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Why we love bad writing

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message 1: by Matt, e-monk (new)

Matt Comito | 386 comments Mod
Editor: Laura Miller
Updated: TodayTopic:
Stieg Larsson
Tuesday, Dec 14, 2010 20:20 ET
Laura Miller Why we love bad writing
Stieg Larsson and Dan Brown novels are riddled with cliches, but for many readers, that's a feature not a bug
By Laura Miller
SalonForget peace on earth -- there won't even be peace among the bookshelves after the salvo against popular fiction launched in the pages of the Guardian newspaper this week by the British novelist Edward Docx. Docx, dismayed to find himself on a train full of passengers with their noses stuck in Stieg Larsson thrillers, announced "we need urgently to remind ourselves of -- for want of better terminology -- the difference between literary and genre fiction." This, all too predictably, ignited multiple charges of outrage across the Internet.

Guardian readers have already ably dismantled the straw men in Docx's essay. I don't agree with most of what he says, but he has a point when he suggests that the other side often resorts to arguments as trumped up as his own. In fact, ferocious defenders of genre fiction seem far more numerous to me than its (public) detractors, and Docx may have even done them a favor; they seem to enjoy their indignation an awful lot. The not-so-secret reason why pissing matches are so common, after all, is that some people just really love taking it out.

Instead of getting into all that, however, let's consider the original source of Docx's concern: the enormous popularity of Larsson's Millennium Trilogy and the novels of Dan Brown. Certainly, these writers are far from the best their genres have to offer. Even the most vehement of genre champions will not argue that either man is a good, or even adequate, stylist. (Larsson himself seems to have been well aware that he was no Hemingway.) Rather, they are both, in many respects and apart from the whole genre question, fairly bad writers. So why do so many people devour their books?

I pose this question as someone who enjoyed all three of Larsson's books, although I don't care for Brown's. I am exactly the sort of person who might be glimpsed reading "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" on a train. Docx seems to think his fellow citizens only resort to these books because they aren't aware of the much better ones out there. "We simply have to find a way to bring the finest writers of the language more often to the attention of the carriages of people up and down the country who are evidently still willing and able to buy novels for the journey," he writes. These hapless souls are currently being "subjected" to "atrociously bad" thrillers when they could be immersed in such Docx favorites as "Franzen, Coetzee, Hollinghurst, Amis, Mantel, Proux, Ishiguro, Roth."

Continue reading
Now, I'm not only aware of all of those novelists, I've read much of their work, too; some of it I love, and some of it I don't. Yet this didn't stop me from reading Stieg Larsson with a considerable amount of pleasure. Most people who read a lot also read to satisfy a wide spectrum of moods and hankerings, and sometimes trash (provided it's sufficiently engaging) is just the ticket. This taste, like any other, can be highly idiosyncratic. My friend Lev can't abide Larsson, while I have in turn needled him for enthusing over a -- to my mind -- cheesily hard-boiled action-adventure fantasy novel. (Also: He claims to be a "Twilight" fan.)

Why do people like bad books? Some of them probably don't read enough to know the difference. But all the same, I suspect that they wouldn't be equally content with Martin Amis' "The Pregnant Widow" should the bookstore clerk have mistakenly slipped that into their shopping bag instead of "The Lost Symbol." Chances are, Amis' strenuously inventive prose would strike them as too much work. The popular species of bad writing (for there are many, many kinds of awful prose) abounds in clichés, stock characters and conventional plot twists, and, as Amis indicated in the title of a collection of his literary criticism, he is a general in the War Against Cliché.

Until recently, hardly anyone considered why some readers might actually prefer clichés to finely crafted literary prose. A rare critic who pondered this mystery was C.S. Lewis, who -- in a wonderful little book titled "An Experiment in Criticism" -- devoted considerable attention to the appeal of bad writing for what he termed the "unliterary" reader. Such a reader, who is interested solely in the consumption of plot, favors the hackneyed phrase over the original

... because it is immediately recognizable. 'My blood ran cold' is a hieroglyph of fear. Any attempt, such as a great writer might make, to render this fear concrete in its full particularity, is doubly a chokepear to the unliterary reader. For it offers him what he doesn't want, and offers it only on the condition of his giving to the words a kind and degree of attention which he does not intend to give. It is like trying to sell him something he has no use for at a price he does not wish to pay.

With the advent of Amazon reader reviews, such readers have finally found a voice, and a vocabulary with which to express their taste. Speed is the operative metaphor. Novels are praised for being a "fast read" and above all for having writing that "flows." "Flow" is an especially fascinating term because it's one that literary critics have never used, and it perfectly captures the way that clichéd prose can be gobbled up in chunks at a breakneck pace. "The Da Vinci Code" is over 400 pages long, but you can race through it in about three hours. Combine the large population of casual readers who limit themselves to such books with the hardcore bibliophiles who like an occasional dip into something easy, and you have enough buyers to create a hit.

Lewis also juxtaposed the unliterary reader with what he called the "Stylemonger," who makes too great a fetish of words and sentences for their own sake. (Persnickety grammar and usage monitors are included in this group.) "He creates in the minds of the unliterary (who have often suffered under him in school) a hatred of the very word 'style' and a profound distrust of every book that is said to be well written." Even if Docx were in a position to lecture his fellow railway travelers as to the superior merits of Proulx and Hollinghurst, he'd run the risk of activating just this sort of resentment, and doing his favorite authors more harm than good.

