Or a few pegs lower on the ricter scale?

I think a lot of it is opinion. But I think - I'd hope - that agents such as yourself would be able to objectively see if writing is good, but not necessarily for their list (as you've said is something agents have to do).

I love some books, movies and plays that people thought were not the greatest - especially movies - and I've seen some stuff that I wouldn't be dragged in hogtied to see again and yet some go in willingly. Such is life I think.

Ulysses said...

How objectively can you judge good or bad writing?

To paraphrase Mr. Clinton: "Depends on what your definition of 'writing' is."

If by "writing," you mean the actual mechanics of putting down words and punctuation according to the rules of spelling and grammar, then I think I can be pretty objective.

If, however, "writing" means putting down a good story, then I guess you've got to ask "good for what?" I don't think you can define what's good until you define what it's good for.

Is Dan Brown good writing? I don't know. It's popular. It's good for sales. Hard not to be objective about that.

Is the Tao Te Ching good writing? Well, it's good for the spirit, but that's pretty subjective.

Is my three-year-old's Father's Day card good writing? Not by conventional standards, but I still pick it up and read it a couple of times a week. It's good for me.

For S.M. Stirling's Whitechapel Gods, I've sacrificed $10 (Cdn) and about 6 hours of my life. In return, I received 1/4 lb. of paper, a glimpse into a bizarre but fascinating world, and a fair amount of vicarious thrills. Was it worth it? Yep.

That's not objective, but it is measurable, and it's a standard that can be applied to any piece of writing. Unfortunately, it can only be applied after the fact. . .

Noble M Standing said...

I have thought about this for a while now.

There are two types of writing, IMO. There is "Technical Writing", I.E. the grammar, punctuation, and structure of any given body of work.

Then there is "Writing" the pacing, flow, characterization and other such things. I often call this storytelling.

Hopefully, we as writers have a good amount of both types of writing. A technically perfect story without the storytelling can be boring. However on the other hand, a brilliant story with many errors can be as unreadable.

I think it comes down to a good story with few errors that is appealing to most of the general public.

The most deciding factor is personal taste, what I like to read or write isn't necessarily what you like. That I'm sure, is why there are so many genres out there.

Michelle

lk said...

No. Not entirely. I think really bad writing would be recognized as such. And to some lesser degree really good writing would be recognized as such.

Consider this quote I condensed from the Wikipedia entry for Charles Dickens:

Later critics [...] championed his mastery of prose, his endless invention of memorable characters and his powerful social sensibilities, but fellow writers such as Henry James [...] fault his work for sentimentality, implausible occurrence and grotesque characters.

I'm sure a lot of people thought, "Hah! Henry James? He's one to talk." But plenty of other people probably agree.

Furious D said...

It is subjective.

At least that's what I tell myself.

That and that certain editors are ninnies who can't see my genius. ;)

One reader's Harry Potter is another man's Heidi music video. I guess the key to good writing is the ability to connect emotionally, and intellectually with the person reading it.

The problem is that making that connection can be a bit of a crap-shoot.

Brian said...

Zeitgeist remains an often overlooked component. Isn't it every couple years or so that some vindictive hack sends the first chapter of JANE EYRE around to publishers, it gets uniformly rejected, then the hack unveils himself and says, "Ha, puny mortals! You clearly do not know good writing as you've just rejected the bestest book ever!"

And the publishing industry says, "We're not saying it's not good writing. We're just saying it wouldn't sell in today's market."

What's considered good writing today might be embarrassingly bad in twenty years time. There are books I dug as a kid that I look at now and cringe.

Maybe another question to ask is: what makes writing universal/timeless? What makes writing endure?

Anonymous said...

Taste varies, as does what is popular at the moment. However, good mechanics and prose have not changed in many years. After reading many “How to” books I have found there seem to be two schools of thought. Either “write right” or “just write”. I have a feeling many new authors “just wrote” their 30 day novel and never clean it up. With email, chats myspace etc people actually believe that the same drivel translates to “writing.” Many classic authors wrote right. They chose every single word, crafted every single sentence to make sure the tone, rhythm, pacing was right. They certainly did not write their first novel in 30 days.

