Nathan Bransford, Author


Tuesday, November 20, 2012

What People Talk About When They Talk About Bad Writing


One thing about my Fifty Shades of Grey  post that inspired some mild controversy was my insistence that it's not that badly written.

What's interesting about talking about "good" writing and "bad" writing is that when people use those terms, different people often mean different things.

When I talk about "good" writing and "bad" writing, I mean the prose. Is it readable on a sentence-to-sentence level? Is there a flow? Is there a voice? Do I get tripped up by a lack of specificity in description or are the details evocative? Is the hand of the author too apparent or am I able to lose myself in the world of the book?

This is all mainly accomplished on the sentence level. It's not about character or plot or plausibility or whether the book is compelling or not and not at all about whether I like the book, it's whether the author can write a paragraph.

I would posit (with partial confidence) that the way I mean "good" or "bad" writing is more common within the publishing industry and with literary-minded folk.

Outside of publishing, when people talk about "good" writing or "bad" writing they aren't talking about sentences, they usually mean a broader look at the book as a whole. Whether the plot is plausible or not, whether characters are compelling, whether relationships are believable, whether the book as a whole is engrossing.

This, I do believe, is how we end up with Goodreads reviews where people call The Great Gatsby  "garbage," which has little to do with style and everything to do with whether the book was enjoyable for that particular person to read.

I can't imagine anyone in the book business or literary aficionados calling anything like The Great Gatsby garbage in any context.

I, for instance, might say about a well-written book I didn't like, "It was beautifully written and I hated the crap out of it," but I separate the writing from my enjoyment. That's because, I believe, when it comes to prose there's less subjectivity than there is with personal taste (though I realize Fifty Shades presents a bit more of an ambiguous case - you might not like the prose either).

I'm not making a value judgement here, everyone means different things with their descriptions. But for me, when it comes to prose: Good writing is good writing and bad writing is bad writing. I might dislike a well-written book and love one that's badly written. Personal taste doesn't enter into it.

What do you make of this delineation?

Art: At the Tax Collector by Jan Matsys






55 comments:

Blair B. Burke said...

That's a good distinction. I kind of felt that way about Cloud Atlas - beautiful writing but I didn't actually enjoy the story.

But I do think that people will still disagree about quality on a sentence by sentence basis. What's overwriting to some is enticing detail to another. What is a strong voice to some is a stylistic misfire to others.

Sabrina Devonshire said...

Sometimes what I see as bad writing is just too much of the same thing. Was it just me or did you want to scream (reading FIFTY SHADES) the next time Anastasia compares herself to Icarus flying close to the sun? It worked the first two times - the 25th time, it started to make me crazy. My biggest pet peeve recently is reading e-books riddled with typos. Some books would get an "F" in 5th grade English!

Franklynn said...

I agree with your definition. From the excerpts I've read, I would still firmly place FSOG in the badly written camp. It seems truly risible on a sentence by sentence level.

But hey, at least people are reading. That's a win, to me.

D.G. Hudson said...

Comments about good or bad writing usually hinge on what that person likes.

Only writers and reviewers usually care about the writing once it's published, the pure reader judges by the story.

Eventually, '50 Shades' will be just another Lolita, not anywhere near a Great Gatsby.

Stacey said...

For me, it's all about whether or not I was captivated by the story and/or characters. I don't really care how well it's written. Did I think about the book after I put it down? Did I care what happened to the characters. Am I wondering where the storylines will go in the sequel? These are the questions I ask myself when I'm deciding whether or not to recommend.

Mildred R Holmes said...

I think this may have quite a bit to do with why some of the books I read, I have to read the ending first and then be able to read the rest of the book.

For me, it does come down to sentence structure. When I enjoy a book, I don't notice any errors until my second or third read through. As long as the "badly written ones" keep the story flowing, I'll read them.

Andrew Leon said...

I make that differentiation when I review. What is good vs what I like and that the two are not related.