And, chances are, quite a few of his listeners would be well aware that Larsson and Brown aren't very good writers. If pressed, they'd say that sometimes they just want to gallop through a story -- or in the case of Larsson's novels, proceed along with a weird methodicalness that taps into what appears to be an amazingly widespread streak of latent obsessive-compulsive disorder. They'd say that they're not, at the moment, equal to the demands of literature, but that just last week they finished "Disgrace" or "Wolf Hall." And then they'd say, Would you mind? Are we done here? Because I'd really like to get back to my book.

message 2: by Matt, e-monk (last edited Dec 15, 2010 10:00AM) (new)

Matt Comito | 386 comments Mod
Are Stieg Larsson and Dan Brown a match for literary fiction?The Millennium trilogy and Da Vinci Code authors sell millions – but according to novelist Edward Docx their books are 'amateurish'. Here, he argues that even good genre fiction doesn't bear comparison with works of true literary merit

Edward Docx
The Observer, Sunday 12 December 2010

On my way back to London the other day, I was clawing my way toward the buffet car when I noticed with a shock that more or less the entire train carriage was reading… novels. (ed. isnt using 'way' twice in one sentence kind of bad writing? and the whole way-day-way sing songing deal? tin ear much?) This cheered me up immensely: partly because I have begun to fear that we are living in some kind of Cowellian nightmare, and partly because I make a good part of my living writing them. Where were the Heats and the Closers, I wondered? The Maxims and the Cosmos? Where the iPads, the iPhones, the Blackberrys and the Game Boys, the Dingoos and the Zunes? Why neither the ding of texts, nor the dong of mail? Barely anyone was even on the phone, for Christ's sake. They were all reading. Quietly, attentively, reading.

My cheer modulated into something, well, less cheerful (but still quite cheerful) when I realised that they were all, in fact, reading the same book. Yes, you've guessed it: The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo who Played With Fire and who, some time later we are led to believe, Kicked the Hornet's Nest. In the next three carriages it was the same story – men, women, toddlers. A glance out of the window revealed that even the cows were at it – nose deep, hay forgotten. And when, finally, I arrived at the buffet car, I was greeted with a sigh and a how-dare-you raise of the eyebrows. Why? Because in order to effectively conjure my cup of lactescent silt into existence, the barrista in question would have to put down his… Stieg Larsson.

In terms of sales, 2010 has been the year of the Larsson. Again. His three books have been the three bestselling fiction titles on Amazon UK. Along with Dan Brown, he has conquered the world. The success of the Millennium trilogy is a tale of unimaginable public appetite, staggering international sales, big-screen boosts, perplexed publishers and (let's face it) not-that-originally-reformulated formula fiction. Not least among the reasons for the bafflement of the industry (and fellow writers) is the amateurishness of the books – something, curiously, that Larsson has in common with Brown. Readers, publishers and writers alike can agree that John Grisham, Robert Harris, Tom Clancy or Danielle Steel build up their massive readerships by knowing precisely what they are doing; they are master practitioners of their highly skilled craft. Conversely, Brown and Larsson – in their different ways – are mesmerisingly bad.

Here is Dan Brown, for example, describing – without flinching – how women find his hero's voice like "chocolate for their ears" before having said hero muse to himself that "he knew what came next" – "some ridiculous line about 'Harrison Ford in Harrison Tweed'". Leaving aside the queasiness of the gender politics (another communality with Larsson is the cod feminism), ridiculous is not the word we're after here. Larsson, meanwhile, opens Part 1 ("Incentive") of his first book with the most tedious acronym-packed exchange – not a conversation, not dialogue – that I have ever read. His two characters sit stranded in harbour because one of them can't start his engine (no joke) and begin "to explore what was ethically satisfactory in certain golden parachute agreements during the 90s". Says character "B": ''The AIA obtained government guarantees for a number of projects… The Swedish Trade Union Confederation, LO, also joined in… [and] Wennerström presented a plan, seemingly backed by interests in Poland, which aimed at establishing an industry for the manufacture of packaging food stuffs." Pause for a line or two to take this in before – again without irony – says character "A" in reply: "This is starting to get interesting." No it isn't.

I realise we are sailing into choppy waters here. With Larsson now dead and so decent a chap, how dare I go up on deck and start explaining – amid the storms of publicity and howl of Hollywood and the relentless sluicing of the sales – that his work is not very good even by the standards of his genre? Well because, in my view, we need urgently to remind ourselves of – for want of better terminology – the difference between literary and genre fiction; because, to misquote the literary essayist Isaac D'Israeli, "it seems to me a wretched national compulsion to be gratified by mediocrity when the excellent lies before us".