Anyone who has done enough reading has a feeling. Agents and publishers (if they are good at what they do) can see “potential.” After all they don’t make money if they pick the wrong horse. One thing I know for sure is reading Harry Potter certainly does not make you a writer.

Maxx

brenda said...

I think most of us as writers can recognize good writing, whether it be a captivating story or a beautifully-written literary novel. I think the difficulty comes when we are trying to recognize goodness, or saleablility in our own writing. We are too close to our own story. It's not possible to find the same objectivity as agents have. We have already been sold on our own stories and so to unsell ourselves enough to re-write, edit, or even scrap the whole thing is very hard. It's easy to discard a book we've bought, borrowed or been given and say 'not for me' and 'I know why.' Harder to do the same with our own work.

Jess said...

I'd think there's certainly bad writing. If you can't string a sentence together properly, I don't care 'good' the rest of it is, it's painful to decipher.

Good is way too subjective to quantify for me. "I know it when I see it" (and only then based on my own preferences).

Anonymous said...

"Good writing" to me is defined by voice and voice alone. If I look at my favorite books, it was the voice that captivated me, from page one.

I'll follow a voice through anything, whether it be literary or fast-paced or anything in between. Voice is the one thing you can't fake and has no shock value/zietgiest/or "hot trend (like Vampire books, chic lit) to hide behind.

Erik said...

I firmly believe as if it were a manifesto:

Good writing is not in the eye of the beholder. It is in their ear, their breath, and buried deep in their subconscious.

All I ever care when reading something is if it somehow comes alive, either as a voice or my placement in the story or how it takes hold of my thinking. If I see the world in a different way after reading something, it's good.

Keep in mind that about half of any issue of the Economist qualifies, so I'm not talking about just fiction here.

All of the various things that people talked about - pacing, grammar, etcetera - are important, but only to the extent that they help get the reader into the work so that it can have the right effect on them.

I rarely worry about writing, per se, as much as I worry about reading. It doesn't mean a thing until it's read, IMHO.

Jean said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
bookbabie said...

I've read Pulitzer Prize winners that I have hated, and books with little recognition that I have loved. Good books, like good paintings, are absolutely in the eye of the beholder. That said, a good agent or editor can recognize and identify good writing in less than a few paragraphs:)

Luc said...

"Good" could mean a lot of different things: financially successful, emotionally powerful, artistically innovative, expertly crafted, highly entertaining, or what have you. My sense is that the most useful meaning of the word is this: that good writing is writing that gives a lot of people something they really want or need. That thing might be insight, entertainment, distraction, emotional resonance ... But if someone really wants what the book has to deliver, then it's a good book for that person, and if there are a lot of those someones, I think it's fair to say that in a meaningful sense, it's a good book.

But no book will be good for everyone, so while I think we can use the word objectively, I don't think it makes sense to try to use it universally. That is, the book is always good for some group of people, never good in the abstract.

And while I think there are a lot of successful paths a book can take, there are elements that other people have already mentioned--suspense, sympathetic characters, compelling stakes--that seem to me to be necessary to most "good" novels.

In terms of people being able to identify good writing, I think it takes someone who's attuned to a lot of people's reading needs and desires--but every such person will be in tune with only certain parts of the reading world, and so will have blind spots. Vive la difference!

brain said, "what makes writing universal/timeless? What makes writing endure?"

My sense is that writing stands the test of time if the kinds of needs it meets for people are the kind of needs that don't change a lot. Even books that may have been very popular and affecting when they came out may lose their punch if the things that make them special become irrelevant.

Redzilla said...

I can't help but feel that "good" and "enjoyable" aren't the same. I can read Pynchon, for example and think, "Now that is skillful and brilliant, and please, do I have to keep reading it?" There are certainly objective elements. Often, I can describe what styles and techniques I enjoy reading, but there are likely to be people who hate what I love. And vice versa. It's like sex. Everybody's definition of good sex varies.

Anonymous said...