Maya said...

I agree. I really get tired of people saying what bad writing a book is when it is really on par with other books of its genre. When a book like 50 Shades or Twilight gets uber-popular, then everyone and their mother goes out of their way to insult the "writing."

A) Those books, like most genre books, got popular because they had readable prose and a compelling story.
B) Why do people think that a mega-bestseller is going to be Shakespeare?

At the same time, most of the same people complaining about the "garbage" that people read haven't read that much literature either. My conclusion: everyone's a critic. No matter what you write, or how successful you are.

Even in my own family and friends circle, I find that people are so curious to read my book but then they will seriously judge it against the best book they've ever read.

The Oatmeal gets me: http://theoatmeal.com/comics/making_things

Patty Blount said...

Agree! There are some great books out there that I just didn't enjoy -- The Road is a perfect example. I hated the way so many rules were broken - no dialogue quotes, no character names. I did not enjoy that book at all.

But it's more probable that the story was so bleak, so harsh, that I simply didn't like it because I did not feel all warm and fuzzy at the end.

I enjoyed the 50 Shades books -- some of the things that people pick on were funny to me, like Ana's Inner Goddess.

T.L. Bodine said...

While I agree with your assessment to an extent, I also think that you can't cleanly separate the two. The thing about good writing is that it should be invisible. The purpose of a sentence is to convert symbols on a page into images in the reader's mind. If that breaks down -- if anything disrupts the telepathy between writer and reader -- the book fails to work, imo.

Chila said...

Good on you, Andrew. "I make that differentiation when I review. What is good vs what I like and that the two are not related."

abc said...

I consider myself a film buff and have enjoyed many a foreign and art film bunches of people would rather not be forced to see. And I find fault with many films that are beloved by masses (I "hate the crap out of Avatar, think Titantic-- while cool in parts--is pretty damn overrated. Braveheart? don't get it). But, I allow that my taste differs from others and try not to get too snobby in friendly conversations. However, I also get pretty frustrated when people are dismissive of films I love just because they don't get them. During a film class in college the girls in front of me called The Bicycle Thief "stupid" and "horrible". Uh, what?!

And that anyone could use the adjective "garbage" to describe The Great Gatsby makes this girl's blood boil.

So, er, yes, I agree! Agreement! People too easily throw around their opinions and call them gold. And that's just not fair. I try to be careful and not do this (though I'm sure I've been guilty).

End of essay. Thank you for your time. --alison

Christi said...

There's a fine line somewhere in there between decent writing and good writing. After reading the Da Vinci Code, which clearly involved quite a bit of research, I still came away with the feeling that the writing was awful and I just couldn't stomach another Dan Brown novel. He seemed overly fond of the "to be" verb (was/were/etc.), which is a hallmark of immature writing. But perhaps my vision is colored by dislike of the book.

Outside of that, I also can't stomach reading anything with major typos, including blogs. A word here or there is fine, but if there are major grammatical and spelling issues, it just feels disrespectful to the reader. It really helps us to appreciate good writing. When good writing is really good, it's nearly invisible.

girlinthelens said...

Interesting post, though I personally thought 50 was badly written - poor flow, so much phrase/word repetition ...

thewwaitingroom said...

I define bad writing the same way. That's actually how I differentiate when giving stars to books on goodreads; five starts for books I really enjoyed and were also well written--because I want to reread those types of books for learning purposes and improving my own craft--and four stars to books I loved but weren't as well-written.

I know a lot of people who had mixed feelings about Hunger Games because they found the characters and plot to be great, but on a sentence level they agreed the writing was "bad" or at least not admirably "good" or terribly impressive, the way prose like that in The Night Circus is.

Julie Luek said...

Like you, I've read beautifully written books that I absolutely hated. The reason? Usually a hard to follow or incomplete story line. What do some of the commercially celebrated fiction books have? Great stories people can get lost in. The writing may not be elegant or literary, but it's "good" enough to weave a story people talk about. Great article.