We need to be clear-eyed here because although there is much written about this subject, there is also much theatricality to the debate. And this serves to hide (on both sides) a fundamental dishonesty. The proponents of genre fiction are not sincere about the limitations even of the best of what they do while being scathing and disingenuous about literary fiction (there's no story, nothing happens etc). Meanwhile, the (equally insincere) literary proponents say either: "Oh, don't blame us, it's the publisher's fault – they label the books and we really don't see the distinction"; or, worse, they adopt the posture and tone of bad actors delivering Shakespeare and talk of poetry and profundity without meaning a great deal or convincing anyone. Both positions are bogus and indicative of something (also interesting) about the way we talk of literature and culture more widely.

It's worth dealing with the difference again, since everyone seems to have forgotten it or become chary of the articulation. Mainly this: that even good genre (not Larsson or Brown) is by definition a constrained form of writing. There are conventions and these limit the material. That's the way writing works and lots of people who don't write novels don't seem to get this: if you need a detective, if you need your hero to shoot the badass CIA chief, if you need faux-feminist shopping jokes, then great; but the correlative of these decisions is a curtailment in other areas. If you are following conventions, then a significant percentage of the thinking and imagining has been taken out of the exercise. Lots of decisions are already made.

So it follows that genre tends to rely on a simpler reader psychology. If you have a body on the first page, then you raise a question: who killed it and how did it get there? And curiosity will power readers a surprisingly long way. As will, say, a treasure hunt (Brown) or injustice (Grisham) or the locked room mystery format (Larsson). None of this is to say that writing good thrillers is easy. It is still incredibly difficult. But it is easier.

These are the reasons, too, why a bad thriller or detective novel or murder mystery will feel so much better than a bad literary novel – why it might even thrive. Even in a bad genre book, you've still got the curiosity and the reassuring knowledge that the writer will eventually deliver against the conventions. Bad literary fiction, on the other hand, is mostly without such fallback positions and is therefore a whole lot worse.

To enlist a comparison, one might choose to set up a vast and international burger chain and sell millions of burgers. Or one might choose to open a single restaurant selling line-caught eel lasagne one night and hand-fondled quail poached in liquorice the next. We all like burgers – me as much as the next man – and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. But let's be honest: there is a major difference in both the production and the consumption of the two experiences. Again, we can see why bad literary fiction is so much more annoying than bad genre. We pay more attention to the restaurant that claims to have carefully sourced its ingredients and then used skill and imagination to bring those to the table in a manner that is original, surprising, beautiful, clever and delicious. Failure in this second case, therefore, is far more irritating. But equally, if you are in the burger-selling business, then although your burgers may appear different – you can flip them with bacon or jalapeño or even Stilton – the truth is that they are all fundamentally the same; you are in the burger business or you are not in business at all.

This is why genre writers cannot claim to have everything. They can take the money and the sales and all that goes with that. And we can sincerely admire them for doing so. But they should not be allowed to get away with suggesting that these things tell us anything about the intrinsic value or scope of their work. Here, for example, is Lee Child talking the kind of ersatz machismo bullshit that so confuses the issue: "The thriller concept is why humans invented storytelling, thousands of years ago. [Is it?] The world was perilous and full of misery, so they wanted the vicarious experience of surviving danger. [Did they?] It's the only real genre and all the other stuff has grown on the side of it like barnacles. [Really? Barnacles?] I could easily write a work of literary fiction. [No you couldn't.] It would take me three weeks, [No it wouldn't] sell about 3,000 copies [Doubt it] and be at least as good as the competition. [Absolutely no chance.] But literary authors can't write thrillers. They try sometimes, but they can never do it. [Crime and Punishment.]"

I'd love to end this piece by dealing with the fallacies of relativism, exposing the other misconceptions surrounding both genre and literary fiction (class needs tackling) and then round the whole thing off with a series of extracts from any number of fine contemporary novelists whom I love – Franzen, Coetzee, Hollinghurst, Amis, Mantel, Proux, Ishiguro, Roth – to illustrate again the happy, rich and textured difference. But there's simply not enough space. Our culture is ever more congested – for lots of good reasons as well as bad. There's huge pressure on books, particular pressure on fiction, and the most pressure of all on literary fiction. And yet, the English language, not football, is our greatest gift to the world. So, if we are to save our excellence in this from its slow extinction, then we simply have to find a way to bring the finest writers of the language more often to the attention of the carriages of people up and down the country who are evidently still willing and able to buy novels for the journey. Because right now – as you read this – they are being subjected to an atrociously bad (and translated) exchange between character A and character B on a broken-down Swedish boat about the establishment of a Polish industry for the manufacture of packaging foodstuffs. Surely they deserve better. No?

Edward Docx's latest novel, The Devil's Garden, is published by Picador in April

message 3: by João (last edited Dec 15, 2010 08:09PM) (new)

João Camilo (jcamilo) | 259 comments The first one is plain dumb. There is plenty of good writers that used simple language. Robert Louis Stevenson is not James Joyce. People do not love bad reading, they are raped by massive consuption of books that must be produced every month.

