Sunday, June 16, 2013

About Story, Craft, Context and "Bad" Writng

A couple of days ago someone on a writer's email loop lamented that a lot of "bad" writing was very popular. They mentioned several examples. I responded with this. Someone suggested I post this to my blog. So, here it is. 

Actually, "bad" writing, all too often, is considered "bad" simply because we don't like it. The problem with that approach is that it ignores the fact that other people do. For them it's "good" writing. 

"Quality" itself (as academics, critics and esthetes define it) is not enough for a novel to be compelling enough to be popular. "Craft" is not enough either. Being able to find the exact right word or following all the "rules" about avoiding passive voice, wordiness and adverbs. So, then, what does make a novel compelling enough for a significant number of people to read it? 

It begins with a story

First, writing tells a story. If the story is compelling, and, if we can care about the characters, we will forgive the occasional foul up. Look, we forgive Shakespeare for having a clock in ancient Rome or aging Hamlet something like 10 years in a couple of days. Why? Because the story is so incredibly good. Dickens' long expositions and coincidences would be panned
mercilessly in most modern critique groups, but those characters like Fagan, Scrooge, Pickwick, Fezziwig and Little Nell keep us reading. 

A story is not simply the sum of its parts. Indeed, it is not even just the creation of the author. A reading experience exists at the intersection of the author, the text, the reader and the social context. In that sense, there is not one story but six billion possible stories. 

The Importance of Context

The same story, read by the same person separated by a number of years can produce a entirely different experience. It's not fiction, but the example that comes to mind is Robert Frost's famous poem about the "Road not Taken." That last haunting stanza:

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence
Two roads diverged within a wood and I
I took the one less traveled by
And that has made all the difference. 

I first met that poem in high school where many roads with many intersections were before me. At that time, it was a cautionary tale, something to consider as I made the choices in front of me. 

In other words, I lived that poem in the first stanza. Now, 50 years later, most of those roads are behind me. I have "trodden black" most of the leaves on those roads, and taken my fair share of those "less traveled by," and I am living in the last stanza. My experience of that poem is not anticipatory, but nostalgic. It is a different poem for me now than it was then. 

The same can be said of Poe, Asimov, Wells, Verne, Clark, Simak, Tolkein and all the other literary loves of my youth. Even some of the books I, now, look at and wonder how they ever got published were precious to me then. The craft may not have been there, but the story was and it took me somewhere other than the dismal place I lived. 

I may not like or even approve morally of something like Dan Brown's conspiracy theory based books or the explicit 50 Shades of Gray, but they do speak to something within a person that evokes a sense of wonder and adventure. Once we replace story with "craft" we lose our audience. Ideally, we should have both, but story must always come first. And if the story does not take us out of the ordinary, it will never sell. 


  1. Replies
    1. Wonderful, insightful post--thank you, Terri!

  2. My hobby horse. Thanks for getting on it, too. Good article.