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…

Comments

  1. #1 Cosma Shalizi
    July 26, 2011

    Matt Salganik and Duncan Watts have a neat experimental demonstration of this process for music.

  2. #2 Tim Chambers
    July 26, 2011

    I am an aspiring author myself. As such I have dealt with many others like me, and sampled thousands of unpublished texts. Those who have written popular books are reasonably intelligent people, not overly intellectual, don’t have a lot of formal education, and write what they would be interested in reading.

    Best selling books don’t challenge people, and the lower the cognitive level, generally, the lower the level of taste. But I think what it really comes down to is that readers can identify with the writing, in the sense that they feel they could do it themselves. Thus, the text doesn’t threaten them with a sense of inferiority.

    Highbrow books don’t do that for people. But some make aspiring highbrows feel they can easily fake being highbrows. Thus, a dense text like Stephen Hawking’s, or a literary tome like Infinite Jest will will have its appeal to the poseurs.

    Either way, it is hard for a genuinely well written book to make headway in the marketplace without appealing to those audiences’ insecurities.

  3. #3 IW
    July 27, 2011

    There seems to be a lot of anecdote substituting for data here.

    Who gets to determine “good writing” and why? Are we to have an elite panel dictating to the common masses what they should think about books, what they should read, what they should like? That way lies religion.

    Are you confusing “good writing” with pretentious writing? If not, then in what objective, empirically testable way can you define it?

    The bottom line is that good writing is what gets books off the shelves/downloaded or what gets people into the libraries; it’s not what some arrogant and pompous few want to dictate to everyone else.

  4. #4 Eric Lund
    July 27, 2011

    @IW: It’s not just a matter of elites determining, “This is good, that is bad.” Dan Brown is a good example from fiction of somebody who writes what was a bestseller that a few years later is generally recognized as trash. I have read The DaVinci Code myself: while you are reading the book, the prose keeps you eager to see what comes next, but when the peer pressure to read it subsides, you can see the flaws in both the prose and the scenario. It happens in music, too: “You Light Up My Life” was one of the biggest hits of the 1970s, but within a few years nobody would admit to liking that song. An even better example would be “We Built This City”, a #1 hit from the mid 1980s that was almost universally reviled by the end of the year it hit #1. With books there is the added factor of having invested time in starting the book, which you often don’t want to feel you have entirely wasted by abandoning the book partway through.

    Nor is this a new phenomenon. Consider the cases of Dickens and Bulwer-Lytton in literature, or Mozart and Salieri in music. Bulwer-Lytton was popular in his day, but today he is known mainly because a famous bad writing contest is named in his honor.

  5. #5 IW
    July 28, 2011

    @Eric: In the absence of empirical evidence I can only repeat that there seems to be a lot of anecdote substituting for data here.

    Simply reiterating the claim that some writing is ‘bad’ doesn’t do anything to establish the validity of the claim. That’s like claiming that you love your mom more than your neighbors love their moms: does merely saying it make a solid case for it? If you were a creationist, then you’d be convinced that it does, but no one who seriously reads Uncertain Principles would be swayed by such an ‘argument’.

    Yes, there’s no doubt that it’s possible to see that some writing is painfully, obviously bad, for example a child’s writing with misspellings and poor grammar, but beyond the extremes it becomes increasingly difficult to create criteria and draw lines, because language is a very personal thing.

    How do you determine that it’s ‘good’? By what definition – by whose criteria? Who gets to be on the ‘Writing Police’ and why? Are these the ‘good writing’ standards to be established for all time? If not, who decides how and when they should be changed? That way, lies madness.

    You can claim a song is now “universally reviled” but by whose light is it so defined? Was it by the same people who acclaimed it? I’d argue that they who acclaimed it were the public, whilst they who reviled it were the critics – the very same ivory-tower elite we’re discussing here! There’s no science to this, and the word of a few critics, even when reported popularly, isn’t going to redefine what’s good and what’s bad, especially if those critics have little or no currency.

    You mention Dickens and Bulwer-Lytton, Mozart and Salieri, and we recall all of those names regardless of whether they were or are considered good or bad. Does the fact that some now consider one to be good, the other bad prove the case? or does it merely prove that tastes change? You can argue that the fact that we recall them proves your claimt hat some art is objectively good, but that same argument is that only Dickens and Mozart (and a few others) were good at their art, that “the others were bad”. I find that position unconvincing.

    By now you must realize that I have no respect for people who sit around trying to dictate which movie I should like, which book I should consider brilliant, which art is the finest based on nothing more than their personal preference. That may work just fine in our teen years when we can be so readily influenced, but people grow up, and they inevitably determine their own styles and preferences regardless of what the critics think.

    It’s a cliché (but nonetheless true) that people may not know about art, but they know what they like (and they need no one telling them they’re right or wrong in their preference).

    Coincidentally, there was a piece on NPR’s BBC World Update this morning about Americanisms creeping into British English, but neither of the commentators actually addressed the obvious fact that a nation’s language is not engraved on stone tablets (well, historically it may have been!); it’s a dynamical entity and it will change constantly, especially in an era of globalism.

