Booking Through Thursday: Bad Writing

Oscar Wilde Statue

In his preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde says, “There is no such thing as a moral or immoral book. Books are simply well written or badly written. That is all.” This week’s Booking Through Thursday prompt asks about good and bad books:

I’ve seen many bloggers say that what draws them to certain books or authors is good writing, and what causes them to stop reading a certain book or author is bad writing. What constitutes good writing and bad writing to you?

Personally, I don’t think this statement is true, at least not in general. I think a heck of a lot of people are willing to forgive bad writing if the plot has them turning the pages, the characters are people the reader cares about, and the reader feels some loyalty to the author. For instance, I gave Anne Rice chance after chance. I enjoyed three of the first four Vampire Chronicles. I didn’t like The Witching Hour, or, I should say, I didn’t like most of it. I didn’t like any of her subsequent books. But I kept trying long after I probably should have called “bad writing.” Actually, I am not sure I think her writing is bad. It’s a little florid in some places, but it works for her subject matter. I just didn’t care for the plotting choices she made. I also read The Da Vinci Code. I found it interesting. I turned the pages. At the end, I felt like Robert Langdon was a sort Mary Sue (or Gary Stu, as my daughter informs me male Mary Sues are called) in an Indiana Jones fanfic. More than anything else, I can forgive any number of writing sins if the characters in a story are well drawn, and the writer somehow convinces me to invest in them. I don’t think Where the Heart Is by Billie Letts is the most well-written book I’ve ever read by any stretch. In fact, in some places, it’s a little cheesy. But I liked the characters a lot, and I read the book in one sitting. Same with Twilight. I’d never call it well-written, but it definitely had me turning the pages. I’m almost ashamed to admit I saw my awkward teenage self in Bella.

I’m an English teacher, so what constitutes good and bad writing for me is kind of complicated. Subject, purpose, audience. Frankly, I have to read a lot of immature writing, and I mean no disrespect. The writing is literally not mature in tone because the authors are teenagers. It’s not a comment on their level of intelligence so much as an acknowledgment of their developmental stage. So I think as a result, my threshold for “bad writing” is probably lower than yours. I often read writing that was hastily typed the night before it was due and not proofread prior to being printed.

On the other hand, some writers have tics that prevent me from enjoying their books. Philippa Gregory’s Tudor-era characters don’t speak in anything like an approximation of period dialect. Gregory is also a fan of the stylistic comma splice. At least, I hope it’s a style choice. I can’t stand it. I like her books otherwise, but those two issues make it hard for me to concentrate on the story and enjoy it for what it is because the actual writing bothers me. But is that bad writing? I’m not so sure.

I don’t know who said it, but as a writing teacher, I quote it all the time: “Writing is never finished. It’s just due.” We could tweak it until we die. We could spend a year revising the same paragraph. We could spend an entire day, as Wilde famously did, pondering over a single comma. Bad writing, then, is hard to define because it might just be unfinished.

Good writing is a little easier. It feels like a cop out to say you know it when you see it, but I think it’s true. The language or characterization just rings so true. The words are beautiful, and the characters are your friends, and you dissolve into the story, perfectly able to imagine everything you read. To Kill a Mockingbird, The Poisonwood Bible, The Plague of Doves, and Wuthering Heights are kind of like that for me. Really, so is Harry Potter and the Judy Blume canon. And The Thorn Birds and Gone With the Wind. These books become a part of who you are. You drink them in or inhale them, and somehow they are a part of your bloodstream. And as Wilde noted, their purpose is not to convey morality. They just are, and thank God they are.

photo credit: Mark Heard