Anonymous said...

I totally agree. A good example is "You must Remember This" by Joyce Carol Oates (you could substitute some of her other books as well.) She writes beautifully, so much so you can get lost in the writing itself. However, the subject of the book and the enjoyment of the story are a different matter. I enjoyed it one one level, but not the other.

Another thing to consider is the conversation in which the person is saying it's good or bad writing. You mentioned the publishing industry and the literary type. I think when people are talking about books, they have a different goal in mind. When I talk to my friend about a book, my goal is giver her info on whether or not she may possibly enjoy the book and should consider reading it. That's different than in a book club setting or in the publishing field. Although, I would assume there is some crossover.

Margaret said...

Agreed! I have read books where the author writes beautifully-- lyrical sentences, vivid descriptions, original observations-- yet I absolutely hated the characters and found the plot useless. I usually read these books to the end because I am enjoying the writing. Truly bad writing to me is if the sentences are barely coherent, or if the emotions just don't ring true. Hollow writing is bad.

mmshaunakelley said...

I think you can have full confidence that your definition is solid in the industry!

I now have a new goal in life-- A Nathan Bransford review of one of my books that says "Beautifully written. I (descriptor) the crap out of it!" I hope the descriptor is "loved," but I would smile one way or another :) That made me laugh out loud.

Peggy Townsend said...

I think you're absolutely right. Good writing captures a reader with emotionally true characters and compelling plot. It may not have literary "cred" but, by definition, it's still good writing. However, when a book has beautiful language AND good writing, I feel doubly rewarded.

Sarah said...

I typically judge writing on a sentence-by-sentence level. But limiting to sentences leaves two areas hanging for me:

1) repetition. (I remember thinking if I read 'archangel' one more time in Twilight...)

2) bad dialog- the content may move the story along, but it's stilted -or- multiple characters sound the same.

Issues like those seem bigger than sentence to sentence, but they doesn't encompass story, either...

Leila said...

I agree with girlinthelens--
"Interesting post, though I personally thought 50 was badly written - poor flow, so much phrase/word repetition."

It all still falls into subjectivity, whether on a sentence-by-sentence level or in overall enjoyment. For example, when used correctly (James Joyce, anybody?), repetion can be artful. It's my opinion that the repetition in FSoG wasn't. I found it careless and unintended. Somebody else might feel differently.

IMO, FSoG fails on both levels.

JD said...

This delineation makes perfect sense to me. Everyone loves to slam Dan Brown, but I basically inhaled The Da Vinci Code in a day. I may have disliked his voice, his goofy sentences, but his story sucked me in. I wish people would simply say why they liked or disliked a book, rather than judge it 'good' or 'bad'.

For me, it’s all about the story; if I’m engaged, I can overlook the author’s shortcomings. They do make me sad, though. After all, these bestsellers are published by publishers and, presumably, edited by professionals. You expect better language skills.

I remember reading somewhere that most bestsellers are written at or around the fifth grade reading level, which might explain why literary types wrinkle their collective turned-up noses at them while the authors rake in the cash.

Anonymous said...

I disagree with your position that prose that is compelling to read is not an indicator of how well the prose is written. Prose that is compelling to read flows. It is all the qualities that you have described for well-written prose and doesn't rely on personal taste.

I may stop reading a story that is compelling to read because of the plot, character, or some other element of fiction, but that doesn't mean that the story is poorly written in terms of sentence and paragraph structure.

However if the prose is not compelling to read, it won't hold my interest and I will put it down. It doesn't matter how brilliant the plot, characters, et al are. if the story is not compelling to read, then I won't read it.

Ironically people who love reading classic and contemporary literature don't seem to be able to tell the difference between prose that is compelling to read and prose that isn't. That's why we get all this whining about how Fifty Shades of Grey is poorly written.

Gehayi said...