The second one assume the existence of a genre named fiction. Apparently, the writer have not even culture enough to know the name of Borges's most famous book.

message 4: by Matt, e-monk (new)

Matt Comito | 386 comments Mod
I think you got it exactly backwards

message 5: by João (new)

João Camilo (jcamilo) | 259 comments Please enlight me. The first text make me always wonder that I could write the entire literature section of Guardian withou having to even use my memory. It is dull, based on bookshelves selling, not thinking at all.
The second(first) has pleasure arguing about nothing. The genre fiction only exists in library and lists of book-sellers. Literature has nothing to do with that.

message 6: by João (new)

João Camilo (jcamilo) | 259 comments How come come Mike? Faulker was a mass market fiction writer - he charted in top 10 best selling books for quite a few years. But his books are not going to be good movies...

message 7: by Matt, e-monk (last edited Dec 17, 2010 05:37AM) (new)

Matt Comito | 386 comments Mod
Jcamilo wrote: "Please enlight me. The first text make me always wonder that I could write the entire literature section of Guardian withou having to even use my memory. It is dull, based on bookshelves selling, n..."

her argument is written in response to his and eviscerates several of his main points which in any event is either a pedantic exercise in arguing the obvious (literary fiction is of higher quality) or a tiresome jeremiad on non-existent ills (i.e. as she points out most people read either or both as the mood takes them and that's ok)

and btw as a stylist I prefer Raymond Chandler to Martin Amis any day of the week

message 8: by Matt, e-monk (new)

Matt Comito | 386 comments Mod
Mike wrote: "Thanks for posting the two articles, Matt, particularly the Docx; if you still have the links handy, I'd like to check out the responses (if any) to them both. I've been caught up in discussions of..."

message 9: by Robert (last edited Dec 17, 2010 12:06PM) (new)

Robert Corbett (robcrowe00) | 169 comments Dan Brown is unbearable in all its manifestations, but it goes quickly. Let's say he is a bad Eco of Eco.

Stylistic critique of Larsson is appropriate, but recall that he wrote in Swedish. And to the Docx point about narrative rhythm, many people disagree. I'd add that some of us groove on the details and minutiae. It's not art, but as entertainment is far and away better than brown. The big diff btw Larsson and Brown is that the first's world is recognizably tied to ours (as well to Henning Mankell). Brown's is complete fairytale.

message 10: by João (new)

João Camilo (jcamilo) | 259 comments Mike wrote: "I'm not sure what you're asking here. Faulkner may have enjoyed some success as a best-selling author, but I think it's a stretch to say he was a mass market fiction writer (same for McCarthy, Morr..."

The point is not that there is no difference between between Borges and Allende, the point is that is a red flag. The difference between Borges and Allende is not this fictional genre "fiction" or popularity (not only Faulkner was popular, but Charles Dickens and Alexandre Dumas too) but how well they do it. Fiction is just a division in bookstores. Borges is not there most likely because he is in the classic shelves. It is not a real genre, it does not have sets or limitation, rules or anything else. What is that put appart Dan Brown and other authors of mistery fiction? Borges, Chesterton, Poe, Chandler, Umberto Eco? The so called limitations of the genre or the limitation of the author? The popularity of the author or his incapacity to write better?

Then, of course I noticed it is a reply, but Laura Miller just missed the point. The strawman is not this, is reckoning this genre. She even seems to imply that only Amis stylized prose is good writting. Geez, Lewis Carroll wrote for children, his style a hundred times more complex than Hemingway. Than Brown. Than Borges. And children read it. People do not like bad reading, they buy what is in the book shelves.

message 11: by Christy (new)

Christy (christybuttons) | 19 comments I hope no one minds if I just resurrect this thread to ask for help on an issue related to bad writing...

Here is my problem: EVERYONE around here is freaking out about how great 50 Shades of Grey is and insisting I read it IMMEDIATELY! It's no secret I'm an avid reader and now every woman I know is asking what I thought of this particular trilogy and offering me her copy. I don't want to offend them by stating "I can't be bothered to read this since I've heard it was the worst shit writing ever to hit the best sellers list". I have no problem with any genre or even the subject of this novel, I just can't stand poor writing and I really can't stand wasting my time.

How do you handle when people push a book on you like this?

I'm actually considering starting lie and agreeing how great is was just to kill the issue, but I'm not a very good liar and that just seems wrong.

message 12: by Patty, free birdeaucrat (new)

Patty | 896 comments Mod
I just say that I haven't gotten around to it yet, and that the stack of books by my bed is already enormous, but that I'm sure I'll get around to it someday. Sure, it's a fib, but it's a little one, and it effectively puts people off until they've moved on to the next greatest thing they've ever read.

message 13: by Dan, deadpan man (new)

Dan | 641 comments Mod
Patty you are so diplomatic! I think I may adapt this manner of dealing with the new greatest book syndrome. Usually I am pretty blunt (or a jerk depending on your viewpoint) when dealing with this type of situation.

message 14: by Christy (new)

Christy (christybuttons) | 19 comments I've been taking pretty much the same approach as you Patty, but part of me wants to be more like Dan.

message 15: by Adrian (new)

Adrian | 253 comments An acquaintance gave me a Dan Brown paperback last year. I read the first couple of pages and realized I wasn't going to be able to finish it, so I glanced at the synopsis on the back cover and planned to say the story looked exciting and that I'd get back to it after reading the mountain of books I had already bought. I try not to be rude. But I'm glad the acquaintance was transferred to another state before he asked about the book.