I think it takes a few years of experimentation to be able to write without making some of the amateurish pratfalls that mark writing that isn't ready for publication; once an author knows how to write a decent scene, has good feeling of what is and isn't cliched in terms of plot, then it comes down to taste.

In short: there's a threshold

cyn said...

i think good or bad writing is pretty easy to spot. it can be subjective sure, but not as subjective as what one prefers to read--literary, romance, mystery, women's fiction, etc.

you can read something that is wonderfully written and just not be drawn to the topic / protag / period, etc. and i believe it holds true for agents and editors.

sex scenes at starbucks said...

At my magazine, I've read 30-50 submissions a month for the past two years. In my experience, knowing good from bad has taken a ton of reading and forcing myself into articulating what works and why.

A lot of people will say the character was well drawn or they "felt" the story, but they may not be able to articulate the aspects of craft that makes it so. They're reading finely tuned internal narrative, strong action verbs, proper pacing, and setting descriptions that serve plot and characterization. The writing has been pared to the essential (even in long story or book).

A "professional" can likely pick out the essential building blocks of each scene down to blocking out words. If such a reader is confused, they likely know exactly why and how to fix it. This stuff is objective.

As for taste: you have to know not only your own leanings, but also how to turn that subjectivity into a tool rather than an obstacle. It helps to apply subjectivity to to a particular goal or mission. In my case, it's the collaboration with my fellow editors which develops the style for our magazine. In an agent's case, I'd guess it's knowing the market, what editors are looking for, and using past market information to determine the future.

Steph Leite said...

I think more so than that is that agents have to feel they can sell your project. It's subjective because everyone has their personal style, strength and stability within each genre/style. The agent who'll want your writing should be able to sell it.

Elyssa Papa said...

I guess I'm going to try a cop-out answer because I really don't know how to answer the question...

And me, an English teacher and writer. Go figure.

I know what makes a book "good" for me. It's quite simple: I like it. It could be the writing, the characters... but most of all, it just makes me forget where I am.

I forget that I'm a crappy English teacher who struggles with what is my place in the world and that I might not be the most effective person. I forget that I kill my plants and can't cook worth a damn. I forget that I'm just me.

It's the books that transport me to a different world whether it be a Dane looking to prove his uncle guilty of murder, a boy wizard with a lightning scar, or a couple discovering love...

The "good" books for me take me away to somewhere else that I want to be... and well, when I'm reading Harry Potter, I can pretend that I'd be that courageous or have cool magical powers (which I think I would use in making credit card bills disappear).

The "bad" books... well, I don't know if any book can really be "bad". It can be disappointing and not live up to your expectations. It can make you hate and have you throw your book against the wall wondering why the hell you spent $7.99 or $24.95 on it... but if a book makes you react in any manner (even negative), can it be "bad"?

Colorado Writer said...

I think that voice is everything. The mechanics, the plot, the characters, all of it can be fixed, but voice can't.

Anonymous said...

Hi Nathan,

You noted that you're fairly confident about whether a book has good or bad odds if you were to submit it to a publisher. If your judgment on books is typical of most successful agents and editors, how do you account for the fact that publishers lose money on most of the books they acquire?

pjd said...

Bad writing is all over the place, from interoffice emails to the daily newspaper to the slush pile. Bad writing fails to communicate. Good writing is... well, the definition of "good" is contextual more than it's subjective.

The real problem with the slush pile is that "good" has to be apparent immediately. I have read many friends' poems and short stories that on the first read seem just OK, but when I read them again and again (typically during critique rounds) I begin to see the underlying "wheels within wheels" feelings that didn't come out at first.

In some cases, the writing needs to be improved. In others, the slow revelation of what's underlying the prose is more satisfying, but it would never survive a 30-second perusal in the slush.

Anonymous said...

I for one trust the experienced advice of seasoned agents, with good track records, like you Nathan, to decide for us what is good writing and what is bad writing. After all, who else can we depend upon to tell us the difference? I love your blog, and take everything you say very seriously.