"When I talk about 'good' writing and 'bad' writing, I mean the prose. Is it readable on a sentence-to-sentence level?"

No, it isn't. The prose is bad on a technical level. It is clunky, ungrammatical, awkwardly structured, repetitious and cliché-ridden. Any one of these things would be damaging to a manuscript. I found the presence of all five to be a bit much.

"Is there a flow?"

No. The story--what there is of it, for there is no plot to speak of and very little characterization--lurches, stumbles and meanders its way to a cliffhanger ending that has practically nothing to do with Ana's personality in the rest of the book.

"Is there a voice?"

No. I've read stories and novellas in which the heroine sounded precisely like Ana. Most of these stories were written by inexperienced writers who didn't read much and who didn't know how to craft characters into people rather than one-note creations who only wanted to be loved by or be screwed by Random Male Character. And I can read that on the internet for free.

Gehayi said...

"Do I get tripped up by a lack of specificity in description or are the details evocative?"

There are many, many instances in this series in which it is all too apparent that James did not do her research. Some that jumped out at my friends and me:

a) James having Ana drive to Portland, Oregon--i.e., in the wrong direction--to get to Seattle;

b) Grey saying that his corporation doesn’t have a board of directors when a corporation requires one;

c) Grey’s corporation being presented as being of typical size when it dwarfs everything, including Microsoft;

d) Ana's complete unfamiliarity with the internet, to the point where she doesn't have an email address or a computer--even though Washington State University requires that its students have two (one for announcements coming from the administration and one for emailing assignments to professors).

e) Ana's complete ignorance of modern attitudes about sexuality (she believes that the only possible alternative to Grey having a steady girlfriend is complete celibacy);

f) all the mistakes about BDSM. BDSM is supposed to involve safety, sanity and consent. Grey overrides Ana's protests at every turn. She doesn't want corporeal punishment? Tough--that's part of the package. She doesn't want to him to perform anal sex on her? Too bad, because he "really wants to claim [her] ass." He spanks her--while she's struggling to get away and is speaking of enduring the pain--for daring to roll her eyes at him. He wants to beat her and fuck her as punishment for not allowing him to finger-fuck her at the dining table in front of his parents. He also lies to Ana constantly; even the "submissive" contract is not a contract between a sub and a dom, but rather a mislabeled master/slave contract. He tells Ana not to believe anything anyone else tells her about BDSM, for everyone who is into it is into physical pain--inflicting it or receiving it. Like most generalizations, this is not true, but Ana is too naive, too ill-informed and too embarrassed even by a Wikipedia article on BDSM to learn that he's wrong.

And on the few occasions when she refuses him or tries to get away to think, Grey reacts like a criminal. When she initially turns him down in what she claims is a joke, his response is to break into her apartment (neither Ana nor Kate let him in, so that's really the only alternative) and--to quote the text--"fucks [her] into submission." When she goes to Georgia to think things over, he stalks her there. The overall impression left is that Ana will never, ever get away from this man. This isn't typical BDSM--and it sure isn't the basis for a healthy relationship. Yet James treats it as typical, healthy and loving while ignoring Grey's lies, manipulation and coercion, presenting Ana's frequent orgasms as synonymous with consent. That's not only poor research, that's a downright dangerous message to send.

"Is the hand of the author too apparent or am I able to lose myself in the world of the book?"

James is apt to repeat something that happened two pages ago--or worse, to contradict something that happened two pages ago. All of the characters are treated as if their memories are flawless, so I am certain that she's not trying to write an unreliable narrator.

And, as stated above, the book has many, many problems beyond repetition and lack of continuity. I found it impossible to lose myself in this book.

Bottom line: the prose was deeply flawed in terms of mechanics AND content. The writing was not good, and since the writing shapes plot and characterization, the bad writing damaged the story as well.

Sally Hepworth said...

Writing doesn't have to be beautiful to be well written. I agree that fsog is (largely) well written. It was never meant to be like Night Circus or the like. But it was clean, had flow, and voice, which isn't easy to achieve.

