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Fear and Loathing, Fear and Trembling, Something or the Other

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I’ve been having a very distracted week–it’s a long story, and I’m not going to go into it–but in the midst of it all I’ve been thinking about two things:  bad writing, and con men.

By bad writing  now, I’m not referring to student writing.  Student writing is often truly deplorable, but it tends to be bad because it’s a mess.  The bad writing I’m talking about often gets published, and consists of SO DAMNED MUCH DETAIL YOU WANT TO KILL SOMEBODY/

Okay, sorry for shouting.

I just read through a manuscript partial in which every single person, place and thing was meticulous described.  I didn’t just find out that Sarah was a “cool red head,” I found out that she was “five foot seven with a slim, taught body, blazing red hair and eyes as blue as Lake Tahoe” who “intoned threateningly” and “tossed her head nervously.”

Nothing anybody did, anywhere, went without a descriptive phrase.  Ever. 

I often tell myself that the reason for the bad writing I get from my students is that they don’t actually read, so they have nothing to model their own prose on.

But in this case, that won’t work.  The person who wrote this thing almost certainly reads a great deal, although it might be restricted to books of a very limited kind.  But I’ve read those books, too, and I know they aren’t written like this.  No publisher would touch such a thing, and I’m willing to bet that even this writer wouldn’t read it.  There are so many details, so many qualifying words, scattered everywhere, that it’s difficult to get any sense of what’s going on.

And the effect is exactly the opposite of what one would expect in setting the scene–with so much detail presented so relentlessly, it’s almost impossible to get any impression at all of what characters and scenes look like.

I know a fair number of people who turn out to be very good writers do this sort of thing when they’re young, and in that case it tends to be–as it was for me–insecurity about your ability to write at all.

I expect that could be what it is here, but since this writer is not, as far as I know, very young, I have to wonder if what we’ve got is simply a complete lack of ear–a sort of tone deafness for prose. 

And there’s a lot of it out there.  I can name at least a couple of best selling writers who have not only tin ears, but really awful tin ears.  They don’t make this kind of mistake, but they make others, and I can’t read them.

But millions of people can, and millions of people seem to prefer what they write to things that are written well. 

I know it’s common for practitioners to complain that the public has all its taste in its mouth, but it seems to me that with writing, writers and the public are largely at odds.   In fact, talking strictly about the writing–the music of the prose,  not the story, or the plot, or the characterization, or whatever–it sometimes seems to me that many readers actually prefer to bad stuff.

And no, I’m not talking about something that is entirely subjective, but about the proper and effective use of the English language, which can be codified in many ways. 

There’s a version of this in academia–academics not only write very bad prose, but they tend to prefer prose in fiction that has been drained nearly bloodless.  If you ever have the misfortune to be saddled with a textbook for the standard Freshman English course these days, what you’ll find is not selections of short stories and poetry, but lots of short little, understated, “thoughful” essays on one topic after another, giving the impression that every single human experience–from missing a birthday party in fourth grade to being a witness to genocide–elicits the same sad, wistful little sigh meant to indicate that the experience has been “deeply felt.”

I kind of get this with academics. One of the reasons why I am constantly protesting the tendency to identity “intellectuals” as “people working in universities” is that schools–and I don’t care what schools, and possibly especially high-end schools (for reasons I may get around to in another post)–tend to be highly conformist.  All that “thoughtful, deeply felt” prose is the equivalent of being neat, handing your work in on time, and always being careful to behave “appropriately.”

But the tendency of people who are not academics to like clunky, painfully atonal prose is beyond me.  As I said before, I’m not talking here about a love of story, but of a tendency to prefer a story badly written than the same one written well. 

If it was a matter of content, it would make a certain amount of sense. 

But it isn’t, as far as I can tell.

I think something similar to this happens in painting.  There’s an enormous market out there for very bad Catholic devotional art–people seem to prefer it to painting of the same subjects (the Annunciation, the Nativity, that kind of thing) done by masters like Michaelangelo and Raphael.

I don’t know, maybe I’m complaining about nothing–maybe this is the equivalent, in art, to why the most popular girl in high school is always the “cute” one, while the class’s one true beauty can’t get a date to save her life. 

But it’s depressing.

Written by janeh

November 12th, 2009 at 12:05 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

6 Responses to 'Fear and Loathing, Fear and Trembling, Something or the Other'

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  1. It may just be a matter of what people are used to. When I was a kid, I just loved Nancy Drew, and read every one I could get my hands on. I went back & reread one as an adult for a class, & was astonished at how badly written it was. I had obviously found & become accustomed to better writers over the years–maybe some people aren’t so fortunate. Or maybe tin ears are the norm.