    This also applies to a nation’s writing style and preferences (and not by pure coincidence). Writers are either writing for themselves, in which case who but they should care what they write? or they’re writing for the public, in which case the public is the judge and jury of what’s ‘good’ and what’s not, not a handful of critics.

    Trying to establish a ‘code of conduct’ based on the personal preferences of a minority is at best ill-advised and at worst, doomed to failure. Didn’t the French try to have a language police, which is quite evidently how they got “le parking” and “le five o’clock”?

    If Shakespeare hadn’t written any of the things we attribute to him, and someone today wrote those same things word for word and tried to get them published, what success would they have, seriously? Filling their work with bad puns and plagiarism, would they really enjoy the same currency or would they be literally laughed off the stage for trite stories, bad plots, deus ex machina turns of events, and obscure language?

    You cannot dictate what people should like or what they should deem ‘good’ or ‘bad’, and you especially cannot dictate (or even predict) what will stand the test of time; it’s a fool’s errand to try and the attempt smacks of blind arrogance.

  6. #6 faithless
    July 28, 2011

    It’s very simple. Bad writers get their books read by telling good stories. A good story can be intriguing, thrilling, emotionally satisfying, all sorts of possibilities. If you can tell a good story, you don’t need to be a good writer any more. There are so many people out there buying books that a publishing house will buy a good story even if they have to ‘hold their’ nose while they are promoting the resulting book…
    I tried to read a Jeffrey Archer book once, and the same with Tom Clancy. I found their style so puerile I couldn’t finish the books – and I’m a story addict. But there are many people who’ve never read anything written by a prose stylist, and the appalling style doesn’t bother them. They are only after the ‘thumping good read’.

  7. #7 faithless
    July 28, 2011

    @IW – it’s hard to believe anyone who has more than a passing acquaintance with Shakespeare’s output would feel comfortable summarising them as full of bad puns and plagiarism. Without even mentioning the poetry (well, ok, I did mention it, but without developing the point) there is the fact of the great themes he tackled – kingship, obligation, love, duty, jealousy, revenge, ambition, betrayal, envy, justice, mercy… well, you get the point.
    Plus – the charge of plagiarism is restricted to copying point-by-point – otherwise West Side Story would be dismissed as being no more than Romeo and Juliet.

  8. #8 Eric Lund
    July 28, 2011

    IW, try reading the following sentence and explain why it is not bad by any reasonable standards:

    It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents, except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the house-tops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.

    This is the opening sentence of the novel Paul Clifford, the most (in)famous sentence Bulwer-Lytton wrote. It’s long-winded, even for somebody who was being paid per word (e.g., can the fact that our scene lies in London not wait a few more sentences?). It’s overdramatic, with several images which are not mutually compatible. As a bonus we have not one but two dangling participles (either the rain or the wind, but not the streets, is what rattles and agitates).

    Regarding your point about dictating what people consider “good”: There is a multibillion dollar industry devoted to doing exactly that, and this industry is largely successful. I refer, of course, to marketing. These are the folks who convinced us in the first place that Dan Brown was worth reading, or that Debby Boone’s music was worth listening to. These people are paid the big bucks precisely because they are so successful. They don’t have to convince everybody, they just have to convince enough of the “right” people (the definition of that term depends on what they are selling), and herd instinct will follow. That was the point of the original post. Once the marketing campaign wears off, people might take another look at that book (or song; it happens more often in music because we are more likely to hear a given song more than once than to read a given book more than once) and conclude that it was trash. In the pop culture cases I am familiar with, it was ordinary people, not ivory tower academics, which came to the latter conclusion.

  9. #9 Mary Kay
    July 28, 2011

    I’m so out of it I didn’t know Stieg Larsson was considered a bad writer. I didn’t read his books for ages *because* everyone was. (I wish I weren’t contrary like that, but after years of trying I still am, shrug.) When I finally did condescend to read the first, I immediately bought and read the other 2 as well. I enjoyed them a lot. Some of it, admittedly, was a bit far-fetched, but as an sf/f reader I had no trouble with that!

    I don’t think he’s a great prose stylist, but I don’t think his writing is bad either. Or is the Readercon blurb writer indulging in that bit of snobishness that says the popular can’t be good?

    MKK

  10. #10 Tim Chambers
    July 31, 2011

    You’re a scientist, I’m a writer. You rely on data. I rely on intuition. One knows truly accomplished writing only when one finds it, because other than the rules of grammar, there is nothing objective which defines it. Yet it does have certain shared qualities. Clarity, flow and tone are essential. Is every word necessary and significant? Does it ring true? Is it esthetically pleasing? Does it satisfy intellectually? These are admittedly relative, but would experienced and knowledgeable readers share your opinion? Other qualities people look for are narrative voice (an audible quality that sounds like a person is speaking to you.) What little I have seen of Dan Brown’s writing, or Steig Larson’s, or that of most writers of genre fiction, has none of these qualities. Far too much literary fiction is just pretty writing with nothing to say, and there is no reason to elevate it above any other sort of writing, But the product of genius ought to be recognizable to everyone who reads it. It’s the difference between a banquet and a Value Meal.

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