Michelle Sagara’s rant about convention panelist behavior reminded me that I never did get around to writing up the other panel from this year’s Readercon that I wanted to say something about, namely “Why We Love Bad Writing”
James D. Macdonald, Anil Menon, Resa Nelson, Eric M. Van, Harold Torger Vedeler (leader).
In the Guardian, writer Edward Docx bemoaned the popularity of such writers as Stieg Larsson and insisted on a qualitative difference between “literary” and “genre” fiction. Critic Laura Miller, writing in Salon, disagreed with most of Docx’s assumptions, but wondered what it is that makes the books of Larsson or Dan Brown popular when few people would argue that either is a particularly good writer. Miller suggests that clichéd writing allows faster reading than unique language does, and the very ordinariness of the prose in The Da Vinci Code allows an average reader to devour its 400 pages in a few hours. Is this true, and if so, is it the only appeal of “bad writing”? Or are “entertaining writing” and “good writing” two entirely distinct ways of evaluating a book?
I went to this largely because of the panelists: Jim Macdonald is reliably entertaining, particularly when he talks about bad fiction, and while Eric Van can be sort of exhausting, he’s usually amusing. Sadly, Harold Vedeler is not nearly as entertaining as those two, and he talked way too much, in the “In my book…” sort of vein Michelle mentions.
They did go through a bunch of possible theories and observations about badly written best-sellers, but never really touched on the factor that I think is probably the most important but hardest to explain factor regarding badly written bestsellers. I think of it as the Bose Condensation Theory of Literature: people read terrible books because everybody else is reading terrible books.
This is a pretty well-known phenomenon in popular culture generally– the same thing explains lots of dreadful tv shows and movies– and isn’t limited to fiction. The best example in science writing has to be Stephen Hawkings A Brief History of Time, which many physicists of my acquaintance couldn’t really make sense of, but still sold a bazillion copies. People bought it and read it (or tried to read it) because everybody else was buying it and talking about it, even if what they were mostly saying was “I don’t know what the hell he’s talking about.”
I think this is most of the determining factor regarding what becomes a ridiculous out-of-the-park bestseller– once some critical mass of people start reading and talking about a book, it takes off just because lots of people are reading and talking about it. This also explains why some authors get runaway smash bestsellers with one book, then quickly drop off the face of the Earth– that Bridges of Madison County guy, for example. That book was everywhere for a year or so, despite widespread disdain for it, and sold a bazillion copies. His next book didn’t do much of anything, and I had to check Wikipedia to make sure he wasn’t dead. People bought the first one because everyone was buying the first one, but when the second came around, everyone had moved on.
Now, to be sure, this isn’t everything. Some fluke bestsellers become institutions, and continue selling scads of books for years, and many of them tend to be dreadful writers– Dan Brown and Tom Clancy are two of the best examples. There’s some way in which really awful prose style has an appeal. But I think the key is still getting to that “everybody is talking about it” stage, at which point a mass readership condenses about some set of books.
Of course, getting to that level is a Black Art, and nobody, least of all publicists, has any real idea how to accomplish that (as you can tell from some of the desperate emails flogging random bits of pop-culture detritus that turn up in my inbox). If you could figure out how to control this condensation process, you could rule the world. Of course, if bad writing is a significant part of the process, maybe we’re better off without a complete theory of literary Bose condensation…