Carl Grimsman said...

If it grips me. That's my first reaction to your question. Good writing is when it grips me.

Now, as a writer I agree that I often judge based on sentence structure. The flow, and whether or not the author is getting in the way and kicking me out of the story. And I agree that story and characters are separate from that.

But as a reader, all I care about is if it grips me, keeps me reading, and won't let me put it down. And if it makes me go, Wow.

Wow, there's a lot of craft there. Wow, the author is a heck of a storyteller. Whoops, that's me the writer jumping in again.

One book that springs to mind that gripped me like that is True Grit, by Charles Portis. Deceptively simple, with tight, economic prose that didn't try to impress. Straightforward storytelling and oh how it pulled me.

Maybe I'm thinking of it because I'm writing a western myself at the moment. Carry on!

Debbie L said...

I think in the case of "Fifty" it was bad editing. A good editor could have made that book so much better. Or you could say, "lack of editing."

Melanie Schulz said...

I like how you put that, how you made that distinction. Because alot of times I hated a book, but had to admit the author wrote beautifully.

Two Flights Down said...

For me, good writing means that the author achieved the purpose of the work. When offering feedback on writing, I ask myself, "Who is the intended audience? What is the purpose of the this work?" If I can't answer these questions by the end of the work, there's a big problem somewhere. I would say the writing was bad.

If I can answer those two basic questions, I ask myself, "Did the author achieve the purpose?" If the answer is, "Yes," then I would say the writing was good. I, then, get nit-picky with my feedback.

In between the good and the bad writing is where I'm pretty sure I understand what the author was trying to achieve, but I'm not so sure the author achieved it. At this point, I play detective to find where the writing broke down, starting with the big picture: Was it the plot? Was there enough tension? Was the pacing off? Was there enough conflict? etc.

Sometimes, it's more basic: perhaps the author doesn't have a grasp of sentence structure, or has trouble forming a cohesive paragraph.


Although grammar is important in many types of writing, sometimes the author can use bad grammar and get away with it, such as when writing epistolary novels. If the characters don't have a grasp of basic grammar, the book itself won't, either. The question is, though, how well did the writer achieve the purpose, if at all.

I remember reading a book in junior high in which the book started off with bad grammar and punctuation because it was the journal of the main character. As the main character became more intelligent due to a science experiment, the grammar got increasingly better. I wouldn't say, however, that the beginning of the book wasn't written well, because it was. The grammar was bad, but the author did a great job using bad grammar to achieve his purpose. (I think the book was called Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes).

When offering feedback, whether it be for an essay or a story, I have to put my style and genre preferences aside and look at the overall picture of what the author is trying to achieve and whether or not the author achieved it.

Peter Dudley said...

It is an academic distinction, but that's sort of the point, isn't it? When you remark on a book, you look at it with a greater professional and academic interest than the typical reader of 50 Shades. That's why, in critique, writers and agents will use lots of words to describe different qualities: pacing, structure, writing, imagery, language, etc., etc. Disambiguating is your friend.

BP said...

This is very true; often, people get the two confused because the best of both GOOD WRITING and a GOOD STORY are often found linked together.

I'm not sure how people can get up in arms about you saying that it's not great writing, however, especially on the sentence level.

Maybe they should pick up a copy of Dickens' work and read the first paragraph to see what you mean. ;)

Thanks, again!

Sherryl said...

I agree - but also bad writing on a sentence level continually pulls you out of the story. Whereas simply dull writing with a great story and characters doesn't.
On this topic, I think it's time reviewers started talking about verse novels in the context of "is it good poetry?". A number of verse novels published in the past few years fail the poetry part miserably (just being chopped up prose) and I think this is the same as the bad writing you are talking about.

Kitty Bucholtz said...