How do you respond if a writer gives you a wretched manuscript and wants an opinion (i.e., excessive praise)?

message 16: by Kerry, flame-haired janeite (new)

Kerry Dunn (kerryanndunn) | 887 comments Mod
I'm more like Dan. I've been telling people that I can't be bothered to read a series of books that started out as Twilight Fan Fiction.

Which is kinda funny because I did actually read all the Twilight books. I mostly hated them, although there were small glimpses of...something...the way she captured that obsessive teen feeling. I remember that feeling and Meyer did manage to convey it. But then she would use the same adjective 100 times and drive me nuts. And I HATED the last book and the way she ended the series. ABSOLUTELY LOATHED IT and the message it gave to young women. Ok, no more. I can't talk about Twilight because I'm going to get all ranty.

Anyway...about 50 Shades of Grey. Just be honest and tell people you don't want to spend your precious reading time on something you have no interest in.

message 17: by Ben, uneasy in a position of power; a yorkshire pudding (new)

Ben Loory | 241 comments Mod
whenever anyone tries to make me read something i don't have any interest in, i just say "oh, is it good?" and then let them talk about it for an hour until they get bored and wander off. then the next time someone starts talking to me about it, i just say "yeah, i hear it's good." i find most problems in life can be avoided by just standing there and nodding like an idiot.

message 18: by Dan, deadpan man (new)

Dan | 641 comments Mod
I think i've been on the receiving end of that nod. you've let your secret out!

message 19: by Ben, uneasy in a position of power; a yorkshire pudding (new)

Ben Loory | 241 comments Mod

message 20: by Regan (new)

Regan | 28 comments Ben wrote: "then the next time someone starts talking to me about it, i just say "yeah, i hear it's good." ..."

So much politer than I am. I'm more prone to say "Oh, I heard that was terrible!"

Though in the case of Fifty Shades of Grey I heard it was such tripe that I had to see for myself, so I tracked down a section of the original fan-fic on the internet. So now I can say how appalling I think it is without the hearsay.

As for Dan Brown, I read The Da Vinci Code and I stayed up late into the night finishing it. Any book that millions of people can't put down thing can hardly be called "bad". It's not great poetry, but if it's so riveting that people stay up until 3am to finish, it's obviously got something going for it.

I also happen to think that Steig Larrson is a much better writer than Brown, and it's a bit insulting to class the two of them together.

And I've read plenty of classics and contemporary "psychological" lit that made me want to put an ice pick in my head out of boredom.

So how exactly are we defining "good" and "bad"?

message 21: by Kerry, flame-haired janeite (new)

Kerry Dunn (kerryanndunn) | 887 comments Mod
Dan wrote: "I think i've been on the receiving end of that nod. you've let your secret out!"

I was thinking the same thing!!!! Haha Ben!

message 23: by Keith (new)

Keith Dixon (keithwdixon) | 44 comments i love this thread. patty, your "next greatest thing" line made me do a spit-take with my tea.

as for the propositions at the top of the list -- aren't both docx and miller wrong? i think they're mistaken in focusing on the language, or even the question of quality. docx is particularly misguided in positioning himself as a "defender of the english language" by...suppressing reading? i mean, come on! not as if these people would be reading joyce if they weren't reading "50 shades" -- they'd be reading people magazine!

most readers are largely ignorant of where to FIND quality -- much like an inexperienced shopper wandering the aisles of a wine store, trying to find a good buy.

that's the whole point -- i must once again cite my friend mr. amis, who pointed out that people tend to join into these mass-readings for no other reason than the "illusion of shared experience."

they don't want to read it because it's good, or because the language is particularly musical.

they want to read it because their friend read it, and they feel left out.

message 24: by Matt, e-monk (new)

Matt Comito | 386 comments Mod
still not sure how Miller is wrong Keith

message 25: by Keith (new)

Keith Dixon (keithwdixon) | 44 comments she states that people are actually choosing these books because they are poorly written - written with prose that is hackneyed, cliched, and therefore somehow comforting.

whereas i have doubts that millions upon millions (literally) flock to these books because of the submlime shiver of pleasure they gain from reading phrases like "it was bitterly cold," and "all hell broke loose."

the reason people flock to these books is because their friends all flocked to these books, and they don't want to feel like the odd man out.

(a parallel: i hate facebook. everyone i know hates facebook. yet we all flock to facebook...because everyone is on facebook.)

docx says people read these books because they aren't respecting the english language. miller says people read these books because they enjoy familiar cliches and such.
i think they're both missing the point entirely: people read these books because everyone else is reading them.

message 26: by Matt, e-monk (new)

Matt Comito | 386 comments Mod
I think you are over/mis-stating her point

I dont think she's saying that the unliterary choose a book because of its prose (good bad or indifferent)

they choose a story and expect from the prose only that it not challenge them or make them work

and Im not at all sure that 'peer pressure' is any better an explanation of the mass popularity of some books

message 27: by Regan (new)

Regan | 28 comments I don't know that it's peer pressure so much as water cooler discussion that they want to be in on. Millions of people watch Dancing with the Stars, not because it's good, but because everyone is talking about it and they want in on the conversation.

I agree that people aren't choosing books because they're bad. I think it's because they're looking for entertainment and are think the high brow stuff that was crammed down their throats in high school English is boring.

