Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

A Few Notes from The Land of the Sore Throat

with 5 comments

And sore everything else, at the moment.  I am n ot a happy camper here, and I’m a little too floaty to do a regular sane post, including either of the ones I was going to do from the set up yesterday.

But a couple of things that are going through my head.

First, I never suggested that people ought to want to read book just for the prose.

Quite the contrary.  If you go back and look, you’ll see I said that there are an awful lot of well written works that are boring and useless

Lynn says she can overlook bad writing if she likes other things about the book–the plot or the characters or whatever–and she doesn’t see why everybody else isn’t the same.

Well, I’m not.  Really bad writing doesn’t just turn me off, it’s the proverbial nails on the blackboard.  I don’t understand how anybody can stand to plow through it.  It’s quite literally physically painful. 

The only real exception  I can think of to that rule is to a book I read first in childhood, and which I can now just about read even though it gives me a headache.  Of course, I read that book nearly twenty times, I think, so I just may be used to it. 

But I also didn’t need English classes to “train” me n ot to like bad writing–I got that habit all on my own and very young.  Writing is, for me, like music.  It has a sound.  And wrong notes are wrong notes.

That said, there are lots and lots of books that are not written particalarly well, but are also not written particularly badly.  Agatha Christie would not have written a sentence like the one I produced.  She was not a great prose stylest, but she wrote servicably well, and I have no trouble reading what she wrote.  Hell, I love what she wrote. 

And in case you’re wondering, I consider my own writing to be in that not-really-good, but not-really bad servicable area.  I’d do better if I could, but I just don’t have the talent.

But getting to the sentence I used as as an example:  it really isn’t a perfectly good sentence and just my taste that I don’t like it. 

Assuming that the purpose of writing is to convey information of some sort or the other, that sentence actively works against the reader’s ability to understand it.  Or anything it’s involved in. 

I don’t mean that it “lacks clarity” as my teachers used to say, although it has that problem, too.  I mean that by throwing that mountain of detail at the reader it actually obscures the scene it is trying to set.

Sentences like that are almost always written by amateur writers who do not trust themselves to be able to convey what they want to say and don’t trust their readers to be able to figure it out. 

I think the idea that there are people out there with so little imagination, or cultural reach, that they have to have every detail of a scene spelled out for them over and over and over again–well, okay, but my guess is that they don’t even really understand their television shows.

And now I think I’m going to go off and put honey in my tea and find some madeleines to dunk in it and still not do a Proust, who wrote some of the best prose in the history of the planet, but who is such an annoying, obnoxious self-regarding twerp that…well, let’s just say I’m not reading Proust this morning.

Written by janeh

November 15th, 2009 at 8:58 am

Posted in Uncategorized

5 Responses to 'A Few Notes from The Land of the Sore Throat'

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  1. Jane says: “Really bad writing doesn’t just turn me off, it’s the proverbial nails on the blackboard. I don’t understand how anybody can stand to plow through it. It’s quite literally physically painful. ”

    Sorry about the sore throat and the Not Feeling Well.

    Some people can’t listen to jazz without throwing up, to others its the most soothing sound in the world. You’re smart enough to know that just because something irritates you beyond tolerance doesn’t mean that somewhere, someone else (sometime lots of someone elses) either can tolerate it or love it to distraction.

    I often wonder “how can people smoke cigarettes? drink coffee? eat pickled pigs feet? wear those clothes? listen to that music? live with a woman with a voice like that?” Yet clearly, in all those situations, unless I’m willing to posit a universal conspiracy that is out to fool me specifically, people indulge in all those behaviors with every evidence of real enjoyment.

    So we have to conclude that those who are deaf to fine (or poor) written language simply don’t experience that physical pain.

    As for those of us in the vast middle, we can read middling-poor prose without cringing. Sometimes. If you’ve got the literary equivalent of perfect, or nearly perfect pitch, that really limits what you can enjoy, and limits your understand of how the rest of us get along.

    I think also, everyone’s evaluation of where awfulness begins varies, and sometimes varies with the situation and the author.

    Hope you feel better soon.


    15 Nov 09 at 4:33 pm

  2. Because I was an English major, my standards for good prose are similar to Jane’s. I definitely didn’t grow up reading it. Taylor Caldwell, Allen Drury, Leon Uris, Margaret Mitchell, James Michener–popular writers. Some of them wrote decent prose. Now I read crime novels, mysteries, suspense, some occasional mainstream and literary fiction and a bit
    of nonfiction. Different elements of fiction attract me to books–characterization, setting, dialog. Plot isn’t the first thing I look for. Really bad prose, like the example Jane used, will make me stop reading before I reach page 20.


