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A Desperate–A Truly Desperate–Plea for Help

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Okay, sorry to do this, and sorry for the amount of shouting I’m about to do, but this is making me crazy.

Robert just posted a comment to today’s post, and in doing so, he did what about two thirds of the people who commented on the first post did–

He confused “standards for good and bad prose” with “standards for good and bad literature,” writing as if the two were the same thing, or as if they were so closely related as at least to be part of the same subject.

They’re not. 

It doesn’t take years of study to be able to recognize good prose.  It takes a decent eighth grade grammar and composition course.  The rules of English usage have been the same, with minor variations at the margins, for one and a half millenia.

But being able to recognize good prose DOES NOT MEAN that you will therefore be able to recognize great literature.

Some great literature is composed in good prose.  Some great literature is composed of actively bad prose. 

Knowing if Book X is written in good or bad prose WILL NOT tell you if Book X is great literature.

It’s as if you went about deciding if one of those bridge designs would work not by looking at the entire design, but by restricting your inquiries as to the place where the engineer intended to buy his steel.

Unless that happened to be a very, very bad place, you’d have uncovered no very useful information.

Written by janeh

November 14th, 2009 at 10:12 am

Posted in Uncategorized

7 Responses to 'A Desperate–A Truly Desperate–Plea for Help'

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  1. Doesn’t cut it.

    “Mary strode purposefully into the large, elegant living room, her four inch red spike heels clicking against the aged hardwood floors as her bright red hair bounced and swayed against the expensive confines of her Marie Callienda black felt hat.”

    That’s a perfectly valid English sentence, and any properly-trained 8th Grader could diagram it. In fact, it even looks like some of the exercise sentences from about that year.

    The problem isn’t that it’s ungrammatical: it’s that the darn thing is clunky, and “clunky,” like “bad prose” at least in this context, is a matter or taste. A shared aesthetic is not a fact.

    If you want me to beat up the author, I’ll go fetch a nerf bat or a blue pencil as seems appropriate. But let’s not confuse taste and fact.


    14 Nov 09 at 11:11 am

  2. OK. Had lunch, bought groceries, straightened up the living room (some.) Still mad. This started with

    “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 [the] bad stuff.”

    And then there was the usual piling on about the bad taste of the rubes. Shameful the way the people who read, love and buy books embarass English teachers and librarians. Sometimes I don’t think writers like us much either.

    I don’t know how things are done in New England and Florida, but in the Middle West, the Great Plains and the Upper South we can’t buy prose style seprately even in the university towns. It comes pre-mixed already in the book with characterization, plot, setting and philosophy. Even buying from Amazon, you have to get them all in these pre-mixed books. (Unless maybe Kindle?)

    So before I rant and rave about someone inconsiderately buying a book I would not care to read, I consider two things:

    1) It’s not a glitch, it’s a feature. Always ask yourself “is this truly better or worse, or is it just different?” The acceptable vocabulary and sentence structure, the workable complexity of plot and many other things about a work of prose fiction can be very different to meet the needs, desires and expectations of various readers without any choice being in an objective way better or worse than another.

    2) We do not all have the same score sheet. Appreciating a novel is not the same as scoring figure-skating or boxing where all the judges are told the Dismount is worth X points, or a body blow Y many. I keep all the Edgar Rice Burroughs “John Carter of Mars” books on my shelves, even though I mostly reread just THUVIA and CHESSMEN. I do not read them because I like incredible coincidences–OK, just once, in FIGHTING MAN OF MARS–but because ERB gets a lot of points for setting, headlong action and what Jane calls “narrative drive.” Someone whose score sheet gave less points for those and more for plausibility and detailed characterization would have THE SWEAT AND THE FURROW (Silas Weekley) on the shelf instead. Neither of us is wrong, though I wouldn’t care to share a commute with a Weekley fan.

    If someone is selling a ton of books which have some feature one intensely dislikes, would it not be appropriate to consider that they might be loved for some other feature, and not that the poor dumb readers prefer “bad” to “good?”


    14 Nov 09 at 2:41 pm

  3. There’s a difference between merely grammatically correct and good prose. If I’d handed that sentence in to my Grade 8 teacher, she’d probably have said ‘Very nice, Cheryl. Now, what could you do to get the same idea across in a better way?’

    I think of it a bit like food. Some people eat only junk food. Others eat food that’s healthier, or has more subtle or spicy tastes, or has no meat. Many like eating some junk food and some better food of various kinds. I do myself. I don’t kid myself that my beloved coke & chips are ‘good’ – either in some way measured by nutritionists or by any standard of taste – they’re tasty, if you like that kind of taste, but there’s no interest or subtley in the flavours provided. I know – and even sometimes eat – food that’s undoubtedly better for my health; I can sometimes detect and enjoy particularly cleverly selected combinations of flavours, but I doubt if I could distinguish between good and superb chocolate, for example, although I can generally identify really bad chocolate.

