Story vs. style


This is your brain reading bad writing. Any questions?

Recently, a dear friend of mine told me I had to read this book she’d just finished. One caveat, she said, was that the writing was epically bad. Hall-of-shame bad. “You just need to look past the writing to the story and the message,” she said. Okay, said I, fair enough. Even Conan can shelve her prejudices regarding poor writing if the story’s good. Plus it’s a best-seller, and it was essentially self-published. I want to get behind small publishing, want to be an encourager of the independent spirit and self-starterism, so I agreed.

Whew. The longest four weeks of my life followed, four weeks I can never recover. As it turns out, I’m just not that open minded. The story could have been To Kill a Mockingbird or even Presumed Innocent and it would not have made any difference, because as it turns out, you really can’t separate story from writing. The premise was indeed interesting, the ideas at least somewhat innovative, but I didn’t care. Every misused comma, every wooden character, every stilted bit of dialogue, every overwrought description was like a splinter under my fingernail, topped off with a salt-and-lemon-juice poultice.

But all this wasn’t bad enough…people had actually written blurbs for the cover (in all caps, which is usually a tip-off that the editing is less than professional) that intimated that the book was beautifully written. Some clown had even written that the book had a “literary quality” — which it did, if by literary he meant barely literate.

Okay, this is going to raise some hackles, but one of the worst-written books I’ve ever read is on every “greatest book” short list you’ve ever seen. Take a breath, because here it is: it’s Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand. I could almost forgive her for being 50 years before her time in the creative name spelling because the idea of the book rocked…showing a society where hard work is punished and sitting on your nether regions is richly rewarded. Great stuff.

But.

The writing. It makes me shudder just remembering it. First of all, for those of you who haven’t tackled this behemoth, it’s almost 1000 pages long in about 8-point type. But here’s what got me: Rand used the word “astonish” and all its many variations on virtually every page. Characters were astonished, and the things they did were astonishing. They looked on with astonishment. They watched each other astonish one another. More events and ideas were astonishing than weren’t. It got so that I tensed up every time I turned a page, waiting for the offending word to leap out from behind the next to be verb.

It took me more than a year to make it to the end. I threw it across the room so many times the spine broke. But I kept after it. Now, you may argue that the great story idea was what kept me going, but you’d be wrong. It was the principle of the thing. I’d invested so much time I couldn’t turn back. It became like picking a scab. Painful, definitely gross, but

compulsively obsessive.

All this may sound like sour grapes, coming from a frustrated unpublished novelist like yours truly, but I swear, that’s not it. I don’t hold a grudge against the insensitive moron of an editor who called the characters in my last novel “two-dimensional.” Okay. I do. But that’s not the point. The point is, what really bothers me is that as readers, our standards have fallen so low that it doesn’t matter anymore if a book is well-written, let alone grammatically correct, spell-checked and edited for punctuation. We overlook this stuff because it’s so old fashioned. Well, I submit to you that it does matter. Standards matter. Getting ideas across properly matters.

Consider the following analogy: there is a certain country that ships millions of goods to our shores, goods that are shoddy, poorly constructed, even dangerous (lead paint, anyone?). So poor writing isn’t specifically dangerous to your health. But it is dangerous to your brain. As we’ve continued our slide into universal brain atrophy, we have lost the ability to tell the difference between an elegant sentence and a…not elegant sentence. You know, like that one. Good writing itself should stimulate the cerebral cortex, should encourage brain cell growth. As this country gets flabbier and flabbier physically on Starbucks and deep-fried Twinkies, we’re getting mentally flabbier on crappy writing.

Well, I hope you’re happy. If you insist on patronizing incompetent wordsmiths, then when your brain turns to Jello, don’t come running to me. I warned you.

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Story vs. style

Recently, a dear friend of mine told me I had to read this book she’d just finished. One caveat, she said, was that the writing was epically bad. Hall-of-shame bad. “You just need to look past the writing to the story and the message,” she said. Okay, said I, fair enough. Even Conan can shelve her prejudices regarding poor writing if the story’s good. Plus it’s a best-seller, and it was essentially self-published. I want to get behind small publishing, want to be an encourager of the independent spirit and self-starterism, so I agreed.