Suzanne Nam said...

i can't imagine anyone in the publishing industry would agree with this, but i think good writing makes a reader work. it makes a reader think about the story when the book is closed and the lights are off, want to read passages out loud because they are so well-written, discuss it with their friends.

there are some obvious markers of bad writing (awkward tone or voice and unbelievable characters, etc.) and i don't mean the reader is supposed to "work" through those.

but ease of reading experience or being a "page turner" certainly aren't prerequisites for something to qualify as good writing. the best examples i can think of for contemporary authors are Gao Xingjian and Cormac McCarthy.

Soul Mountain is beautifully written but it certainly doesn't suck you in immediately. Blood Meridian wasn't easy or even pleasurable (that book still haunts me and it's been years) but the writing was... stunningly good.

on the flip-side, i could not put The Davinci Code down but i would hardly call Dan Brown a craftsman.

Mary Paddock said...

I think there's obviously bad, clunky writing, writers who are trying too hard, and writers who are lazy. We can all weed those out pretty quickly. But after that, the waters grow murky and opinion and taste play heavily upon our judgement.

I look for a variety of things in books. I judge some as good because I immediately forget I'm reading and if the writer breaks any of the supposed rules of storytelling, I don't notice it. I'm so immersed in the story the writer can do anything he/she wants short of disappointing me.

And when a story really resonates, the first thing I want to do is read it outloud to someone or retell it after I've finished. Sometimes it's the storytelling itself--a solid story with interesting characters. Sometimes it's the language, the turn of phrase done well, the vividness of the colors the writer uses to paint the picture.

Thomas said...

While I do care about good writing, it's the story that's more important to me. Good writing can make for a great story, but a great story does not always need good writing.

John Grisham, to use as an example, isn't the best writer. His characters and dialogue can be limited, but he's a first-rate storyteller.

I've seen beautifully written manuscripts that bored me because the story didn't grab me. There's lots of good writers trying to get published with perfectly edited manuscripts, but their stories are weak, so they can't make it beyond the slush pile, while those with not the best writing but with great stories, get published.

jjdebenedictis said...

Erik makes an interesting point:

All of the various things that people talked about ... are important, but only to the extent that they help get the reader into the work so that it can have the right effect on them.

The only fiction that "works" is that which comes alive in the reader's imagination. Every trick the writer uses has to be aimed at turning on the reader's right-hemisphere brain.

Lee said...

Good writing MUST be subjective. If not, every novel published would be a bestseller and there would be no need for someone like you to evaluate talent.

I also think that you must maintain two separate sets of subjectivity. Based on your personal tastes, you may love a work, but the tastes bred from you professional experience and knowledge understand that even a wonderful story may not fit what editors are looking for.

For me, good writing wipes away the real world and places me body and soul into another place where I can smell the sea on Chesil Beach or taste the ash on McCarthy's road. Poor writing moves me, too, mostly to the top of the page to see how many I have left or to the clock to wonder if I have anything better to do.

I work in management for a national retailer and part of my job is evaluating talent in the form of job applicants. I have passed on several people over the years that have gone on to work out great at other companies, but I know if I don't feel that chemistry right away, it will not benefit me or the applicant if I make an offer. In such a case, my subjectivity is not just a matter of whim, but a key to maintaining a successful business, just as I know yours is while you shovel through the slush.

Of course, all my fiction is good . . . except the stuff that isn't.

Stephanie Zvan said...

Bad--for some values of bad--can be spotted a mile off. It confounds our expectations (of grammar or humanity or what have you) and gives us nothing in return for the extra work it requires. Separating the good from the merely competent is much harder and more subjective.

Spotting the salable is beyond me. I'm the person who stocks up at the supermarket when I find something new I like, because it's pretty well guaranteed to vanish without a trace in a month or two.

Anonymous said...

If writing, good or bad, was not a subjective craft, there would be only one agent and one publisher.

crapshooter said...

For most of us, the cash register at the book store is the judge that counts.

Neptoon said...

Aloha,

Ahhh writing...

If read good to me...than plenty good writing.

If no read good to me...than plenty no good writing.