    There always seems to be a larger market for kitsch than for art. Look at the way Thomas Kinkade is cleaning up on his semi-custom paintings, or all those ads in the magazines for the “collector plates” (Bradford Mint, or something like that.) Looking back to the chubby cherubs of Victorian times, followed by Currier & Ives, it doesn’t look to me like much has changed.

    Lee B

    12 Nov 09 at 4:17 pm

  2. It’s been a rough week here, too. Do we HAVE to do objective excellence in the arts vs the poor taste of the rubes again? I refuse to assent to the generalization, and will consider only specified examples.

    I will say, as I have said before, that while some prose is objectively bad–haphazard spelling, poor grammar, inconsistent character development or losing track of plot lines–I remain unconvinced that competently done prose fiction–or music, or art–has an objective order of merit. We have preferences based on vocabulary, experience, prior reading and our understanding of people and the world, among many other things.

    Limited or extensive vocabulary, slow plot development or “don’t blink or you’ll miss it” few assumptions of prior knowledge against an obscure reference in every paragraph–these greatly affect how we ragard a piece of fiction, and it’s no surprise that decades of reading can alter our tastes. But one is not “better” than another like a scale of hardness or an account balance.

    As for “kitsch” vs Art, I would fill every wall of this place with Norman Rockwell or Thomas Kinkade (Sp?) before I admitted a Pollock, a Picasso or a Warhol, let alone a rotting shark or a dung Madonna. Unlike our artistic establishment, I have standards.


    12 Nov 09 at 5:26 pm

  3. I don’t know, Robert. I’d put the contents of the litterbox up before I put up a Thomas Kinkade picture. Those give me hives.

    Standards are subjective.


    12 Nov 09 at 7:54 pm

  4. Years of selecting and acquiring books and then being able to discuss them with library users– which involves reading reviews, scanning jacket blurbs and a few pages of each selection– have removed any surprise or shock at what is printed commercially much less what makes it to bestseller lists. Now, it’s more a puzzle to be solved: plot? characters? genre? setting? subject? popularity of the author? quality of prose? strange and different? Some of the books I glance through leave Bulwer-Lytton looking mighty fine.


    12 Nov 09 at 8:13 pm

  5. Robert likes (shudder) Thomas Kinkade. Some readers like (shudder) Tom Clancy. I’d rather chew tinfoil than present either to my eyeballs. Yet Kinkade is the only “artist” (yes, imagine me making air quotes there) I can think of that has whole mall stores devoted to him and no one else that actually make money.

    I’d like to think that there is room enough in the world of art for the hacks the plebes like, and the high-brows the critics say they like, and the actual artists who actually have something worthwhile to say, even if they say it in fine craft rather than high art.

    Tastes in music vary. Tastes in the music of language likewise vary. Is it really of cosmic importance that more people like limericks than haiku? That some readers prefer to be led by the hand through the Garden of Overused Adjectives, while others revel in spare, concise prose?

    I’m not of the opinion that bad drives out good, in art. There are enough people and their tastes are varied enough there’s room for everyone. Last weekend I drove past innumerable church parking lots filled with Xmas craft fairs, full to the brim with tat and grot. I was on my way to the Santa Monica Artist’s Market, where truly fine art & craft was on offer, along with a modicum of stuff I’d never let over my threshold. Yet I bet more total money was spent on crocheted Santa toilet paper covers than all the sculpture, painting and ceramics at the Art Market together.

    So? The world, including art & literature, is always going to hell in a handbasket. Always has been. The ancient Greeks grumbled about it. Yet we’re still here. Wonderful works of art are still being produced. If everything *had* to be high-art perfection, there’d be mighty few works at all…and nobody would have invented The Simpsons.


    13 Nov 09 at 1:21 am

  6. Does no one here READ? I am not a Kinkade fan. I merely said he was vastly better than three named “serious” artists–not much of a compliment, as far as I’m concerned.

    But when we go around denouncing the bad taste of other people–never present company, of course–we get nowhere. We can’t for practical purposes refer to accepted critical standards, because the critical gatekeepers went over to the enemy before I was born. If someone wants to say “I love this painter, musician or writer, and here’s why” well enough. But spare me unexplained sneering at the taste of the rubes. There are people making good money as art critics–or holding down university teaching positions–I wouldn’t let pick out my bath towels, and items selling as “high art” that should be disposed of by hazmat teams.


    14 Nov 09 at 2:08 pm

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