Monday, March 22, 2010

On Bad Writing

When I taught university-level English courses, I told my students it was useful to study bad writing. The idea was that if we could figure out what things made writing bad, we could avoid those things, and thus reduce the likelihood that we might produce bad writing.

I also taught that all writers have two fundamental tasks to perform. They must:
1. Have something to write.
2. Write it in such a way that the reader can understand it.

In the bad writing I'm about to discuss, writers fail about equally on both counts.

Let's explore. The poorest writing I've seen is that done in a certain kind of periodical I'll call "true confessions magazines." I've only read one of these, but it was a howler.

Remember, the stories in these magazines are all supposed to be "true." The most badly written story of the bunch was one concocted by an author who claimed to have been the mother of a teenage son. The son, she wrote, had taken explosives to his high school and killed 16 students.

Immediately I knew the story couldn't possibly be "true." To state the obvious — if a student killed 16 students at a school, we'd all have heard about it innumerable times. As our media experience repeatedly demonstrates, the killing of even a single student at a school immediately generates a multi-day national media event.

Worse than the obvious falsehood about the killings was the explanation of the "mother" for the behavior of her "son." He did this horrible thing because he wore black clothing. That was the writer's sole explanation. It wasn't that the black clothing was a symbol or expression of deep-seated psychological disturbances. No, it was the mere fact that he wore black clothing. The kid was an all-American youth who immediately turned into a monster the day he put on his first black overcoat.

The writer failed on count one. She had nothing to say. She threw together a tasteless, facile rip-off of the Columbine story.

In trying to account for writing of such wretched quality, I keep in mind that the writer may well have been someone capable of producing good work who merely dashed off some fast, poor work in order to get fast money from a magazine with extremely low standards.

Harder to explain is the work of writers who are established in their fields and tend to receive positive reviews (at least in some quarters). Let me focus on genre writing, which is thought by serious critics to be little more than a refuge for bad writers.

Let's turn to point two above: The way in which the writer says what she intends to say. The characters in the books of horror writer Clare McNally use language that sounds so contrived and stiff that an attentive reader will refuse to see the language as credible. In the novel Ghost Light, a six-year-old character says to another character of his age, "Someone has fastened a lock to the door!"

I put it to you that no one raised in the United States would ever say such a thing. The standard spoken American English expression for what McNally tries to convey is something such as: "Somebody's put a lock on the door."

Almost as clumsy is overly formal language used in a popular literature narrative. Zero at the Bone, a true crime book about mass-murderer Gene Simmons, was written by a Paul Williams, who apparently has an academic background in poetry composition. He quotes his own poetry liberally throughout his book. He writes the sort of verse students are taught to compose in university creative writing seminars — verse that can be deciphered by those willing to engage in intellectual concentration, but not by Joe Sixpack. The book's title is a phrase from an Emily Dickinson poem. I see no application of the phrase to the life or case of Simmons. The writer just wants the true crime reader (of all people) to know that he knows his Dickinson.

In the first 10 pages of the book, Williams treats the reader to such obscure academic lingo as: "that iambic closure," "immobilis in mobile," "the isinglass patina," "an ell of the wall," "iambic tom-tom." Such language in a true crime book, a genre second only to porno books in hastiness and sloppiness of writing, is about as appropriate as a cycle of Latin sonnets.

Depending on the nature of one's sense of camp, one can see inappropriate language as amusing (as I did in the Williams book) or annoying (as I did in the McNally book, which I quit reading at page 50).

Let's now turn again to point one: what is written. Those who write either true or fictional stories ("narratives," if you prefer the fancy term) will earn respect for their work only if they make the effort to develop characters who are distinct from each other and are at least minimally interesting to the reader. Character development needs to be an essential part of what storytellers write.

The failure to develop characters is recognized by horror book readers as the most common flaw of horror writing. I quit reading John Shirley's fairly well-known novel Wetbones after 200 pages because I couldn't distinguish one character from another. The book's two male protagonists are young men who work together as script writers in Los Angeles. After 200 pages, the only way I could differentiate the two was by reminding myself that they had different names.

But Shirley's no fool. Consider the following observations he makes on the human condition in his novel: "Garner had to search for his little girl in this endless sea of irrelevancy and indifference and preoccupied people and deteriorating places. This is crazy, this is hopeless ... "

Or this: "Line up the ifs like toy soldiers, move them around the way you want, try to make yourself feel better. It's still just playing with ifs."

Or: "He had preached at himself by preaching at other people."

Shirley likes to take time to think about life. He won't take the time to contemplate what sorts of people might lead this life.

I quit Reading Richard Laymon's horror novel Darkness Tell Us after the first two chapters. Laymon introduces 10 or so characters in these chapters. I could only get a sense of one of them: the misfit and outcast (the character type that is, for whatever reason, the one that always seems to get fleshed out even in poorly written horror novels). The first sentence of the third chapter contained the name "Glen." I had to flip back through the first two chapters to see whether I'd been reading about a character who had that name.

In contrast is a novel by horror writer Edward Lee, whose many devoted fans seem to take pride in his reputation for bad writing. In Lee's Flesh Gothic, there are some clanky passages. But in this novel, the gaffes don't matter much. Lee's careful to begin by devoting a chapter to each of the more than 15 major characters. While this makes for a somewhat slow initial read, the approach pays off in spades in the last 300 pages, when the reader feels compelled to find out what happens to these characters whom he understands better than his own acquaintances.

It's not necessary that one identify or feel deeply for a character. But one must at least know enough about the character to feel an interest in what happens to her. It is no great feat for a good writer to create credible characters who are more interesting than the people we know.

When established horror writers create flat characters, they do so, I think, because they've gotten too caught up in the plot to take the time to envision the personalities of their characters. Novels by these writers build to a rapid sequence of shocking events: the payoff for the horror book reader. The bulk of the creative work has gone to the creation of what is the most exciting part of the narrative. The writer's intoxicated with the plot twists she's contrived to make the knock-out climax or ending.

In terms of how they write what they write, it's often possible for the writer to play around with or even mess up the words and still deliver a readable story. But if there's a story, character development seems to be a requisite of good writing. You can have fun with language. When it comes to character — watch out. I can imagine that some extremely experimental writer, such as Alain Robbe-Grillet, might write a good, solid story that contains a plot devoid of a series of discrete actions — for example, a plot that consists merely in the narrator's description of a photograph he is presumably looking at. But even in such writing as this, the intrepid reader (which is the only kind who will make it to the end) is working backwards to construct in his head the kind of character who's looking at the photograph.

In order to be interested in stories, whether true or otherwise, we need to know that the things that happen have happened to or been done by creatures that strongly resemble the people we are or we know. We can watch full-length movies about pigs and mice and dogs, provided these creatures act (and "talk" or "think") like people who are familiar to us.

And the tortured efforts that networks go to to convince us that the people on reality television shows are just like us convey a message that's all too true. If it weren't, how would any sociologist ever explain the popularity of the things?

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