If no read good to me...but brings millions to agent and publisher and editor...then my thoughts are insignificant...though writing remains no good...for me.

Anonymous said...

Maybe you should ask James Patterson - he apparently thinks he has it all covered & seems bent on making an impact on the YA market - so that "his" work will make kids say "wow" & read more. If we only knew ahead of time that all we needed was for him to write for kids to start reading more. In my objective / subjective opinion, his writing ain't all that" but he's a commercially powerhouse. It's all about taste - or lack of.

mlh said...

Sadly, I have to agree with crapshooter.

Money talks, and you can never tell what opinion it will voice or what book it will choose.

By the way, that video was harsh. Nathan, please don't ever be that cruel to us again.

Anonymous said...

I think that Tolkien (Lord of the Rings) is a bad writer. His dialog is stilted, he wanders off on tangents and gives overlong descriptions. He also tells us stuff without showing us.

But the world he created is wonderful. So I struggled through the writing to get to the world.

So who's to say what's good or bad? I agree with those who say if it captivates a reader, then it's good.

Emily said...

YOU'RE ALIVE!!!

Ahem, sorry about the outburst. Nathan, I think we'd all given you up for dead when you didn't post promptly for two days. Don't scare us like that!

As for good writing... I just go by a simple rule. If I don't *notice* the writing (that is, if I don't pick out errors, frown at the metaphors and wonder if a character would really do that) than I consider it good writing. The writing itself should go unnoticed, leaving the reader with only the characters and a good plot.

Anonymous said...

"I think that Tolkien (Lord of the Rings) is a bad writer. His dialog is stilted, he wanders off on tangents and gives overlong descriptions. He also tells us stuff without showing us."

With all due respect, anon

"I think" and the rest of your statement are completely at odds.

So wonderful worlds would be the only reason his novels captivated and continue to captivate the entire world?

I think Tolkien is a mighty fine writer. Conventional? No. A good writer...? Ignoramus question.

A question or statement flung by a pour soul who grew up suckling from the MTV teat and regurgitating the jealous and critical words of Pullman, a writer who wallows around in Tolkien and Lewis-envy.

Have a little humble pie with thine ego dinner.

Odo fitz Gilbert said...

Hmmm -- There are objective criteria available for judging the use of the English language, at least for standard NA usage or standard British usage. However, what those really do is reject imperfect usage -- they don't establish good writing.

It is perfectly possible to do technically perfect writing without any redeeming characteristics. It is also possible to do evocative, effective writing that breaks many of the rules. A lot of the New Wave authors in SF back in the '70's "broke the rules", but did so effectively.

I think that perhaps the question that might be better asked is "Can good writing be consistently recognized (discriminated from poor writing) by a number of readers." I believe that the answer is "yes", as long as we take into account the question of cultural biases and balance for taste. For instance, the question of Dickens' abilities, as criticized by his contemporaries was brought up, and I mentioned the New Wave SF authors above. "The Worm Ourobouris" is not to everyone's taste, nor is "Dhalgren", or "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy." (I picked those because by at least some criterion, they are all "well written.")

Whether such examples of good writing will be more or less successful than "Buffy the Teenage Vampire Detective" is an entirely different question.

-- rambling along...

ORION said...

well...it's easier to see bad writing in other writers' work. LOL
If grammar, capitalization and punctuation were that important then ee cummings wouldn't have gotten too far.
Everything is situational.
*puts head down and keeps writing*

Kathryn Harris said...

So you tell me: how objective or subjective is good writing? How do you know what's good? And who decides what is "good" anyway? Should it be the people who sell the most copies? Experts? Critics? The publishing industry?

Whether or not a piece is well-written can be objectively judged.
As a journalist, I see a lot of really bad writing cross my desk. I even create some of it sometimes. :-0
It's the style of writing, voice of the author and the content of a story that is subjective, and writers need to trust those in the publishing industry -- agents, editors, publishers -- when they say they believe something is or is not salable. They are the ones who best know the trends in the market.
Ultimately, it will be the reader deciding whether or not something published is "good."
As far as critics, I don't know anyone who has picked up a book at the bookstore and said, "I have to read this because (critic at national daily) said this is a great book."
I have more faith in what my friends tell me is a good book.