I definitely differentiate between good writing on a word/sentence level, and writing I enjoy. I read the first chapter of Nabokov's Lolita and was in AWE of his writing, but disgusted by the subject matter. I've read other books all the way through not because there was anything compelling about the way the author put words together, but because I either loved the story and/or the author was a master of the end-of-chapter cliffhanger.

P J O'Leary said...

I certainly agree with the distinction. I try to make the same distinction when I review a book. I suppose it's like with movies, I may have enjoyed watching "The Expendables" or "The Rocky Horror Picture Show", but neither are really examples of great movie making. They are cheesy and campy, but I still enjoyed them.

So with books, there are writers who I very much admire their gift with language, and their skill at both writing and storytelling, but I hate their work. (Stephen King is a major example of this. Great writer, great storyteller, I regret every one of his books I've read. Though I did finish them.)

As for FSOG, I'll admit I never finished it. I got maybe 100 pages or so into it. I keep meaning to go back and finish, but never do. I'll grant that on a sentence-structure level, the writing is acceptably workman-like. However, beyond that, I'll refrain from reviewing, since I didn't finish.

But on your main point, Nathan, I agree that it helps to distinguish good/ bad writing from good/ bad storytelling. I think bad writing makes it very hard to appreciate good storytelling.

In fact, for me, I'd say the best writing is usually the writing I don't notice. If I stop to notice what a brilliant sentence that was, or how great the phrasing was, I'm losing track of the story. Even with my favorite writers (Bradbury, Pratchett, Zelazny) their beautiful language is still in service of the story. For me, when the Art overwhelms the subject, it's just the artist trying too hard to impress.

Anonymous said...

Yvette Carol said...

Nathan, I agree with nearly every comment here. My thing is I've always had a pet peeve with literary snobbishness. Okay, fine, basic knowledge of the craft please, but when critics start to get into what defines "good" and "bad" writing, things start to go awry. It can be very subjective. Personally, I can't stand most of the classics of literature because I just can't get into the stories. I am undeniably, low-brow in my book tastes. I loved the HP series, and the Inheritance Cycle series, and yet folks slag them off as poorly written. I'm with the person who commented above, that 'good' and 'bad' should be abolished as terms reputable critics use.

Terin Tashi Miller said...

I absolutely, 100% unequivocally agree with your delineation, Nathan.
I wish, in fact, more people were cognizant of great writing in and of itself, as opposed to liking a book or a theme or a plot or characters.
I am, however, continually amazed at either people "trash talking" novels like "Gatsby," or others. It strikes me of people trying to set themselves somehow apart, as if they know better than all the others, what "great" writing is.
I have a similar problem with people who insist something must be incomprehensible to be "high art" as a novel.
But I find it also fascinating, in a sort of socio-cultural way, that what some declare as "bad"--bad writing, bad theme, bad plot, whatever--is often what winds up being praised and studied to death when someone declares it "good" or "great."
The Great Gatsby, for instance, as I've noted before, did not do that well when it initially came out. And Fitzgerald didn't like both its lack of instant popularity and its dust cover, which is now considered "iconic."
Similarly, many did not really like "Ulysses" when Joyce's friend, the lending library and bookstore owner Sylvia Beach, published it.
Or T.S. Elliott's "The Wasteland."
The avanta-guarde, or cutting edge, of all arts (including literary arts) seems always to start with a very few individuals who, by dint of connections or notoriety, become known as the taste makers of "new."
What makes Gatsby, in my opinion, a "great" book is precisely its writing. No one else ever wrote like Fitzgerald, or, despite attempts at imitation, has written like him since.
Or Conrad. Or Dostoyevsky.
Or Dickens.
What made "Harry Potter" a household name was arguably more imagination, plot, character development and hitting upon themes (alienation, "differentness," etc) common to most American tween and teen children.
What made Gatsby, and Ulysses, and The Brothers Karamozov, "great," was the artist's voice--the narrative, sure, but the way, the narration, in which it was delivered.
Many "great" books, especially when forced upon teenagers or even college freshmen by well-intended professors or teachers, are looked at dully because they are "boring," or "nothing ever happens" in them.
How many words did Herman Melville get out of a basic quest story? Not counting the treatise on whale anatomy and types, etc.?
But if you read stories for more than story, if you get swept up and immersed in the way the story is told...that, to me, is "great" writing.
My usual example is the great Conrad narrator, Marlowe. Nothing, basically, ever happens in the first few pages of a Conrad novel, except that Marlowe, on a quiet night in the tropics, condensation beading perhaps on a glass of something cool, is sitting in a rattan chair that creaks as he moves to strike a match that, for that instant, blinds anyone with its intensity as he lights his cheroot to begin his story.
And there you are. Hanging on his next word...:)