Whew. The longest four weeks of my life followed, four weeks I can never recover. As it turns out, I’m just not that open minded. The story could have been To Kill a Mockingbird or even  Presumed Innocent and it would not have made any difference, because as it turns out, you really can’t separate story from writing. The premise was indeed interesting, the ideas at least somewhat innovative, but I didn’t care. Every misused comma, every wooden character, every stilted bit of dialogue, every overwrought description was like a splinter under my fingernail, topped off with a salt-and-lemon-juice poultice.

But all this wasn’t bad enough…people had actually written blurbs for the cover (in all caps, which is usually a tip-off that the editing is less than professional) that intimated that the book was beautifully written. Some clown had even written that the book had a “literary quality” — which it did, if by literary he meant barely literate.

Okay, this is going to raise some hackles, but one of the worst-written books I’ve ever read is on every “greatest book” short list you’ve ever seen. Take a breath, because here it is: it’s Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand. I could almost forgive her for being 50 years before her time in the creative name spelling because the idea of the book rocked…showing a society where hard work is punished and sitting on your nether regions is richly rewarded. Great stuff.

But.

The writing. It makes me shudder just remembering it. First of all, for those of you who haven’t tackled this behemoth, it’s almost 1000 pages long in about 8-point type. But here’s what got me: Rand used the word “astonish” and all its many variations on virtually every page. Characters were astonished, and the things they did were astonishing. They looked on with astonishment. They watched each other astonish one another. More events and ideas were astonishing than weren’t. It got so that I tensed up every time I turned a page, waiting for the offending word to leap out from behind the next to be verb.

It took me more than a year to make it to the end. I threw it across the room so many times the spine broke. But I kept after it. Now, you may argue that the great story idea was what kept me going, but you’d be wrong. It was the principle of the thing. I’d invested so much time I couldn’t turn back. It became like picking a scab. Painful, definitely gross, but compulsively obsessive.

All this may sound like sour grapes, coming from a frustrated unpublished novelist like yours truly, but I swear, that’s not it. I don’t hold a grudge against the insensitive moron of an editor who called the characters in my last novel “two-dimensional.” Okay. I do. But that’s not the point. The point is, what really bothers me is that as readers, our standards have fallen so low that it doesn’t matter anymore if a book is well-written, let alone grammatically correct, spell-checked and edited for punctuation. We overlook this stuff because it’s so old fashioned. Well, I submit to you that it does matter. Standards matter. Getting ideas across properly matters.

Consider the following analogy: there is a certain country that ships millions of goods to our shores, goods that are shoddy, poorly constructed, even dangerous (lead paint, anyone?). So poor writing isn’t specifically dangerous to your health. But it is dangerous to your brain. (This is your brain. This is your brain reading bad writing. Any questions?) As we’ve continued our slide into universal brain atrophy, we have lost the ability to tell the difference between an elegant sentence and a…not elegant sentence. You know, like that one. Good writing itself should stimulate the cerebral cortex, should encourage brain cell growth. As this country gets flabbier and flabbier physically on Starbucks and deep-fried Twinkies, we’re getting mentally flabbier on crappy writing.

Well, I hope you’re happy.  If you insist on patronizing incompetent wordsmiths, then when your brain turns to Jello, don’t come running to me. I warned you.

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2 Comments

  1. Unsurprisingly, if you look at certain popular self (free & accepting anyone) publishing sites, you can view some appaling examples of writing. And so the self-published are all tainted by those wost examples. Yet (as you point out) it is surprising what does get published by the big houses. Let’s face it, their main criterion is the commercial potential; and they’re certainly not prepared to take risks.

    I’ve also been through the rejection process, and got into a long email argument with an agent over an “unbelievable character”, amongst other things. As a writer of SF, it got to the point where there were so few options as far as the traditional publishers were concerned, that POD looked like the best alternative.

    If only it was less about the profit…

    • Thanks, Adrian…I am about to embark on self-publishing a novel myself. Did you like Lulu? I’ve POD published a children’s book using CreateSpace (Amazon) and absolutely loved them.

      FYI, to everyone out there, you can buy Adrian’s book here


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