    I read a lot of junk, and I enjoy it (otherwise, I wouldn’t read it). It has characteristics I like. Some of it has so many characteristics I like I think the kind of prose in one is seriously undervalued by the book being lumped in with genre or popular fiction. That doesn’t bother me much, and I still think there’s a lot of really good writing out there, although I don’t venture much into the higher levels of fiction, particularly modern literary fiction. But I want to stick with my junk – even among those, as I said, there is a gradation. There is text that flows smoothly and unobtrusively – my favourite kind. And there’s the kind that is, well, clunky is as good a term as any. It doesn’t flow. I’m irritated by it because I start noticing it instead of the plot and the characters. It might be grammatically correct, but I don’t think it’s as good as the first kind, and I don’t think my dislike of it is merely a preference for a different style. There are ways to structure sentences so that they are not merely grammatically correct, but that they flow easily. Maybe the people who read a book written in bad prose can overlook the prose in favour of the plot or characters. I do myself if there isn’t too much bad prose. But that doesn’t make the bad prose into good prose.


    14 Nov 09 at 5:30 pm

  4. What I consider bad prose will prevent me from finishing a book containing it–or in one situation enjoying it, since I had to read it for a book discussion. For me, a terrific plot, even decent characterization or creating a strong sense of place doesn’t redeem a book with prose that makes me cringe and search for my tattered copy of Norton’s Anthology. THE ISLAND


    14 Nov 09 at 7:01 pm

  5. Oops, accidently posted. A member of my book discussion group suggested THE ISLAND by Victoria Hislop. I found it a fascinating story with excellent sense of place, decent characterization, and horrid prose, also poor dialog but that’s not the point.

    James Patterson, whose annual literary output is exceeded only by his considerable earnings, has a master’s degree in English from Vanderbilt. I don’t know Dan Brown’s background. I have never made it through a James Patterson. I did read THE DA VINCI CODE. Their prose is so unimaginative, full of cliches, limited word choice. But wow, do they sell.

    From A.E. Houseman’s “Terence, this is stupid stuff”
    oh, good Lord, the verse you make,
    It gives a chap the belly-ache.
    The cow, the old cow, she is dead;
    It sleeps well, the horned head:
    We poor lads, ’tis our turn now
    To hear such tunes as killed the cow.

    A page of good prose remains invincible.”
    —John Cheever

    Substitute “damn” every time you’re inclined to write “very;” your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be. ~Mark Twain

    To me, the greatest pleasure of writing is not what it’s about, but the inner music the words make. ~Truman Capote, McCall’s, November 1967


    14 Nov 09 at 7:32 pm

  6. Many times, the books I read have been highly recommend by others, including book critics and awards committees, as being “good prose” and containing the musical kind of sentence structure Jane is talking about. And yet…and yet. I find myself not finishing them. I can admire the turn of phrase here and there, on occasion, I find myself perceiving and admiring the quality of the prose, as prose. But the story doesn’t grab, the characters are dull and uninteresting, I end up giving up out of ennui.

    Last Xmas, my husband bought me 5 or 6 mystery/detective books that had all won prestigious awards. I finished two of them, and the Laura Lippman, which many people have admired, was one of those “I know this is well written, but it just doesn’t grab me” books.

    If prose is indeed a separable portion of a book, it is not enough to create a readable story. And for many people, poor sentence construction, the “clunky” kind of writing of the red-headed, red-heeled, expensively hatted woman variety, is either transparent or tolerable. They are *not* well enough trained to perceive what exactly is wrong with writing like that. They go for the narrative drive, the scandalous action, the characters that seem sympathetic.

    Or, and here’s the scary part, they see nothing wrong with that kind of prose because that’s how they *think* inside their heads. In clunky, lurid, wandering thoughts that focus on shallow, obvious details and never get to subtlety in a million years. They actively like that stuff. It’s familiar. To them, it IS good prose.

    My first husband loved Thomas Pychon. He would read me passages he particularly liked, and I could see why he enjoyed them. But I could never read more than 10 pages myself. It just didn’t work for me.

    It’s not that I don’t value and recognize, in many cases, fine prose. It’s that I need a lot more in order to get through a story, and will even, in some cases, suffer mildly clunky prose if the rest of the elements are there.

    All that said, knowing (as you do) the methods of writing excellent prose, have you ever TRIED composing a Bulwer-Lytton contest entry? That stuff is not easy, either. There’s a talent to writing truly bad prose, even if you can already write well. So don’t knock it until you’ve tried it.


    15 Nov 09 at 12:04 am

  7. Thinking about it, all the above boils down to “Just because it’s good prose doesn’t mean I’ll like it, and just because it’s bad doesn’t mean I won’t.”

    I don’t see why that isn’t true for everyone.


    15 Nov 09 at 1:03 am

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