Lynda Schmeichel said...

There are times when punctuation, spelling or paragraph construction is so bad I am unable to read a book to know if I would have liked it or not. When I have had to give a bad review on a book, mostly it is because of poor writing skills. If the book is so poorly written, I cannot enjoy the story if I have to work too hard to understand it.

brianw said...

Great post. I totally agree. There have been books that I couldn't stand that were well-written and books that I like that aren't necessarily an example of literary genius.

The other thing about this business is there are a whole lot of 'sour grapes'. I hear people say James Patterson or Stephenie Meyer are terrible writers. I would argue that if their job is to write novels that will be critically acclaimed then you could argue they aren't very good. But if their job is to sell books then they are two of the best who have ever lived. We need to learn to deal with that.

Laura Benson said...

When I read a book I want it to flow nicely; I want continuity and I want decent sentence structure and grammar.

There were so many misuses of pronouns, too many comma splices and incorrect use of basic grammar when it came to 50 Shades.

When I read something in a sentence that is so blatantly wrong it drives me up the wall.

One of my biggest pet peeves is the overuse of fragmented sentences. I mean, c'mon, word even points it out to you now. Reword the sentence and you can make it a complete sentence.

If I read a sentence like this:

"her and me decided to walk up the hill..." I'm gonna scream!

Anne R. Allen said...

You're so right that for most people outside of the industry, "good writing" means "I like it" and "bad writing" means "it isn't about me." I recently saw a review of a book saying it was "horribly written" because it had humor in it. This reviewer believed serious=good, so funny=bad.

People in the industry don't always agree either. You have the genre-lovers who think anything that doesn't sound as if it could have been written by Elmore Leonoard is "crap." Then you have the literary types who think even a hint of plot gets in the way of the beauty of the language.

My feeling is anything that sells as many copies as FSOG isn't "horribly written" because that many people were compelled by the prose enough to read the thing. I must admit I haven't so I can't judge.

As for myself, I loved me some Nancy Drew when I was a kid and hated The Golden Bowl. But I'm not about to say the stable of writers who wrote as "Carolyn Keene" were superior writers to Henry James. Maybe you have to be a grown-up to know what "good writing" means.

SC Author said...

Great great great great great great post. I LOVED this post, mostly because I was so confused about what "good" writing even meant!!! Sure, I want good writing, but if I don't know what creates it, how can I improve? I always just thought good writing was "lyrical" writing, but now I know that it is so much more. I will be remembering your criteria for a very long time. Thank you so so much!

Anonymous said...

I do distinguish between a good story and good writing. When I say something is well written, I'm talking about sentence structure, word choice, the rhythm of the language, grammar, mechanics, and so on. Do the sentences flow; are the similes and metaphors apt or jarring? Is the language itself dull and wordy, or clean and crisp? Are the words and images well chosen?

For me (just judging the writing and not the story), there are those books that make me say, "Wow, what I wouldn't give to have written that," those where the language isn't wonderful but doesn't take me out of the story, and those where the quality of the writing keeps me from enjoying the story at all. For me, 50 SHADES fell into the third category.