Most of the groups I'm in here on GR are full of people reading schlock pulp fiction of various genres, and they genuinely like what they're reading. They read as much (often more) as people reading higher quality stuff; they avidly recommend things they liked and criticize things they didn't. I don't think they think it's bad and I'm guessing if I challenged them on it they would defend it and think I'm a snob (I am, but that's another discussion).

To be honest, these readers concern me a whole lot more than people who liked The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. No, it isn't Hemingway, but it's not (despite Docx claim's) a bad book. And it's a whole hell of a lot better than what I see lots of people reading.

message 28: by Keith (new)

Keith Dixon (keithwdixon) | 44 comments ...For some reason this thread has me thinking of Philip K. Dick...I read that guy's stuff and it really stirs up my brain, and it certainly holds me enrapt...but BOY that guy cannot write.

i think he's an original case because usually cliches of the pen go hand in hand with cliches of the heart and mind. (to steal again from my friend mr. amis.) that is to say, i find that people who write lines like "it was bitterly cold" also tend to write about, say, hookers who have a heart of gold, and mobsters looking to pull the perfect heist, and the fact that while one can't live women, one also, paradoxically, cannot live without them, etc.

whereas PKD is this special case -- i found his writing to be pretty stock, but his thoughts were absolutely fresh and original.

message 29: by Pavel (new)

Pavel Kravchenko (pavelk) | 96 comments You know, capitalized BOY is pretty cliche :D

Seriously though, I definitely disagree about PKD being a bad writer. He may not have been a great stylist. He didn't write long beautiful sentences. He used adverbs. But he definitely could write. I feel the use of adverbs was more of an impatience thing with him, rather than cliche. And can adverbs really be called cliche in the first place? I think it's a pretty long leap from "He said angrily" to "A hooker with a heart of gold."

PKD's writing makes me think of the word "adolescent," as opposed to maybe Tolstoy's "mature," but is it bad? No, I don't think so.

message 30: by Maureen, mo-nemclature (last edited Nov 13, 2012 11:23PM) (new)

Maureen (modusa) | 683 comments Mod
i really hope emonk argues with me! it's been too long!

bad writer/good writer does not equal genre writer/literary writer. full stop.

a list of novels published in 1897 on the wikipedia here:

The Adventures of Mabel
An Antarctic Mystery
Captains Courageous
The Celebrity
Equality (novel)
The Fruits of the Earth
The Gadfly
Gladys in Grammarland
Inferno (Strindberg)
The Invisible Man
Liza of Lambeth
The Nigger of the 'Narcissus'
Pursuit of the House-Boat
The Spoils of Poynton
St. Ives (novel)
The Story of Ab
The Sundering Flood
To Venus in Five Seconds
Two Planets
The Water of the Wondrous Isles
The Well-Beloved
What Maisie Knew
The Year 3,000

at a quick glance, for famous literary novelists, I see joseph conrad and henry james, and rudyard kipling. I would say both conrad and kipling are strong mythologists. then arguably the most famous books on the list number two, h.g. wells' the invisible man, and the most famous and most remembered of all these novels: Dracula. Dracula! And there it is all over again. Dracula is not a great novel and bram stoker was not a great writer but he spun out a resonant myth, an idea that is bigger than the writing, that compels a lot of people.

da vinci code: how is that not a great idea? a lot of people couldn't help staring at a book that said that jesus got down with mary magdalene and this is what happened. i wanted to write a book in a similar vein and was angry when it came out because he stole my idea. so people can't get over the idea because they never thought of it in advance of dan brown and want to know all about what happens next. what happens next is key because it goes back to the curiousity in the reader, and docx deciding what is best for other people, and saying it matters more than the best burger, which for some might be a tremendously big deal, the way that successful bad writing is annoying to him because he is a writer. i don't see how that has anything to do with what category we're slotting a book in today. the books i find most meaningful, most worthy of my attention are edifying to me. the stylists vary, as does the genius (i'm hanging on to my trixie beldens for dear life over here), but always seeking that imprinting voice of a novel that blooms within me, that is new but somehow familiar, and very right.

but novels imprint on us all according to our predilections, and compulsions. is there something in western? global? society that still loves the vampire? clearly. there are people out there who swoon for franzen to roth, for docx's range. some people are reading books because everyone else is, and want to tell you to read them. if somebody asked me to read fifty shades of grey, i'd tell them it's not my brand of erotica, by the way. :) a lot more people love bondage now. at least more than i previously thought. :) in general for recommendations, i am happy to hear them. but if they don't sound interesting, i will just go on and on about the rockford files, and how like greek tragedy some of the episodes are, and then that generally nips things in the bud. (oh no! cliche!) too bad for them about the rockford files though because it's fascinating really. :P

what were we talking about again?

oh, right. now i want to take keith back of the alley, for fisticuffs at dawn. except i can't really because i just said it's all about predilections and society. :)

bulwer-lytton sold tons of books in his day. everybody makes fun of him now. i didn't think the last days of pompeii was that bad.

i said (all this, i know!) all this, knowing full well how little i personally was rewarded by reading the stieg larsson books. the few kernels: i learned how incredulous i could be when reading a novel, and it confirmed my belief that the need to know what is going to happen in the book is the main hook in a lot of successful mainstream fiction. it surpasses everything, curiousity. and better served, if extended in a series of books. three, or seven, or five, series fiction is very popular -- i think it's been growing for the last twenty years. it's like watching tv or film in book form. and everything has a sequel.

and i can holler anathema all i like (and i do!) about books i don't like, but i can't say what's best for other people to read, especially if it is rocking their socks. screw that, docx dude. :)

message 31: by Adrian (new)

Adrian | 253 comments Maureen wrote: "and i can holler anathema all i like (and i do!) about books i don't like, but i can't say what's best for other people to read..."