Kim Lionetti said...

Anonymous 3:24 pm said "If your judgment on books is typical of most successful agents and editors, how do you account for the fact that publishers lose money on most of the books they acquire?"

Hi Anon--

I felt compelled to answer your comment. If only the world worked that way. You write a good book and it sells like gangbusters. Unfortunately, it's not that simple. A lot of great books with really quality writing just don't find the right audience. And it's not always about the way it's marketed, or the publisher support...sometimes it's just about luck.

Does that mean I think there aren't any bad books published? Certainly not. There's always the stinkers.

But I don't think it's fair to equate not-so-great sales to a bad book. It just doesn't always work that way. Especially in today's consumer market.

angela said...

It's not difficult to identify them both, I think. One makes you wnat to submerge yourself in it, the other has you running for cover. In the final analysis though, I would imagine that someone like yourself who does this for a living should have no problems blending objectivity with a little subjectivity

Kate said...

"Good" writing is that which engages you even if you don't care about the subject. It's writing that people will still want to be reading in 50 years. Anyone who has lived on a steady diet of good reading over a lifetime--a diet which must include the classics--is qualified to judge whether writing is good or bad.

Nanette said...

Good writing rivets you, makes you want to keep reading. Good writing is beautifully written without being "overwritten." It employs metaphor, and other poetic devices. It incorporates style. It imparts wisdom and knowledge even if it is fiction, without hitting you over the head. You know your own writing is good if someone says they felt like they were there, in the moment with the character.

"Marketable" is questionable. So many books are horridly written and agents and publishers think they are marketable. What is marketable? People write books and have so many people tell them they were enthralled and chapters have been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, the subject is unique, and yet agents say it is not marketable.

Marketable is seeming to be what will appeal to the lowest common denominator, to the masses and herein lies the rub. Books that people (the public) would be interested in, books that have authors who already have a fan base from other genres, poetry, for instance, will be ignored, because an agent can't see the book would sell.

Agents and publishers say they want something new, but when it comes their way, they say it's not marketable.

jjdebenedictis said...

Anon 9:56PM, I agree with Anon 9:26PM who said Tolkien wasn't the greatest writer. I think Tolkien's prose was turgid but his world was amazing.

I also think people who sling insults around rather than presenting any kind of convincing case for their opinions aren't worth listening to. You really expect to change anyone's mind with an argument that can be summarized as: "U R STOOPID AN JELLUS BCUZ U DONT AGREE WITH ME"?

And then you had the gall to say, "Have a little humble pie with thine ego dinner." Funny--I only see one out-of-control ego here, and it belongs to the person who apparently believes his opinions are correct simply because they're his.

Mark Wooding said...

The final arbiters of whether a book is good or not are the reading public, and any subset of them may decide that a book is good or not for that particular subset.

Suzanne Nam said...

with all due respect to Thomas, who wrote:

I've seen beautifully written manuscripts that bored me because the story didn't grab me. There's lots of good writers trying to get published with perfectly edited manuscripts, but their stories are weak, so they can't make it beyond the slush pile, while those with not the best writing but with great stories, get published.

perhaps you're missing the point. any story -- one day in a man's life, someone's funeral, the lives of poor farmers, whatever -- will become a good or even great story if well written.

the reverse is not true.

Mssr.Jay said...

I'd say pretty much ever aspect of writing is subjective. The only things that aren't are spelling and grammar. Word count? subjective. I know some agents who will feed a query to their dog simply because the novel in question is longer than they'd like, while others will give some that's over 150k a fair shot.

As a student of writing and a writer myself, I'm very tempted to immediately pounce on authors who have crappy character development and pacing problems, but those aren't things I can take into a lab and prove beyond a shadow of a doubt must be done a certain way.

There are several agents out there who have passed up on books that have gone on to become hugely successful. But even those big successes are still loathed by many.

Writing's a strange beast. It's nigh-impossible to find any one piece of writing that everybody can agree on as being good or bad.

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