    15 Nov 09 at 7:57 pm

  3. I missed reading the blog the last few days and, apparently, missed quite a debate. Because I teach Humanities, specifically art in context of history, I am forever attempting to make my students grasp the difference between good and mediocre (or bad) art.

    If it is just a matter of taste, there can be no standard. When a museum is choosing which painting to purchase – why choose one over the other? The first criterion must be technique – is it technically good? A second criterion surely is relevance to the culture – does it represent a period, an event, a group, an individual well? A third criterion must be impact on the audience – does it make people stop and wonder? The rules for what makes art something other than just stuff apply to literature as well as paintings or dance or music. What Ansel Adams does (did) with a camera is different than what I can do – his photographs transform the viewing experience. What Keats does with words is equally transformative. Diane Ackerman writes about science, but she brings that level of lyricism that makes it art: “I’ve always trekked through imaginary worlds, lived on my senses, and fiddled with words. “

    If good art is simply a matter of subjective ‘taste’ then we are doomed to consider all art equal. Michelangelo’s work can have no status different than does Kinkade – even when most people do react differently to the two. If good literature is simply a matter of subjective ‘taste’ then we are doomed to assign the poorly written DaVinci Code in high schools as an example of literature.

    Finally – subjectivism is a sore point with me. In addition to Humanities, I teach Ethics. My students apply the same logic to morality that they do to art. It’s all subjective. And why shouldn’t they. Everything is now ‘valid’ or has some reason to be acceptable. There is no standard of good, so all things must be good. I made the mistake and read Brown’s The Lost Symbol – mediocre prose, truly awful story line, and exceptionally flawed logic. Yet it gets 3 of 5 stars on Amazon with a surprising number of people willing to overlook its serious problems. I don’t really want to know what that reveals about the reading public.


    15 Nov 09 at 8:08 pm

  4. Ha, Gail, you should have been there on Usenet when The Da Vinci Code came out and Jane and another woman on this newsgroup tore it to bits.

    I’m finding myself sort of between Jane’s stance and Lymaree’s. Tastes do vary; I don’t spend a lot of time at the Walker (which is our modern art museum in Minneapolis) because a lot of modern art leaves me cold. But I love the Minneapolis Insitute of Art and the collection there; just as I love the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the on in Chicago and the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. I just do. But I can accept that there are standards for modern art, even though I may not want to spend a lot of time looking at it.

    And like you, I didn’t grow up reading Great Literature. Well, I did, but mostly I read people like Michener and Uris like you mentioned. But the more I began to appreciate writing for its own sake, I began to realize that while Leon Uris may be a hell of a storyteller, he’s no great writer.

    So while I can’t necessarily articulate what the standard is, I can recognize it, at least to a degree.


    15 Nov 09 at 10:52 pm

  5. No school can teach everything, and letting the students vote has certain inherent limitations. But I’m also inclined to think that the humanities are too important to be left to the professorate. A few suggestions:

    Jane’s often-mentioned 50 year rule seems quite reasonable to me. I think it’s also legitimate to say you’re teaching a particular culture or aesthetic and let it go at that. The German Department doesn’t have to explain why it doesn’t teach Dutch or Norwegian, let alone Chinese–though if it spent a lot of time blathering about the SUPERIORITY of German, it could expect some feedback.

    But it has to be done honestly. If you work on a 50 year rule, you do not get to bring in the books the English Department finds especially congenial after 25. And if your rule is that an author who is still popular and influential after 50 years should be taught, then it’s time to stop grumbling and start teaching Robert Howard and Georgette Heyer. (And the art departments might as well start gathering Frank Frazetta material now.)

    But whatever rule is used, you’d better have a standard you CAN articulate, and it had best apply to the art itself and not academic politics. Often, this is not the case. When imperialism falls from favor, Kipling disappears from the curriculum. Lady Elizabeth Butler disappears from art clases when the Academy decides that “war is not the answer” and David when it turns against heroism.

    If a student believes–or even suspects–that the game is rigged at that level, he has no reason to believe anything else the instructor says. And when the instructor says that Book X is superior to Book Y, but you’ll need eight years of training to understand why and how, it’s reasonable to expect a falling-off among the freshpeople whose major is not English Lit.

    But I notice we’re still more focused on finding a principle under which Kinkade and Uris will not be taught than on articulating who should be and why.


    15 Nov 09 at 11:28 pm

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