That's nice, because I'll be damned if I'm going to read the 1897 children's book Gladys in Grammarland.

According to Wiki:"In this story, Gladys becomes sleepy after class and finds that a Verb Fairy has taken an interest in her education."

Well, we all know how that is going to end.

message 32: by Margaret (new)

Margaret (gwyneira) | 8 comments Maureen wrote: "(i'm hanging on to my trixie beldens for dear life over here)"

Kindred spirit! I mean, IAW everything else you said, but especially that. :)

Also, I would read Gladys in Grammarland like a shot, if only I could get an e-book of it. I think it would be perfect for my upcoming long plane trip. I feel that a Verb Fairy should take an interest in everyone's education. Also an Its/It's and Your/You're Fairy.

message 33: by Adrian (new)

Adrian | 253 comments Mo's diabolical 1897 scheme has claimed its first victim. Be prepared to perform the Verb Fairy dance at the next Dork.

Gladys leads back to this book, which is more interesting to me: Alternative Alices: Visions And Revisions Of Lewis Carroll's Alice Books: An Anthology

message 34: by Dan, deadpan man (new)

Dan | 641 comments Mod
I think if we are worried about the opinion of a guy who shares his name with a Microsoft Word file type (.docx) we are in a lot of trouble.

message 35: by Patty, free birdeaucrat (new)

Patty | 896 comments Mod
Adrian, I hope that you plan to come to the dork and teach us the dance. I'll pay extra for that.

message 36: by Maureen, mo-nemclature (new)

Maureen (modusa) | 683 comments Mod
adrian! shall we brawl over gladys? because i think you could show that verb fairy a few moves. and how did you know i was preparing a dance mix for the dork? i'm with patty: you need to come and show us your can-can, and your cha-cha. :)

the alice book looks fascinating. maybe i should send it to alan moore in light of the whole "before watchmen" hubbub. :P

dan: i take microsoft word very seriously. not a surprise to me his name is not edward appleworks5.

Margaret wrote: "Kindred spirit! I mean, IAW everything else you said, but especially that. :)

Also, I would read Gladys in Grammarland like a shot, if only I could get an e-book of it. I think it would be perfect for my upcoming long plane trip. I feel that a Verb Fairy should take an interest in everyone's education. Also an Its/It's and Your/You're Fairy."

can we please add the aw vs awe fairy?

and hurray for your abiding love for trixie! my favourite book about her is the happy valley mystery (in which she gets the silver ID bracelet from jim that i still covet), though it's closely followed by mystery in arizona (where i learned how to pronounce the gila in gila monster) and the mystery on cobbett's island which had that nice sailor boy, pete. also memorable is the hudson valley mystery, which thankfully informed me one can get poisoned by the cyanide in appleseeds in waldorf salad, and which sustained my belief that eating fruit was not for me. :)

have you noticed that there is some musician who goes by the name dan mangan? i don't think he's the real dan mangan. :)

message 37: by Margaret (new)

Margaret (gwyneira) | 8 comments Maureen wrote: "also memorable is the hudson valley mystery, which thankfully informed me one can get poisoned by the cyanide in appleseeds in waldorf salad, and which sustained my belief that eating fruit was not for me. :)"

I think about that one practically every time I cut up an apple and see the seeds! I also love the Queen's Necklace, because England!, and Old Telegraph Road, because it was the first one I read for some reason. I had the quiz books and everything.

I just Googled him, and that guy is so not emo-looking enough to be the real Dan Mangan. :)

message 38: by Adrian (new)

Adrian | 253 comments If you ladies want my dancing services, you'll have to fight my insurance company. I visited my grandfather in Athens, Greece last year and returned to discover that I was being billed $12,000 for medical expenses. I've been officially grounded until this is resolved. If I were allowed to travel, I could be living in L. A. by now and writing scripts for Eric Roberts & Pia Zadora.

Si(Mo)ne, I don't have a copy of Alternative Alices to send you, but you may get a '60s back issue of Creepy or Eerie if I can get organized around here. :P

message 39: by Regan (new)

Regan | 28 comments I'm in love with Gladys in Grammarland just for the title.

While we're at it can we get that Fairy working on misuse of apostrophes in plurals?

message 40: by Martha (new)

Martha Kate | 198 comments A - please promise that we can hold a Dorkapalooza that will be endorsed by your insurance company sometime in the near future. I adore both verbs and fairies.

Sadly, while the writing wasn't actually BAD, it was far inferior to his books that I have loved in the past - Denis Johnson's Train Dreams was a disappointment.