Nathan, what do you mean when you describe the book as "not that badly written"? I kind of thought it was, though I agree with you if "not that bad" means "not horrible...but not that good either."

Neurotic Workaholic said...

I judge books for the reasons that you said, but I also judge them for their characters. For example, I don't like Daisy or Tom, but I like the way that they're described and how real Fitzgerald makes them; that's why I like The Great Gatsby. I read a book recently where I didn't like ANY of the characters, because they didn't have any major flaws. Because they didn't have any flaws, there was almost no conflict in the story (which made me wonder what the point of reading it was). That's another reason I like books like the Great Gatsby: the characters' flaws move the story forward.

MicroSourcing said...

It's difficult to divorce the writing on a sentence-level from the work's plausibility. The way the words are strung together help create reality within the story, hence the two are dependent on each other.

Sommer Leigh said...

I think there's two pieces to a story that make it great - the craft and the storytelling. You don't necessarily need both to make a runaway hit (which I think largely is fueled by luck and timing, anyway.)

These books are not well written. For some readers (like me) that fact cannot be ignored and the enjoyment of reading them diminishes. For some, the craft isn't very important. Both are fine ways to read.

What these big sellers have are great storytelling. Good storytelling is purely emotional. How the story and characters made you feel changes how you see the book in the end.

What they don't have is great craft. Both Twilight and FSOG have that distinct feeling like they are still learning how to write well. The repetition of metaphor, the use of simple words instead of complex ones, and the distinct lack of character growth all feel amateurish.

Look at the difference between Twilight and The Host. There's some serious growth there. The craft level between those two books is astonishing, like they weren't even written by the same author.

If they've got the storytelling part down (which is so much harder to learn anyway and to some extent, I'm not even sure it can be learned) imagine what kind of powerhouse books they could create with some time and dedication to the mastery of "good" writing?

Louisa Bacio said...

Sometimes I feel like the only person who did not really care for The DaVinci Code. The descriptions were way too long and in-depth. Obviously, many others didn't feel that way!

adan said...

i personally think it's a good delineation because it at least sets up a standard that lets anyone "review" a book on one of two (or both) levels -

and people would not get so confused / offended / upset about opinions of taste vs written quality of the work

and, there'd "still" be plenty of room for disagreement ;-)

Robena Grant said...

...am I able to lose myself in the world of the book?

I think this is key. I forgive a lot if the story picks me up and carries me off to another world. In FSofG I never made it past Chapter Five because of what I thought was gross character violation. And that meant I was thrown out of the story every other page by my own comments of, "Cut me a break." I simply couldn't buy into a virginal young woman going immediately to the dark side of sexual fantasy. I wanted to shake some sense into her. And the hero to me was not heroic. However, friends have said they loved it for the pure fantasy. I can accept that. Doesn't mean I'll ever finish the book though. : 0

Anonymous said...

When I see that people elect a politician who is in a mental hospital, and then I see the kind of things they consider good, it just makes my job as a writer easier. Some puppies, a cute kid, maybe a kitten or two and it's good to go :)

KJ Bateman said...

Nathan, I agree. You've analyzed the difference so well. There are books so poorly written that they interrupt the flow of the story making it impossible to enter that world; I skim to finish the story.

There are other books where the prose is breathtaking but the story or characters are so repugnant to me that I either don't finish the book or am left with a bad taste.

Elizabeth Varadan aka Mrs. Seraphina said...

I can't imagine anyone thinking The Great Gatsby is "garbage". You have to wonder.

Sheila Cull said...

Right on! I feel that you saying, "the book as a whole is engrossing," means to the reader - it's good writing.

Sheila Cull

zoeypeachakooka said...

Absolutely. I was just thinking something very similar today. I finished a book this morning, after reading it practically one sitting, and the end pulled the rug out from beneath me. I thought, "that was a good book...but I'm not sure if I liked it." Then I realized how contradictory that sounded. But, I'm glad to see others think the same way.

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