Mo - are you coming in July? I would do anything within my power to make it so.

message 41: by Adrian (new)

Adrian | 253 comments Martha wrote: "A - please promise that we can hold a Dorkapalooza that will be endorsed by your insurance company sometime in the near future. I adore both verbs and fairies..."

Martha, my love, this is the second time in the last few years that I've been entangled in one of these insurance battles and it's making me paranoid about leaving the house. I want to try relocating in the Portland area next year, so maybe things will start improving then.

I see that you've succumbed to Mo's Verb Fairy conspiracy! She won't be happy until all of you are flitting around in pastel wings & tutus!

Just mentioning Denis Johnson makes me want to reread Jesus' Son.

message 42: by Regan (new)

Regan | 28 comments Adrian wrote: "I see that you've succumbed to Mo's Verb Fairy conspiracy! She won't be happy until all of you are flitting around in pastel wings & tutus!"

I think I want my Verb Fairy to be more like a combat boot-wearing Puck.

message 43: by Maureen, mo-nemclature (new)

Maureen (modusa) | 683 comments Mod
adrian! i am sorry about your financial difficulties but am envious about athens and your papou! had i known you were going i would have made sure you earned a bunch of coin by throwing together some impromptu performances of the selected greek tragedy scenes of the rockford files! you would have cleaned up -- i can already see the tragic mask for gandolph fitch (character played by isaac hayes!!!).

smartykate! i have been coy these past days but i can confirm that i am making a dance mix because i will also be coming to the dork this year so we can overpower them without our laughs! i am so excited to meet you finally! though vexed that adrian won't be there to jeuje my black swan tutu. :P i'll be there from the monday 23rd to sunday morning the 29th. :) i probably should have written that in the dork '12 thread. i would prefer people not bring us back on topic by critiquing the worthiness of the bad writing in these two paragraphs. :P


message 44: by Kerry, flame-haired janeite (new)

Kerry Dunn (kerryanndunn) | 887 comments Mod
I really need to read Jesus' Son.

YAY MO! I'm so glad I get to see you this year! I even have a present for you and although I know how nice it is to receive mail, I might make you suffer the wait and bring it to the Dork and give it to you in person instead.


message 45: by Patty, free birdeaucrat (new)

Patty | 896 comments Mod
Jesus Son!

Now there is an example of how taste comes into the question of good/bad writing. Jesus Son isn't to my taste at all (I hated, even resented this book), but I recognized that it was good writing. Can't we assert the same kind of quality judgements about bad writing? I sometimes love bad writing. Which doesn't (I hope) say anything about my intelligence or my love of good writing. I think that we can, yes, call some writing bad without fear of accidentally wounding the feelings of people who like it. I love potato chips, but if you tell me it's junk food, I won't deny it.

p.s. what bothered me about the da vinci code was more the fault of its readership than of the book, namely that its readershiop thought it was such an original and I thought it was so incredibly cliched!

message 46: by Kerry, flame-haired janeite (new)

Kerry Dunn (kerryanndunn) | 887 comments Mod
Patty! This is off topic, but I just want to say that I'm so happy and touched to see you using the photo I took of you and Gertrude Stein as your profile picture! You are TOO CUTE!

message 47: by Dan, deadpan man (new)

Dan | 641 comments Mod
I too have been meaning to read Jesus' Son for some time. So I am going to start this instant since I'm at work and the library has a copy.


message 48: by Regan (last edited Jun 21, 2012 10:27PM) (new)

Regan | 28 comments More on "guilty pleasure" reading from the NYT:

We often appeal to relativism as a general theory to soothe incipient disputes about the relative value of “serious” and “popular” genres. If a friend and I are verging on an uncomfortable dispute about the merits of literary fiction compared to mysteries or thrillers, we may avoid conflict by saying, “Different people just like different things; we shouldn’t try to impose our views on others.” But once we return to our preferred genres, we are perfectly happy to make strong judgments about, say, the superiority of David Mitchell to Jonathan Franzen or of Raymond Chandler to Mickey Spillane. Regarding the books we really care about, few of us are relativists about quality.

message 49: by Patty, free birdeaucrat (new)

Patty | 896 comments Mod
hey, you know the sex game thread? maybe we could play the good/bad writing game. the only difference would be that there wouldn't be a diffinitive "correct" answer. i'll start.

good or bad?

"So she was a big creamy bitch standing beside me in her tailored tight pants, and suddenly she was fallen cooling meat, and it was too damned fast. I had seen dead women. I had seen sudden expected death, and sudden unexpected death, but never before the sudden and unexpected death of a handsome woman."

message 50: by Elizabeth, bubbles (new)

Elizabeth (RedBrick) | 221 comments Mod
Patty wrote: "hey, you know the sex game thread? maybe we could play the good/bad writing game. the only difference would be that there wouldn't be a diffinitive "correct" answer. i'll start.

good or bad?

"So ..."


This thread is so perfectly funny. We should capitalize on these 50 shades and DaVinci Code / sexy Jesus market trends.

Let's collaborate to write "50 Shades of Pray" so we can pay off everyone's future Dorkapalooza accommodations and whatever it takes to include Adrian.

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