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Booking Through Thursday: The Write Stuff

November 4, 2010

I’ve seen many bloggers say that what draws them to certain books or authors is good writing, and what causes them to stop reading a certain book or author is bad writing. What constitutes good writing and bad writing to you?

This is sort of timely, for me.

Tomorrow, I’m hoping to post my review of Midwives by Chris Bohjalian. Because I have been out and about in the crunchy granola, home-birthing, midwifery circles, I looked up one star and “I hated this” reviews of the book, simply to make sure I hadn’t missed a huge controversy before I said positive things about it. Thankfully, people were able to, for the most part, divide fact from fiction and refrain from getting their panties, or lack thereof, in a proverbial, collective twist.

I’m pretty sure that mainstream doctors, Vermonters, lawyers, even fourteen year old girls, could choose to be offended by Bohjalian’s book, or any book, really, if they were looking to get fired up. However, what people seemed to be most offended by was his alleged butchering of the English language.

Call me a snob but I’m confused. These reviews were often written by the chick-lit crowd. The Oprah book clubbers, the tissue-box tearjerker fans. The people, in my mind, who look for the “plot development” and “character building” I never seem to remember to look for while reading. For me, this was exactly that. I liked it but it’s not the sort of fare I seek out, in my real life.

So he’s not Fitzgerald or Eco. Bohjalian’s the kind of guy who ends up beside Wally Lamb and Nora Roberts, not Charles Dickens and Thomas Pynchon. That’s not to say he’s a bad writer, heavens, he’s sold millions. He’s just not the kind of author I’d willingly purchase (I borrowed Midwives while on vacation) because his books, from the outside, seem like the plot-driven, character building type. This is the first I’ve read of the man’s work and I knew that going in. Does it make him a “bad writer”? Certainly not! It simply means that he’s not, generally, on my reading list.

I suppose, then, I was just taken aback, simply because I enjoyed his writing when framed for the general genre and couldn’t see what was “wrong” with it.

Anyway, this isn’t about them; it’s about me.

A book that will make me stand up and cry to random passersby with an “Oh Em Gee, you must read this passage; here, yes, this one. It’s witty, provocative and simply fantastic” has symbolism, allusion, proper and hilarious usage of words (big and small) and inappropriate, albeit intelligent, humor.

I like Twain and Vonnegut. I like Eco and Pynchon. I like Fitzgerald and Sartre.  I think Jonathan Swift was hysterical. I need the words in the books to “mean” something.

I hate the use or, heaven forbid, overuse of plethora. I love the word myriad. I feel like we’ve had this question before and I’ve answered it with that exact line.

I will say that what I think of as “good writing” and what I think of as a “good book” aren’t always one and the same. Of course, terrible writing (please, now, to see: Dan Brown or Garth Stein) can excuse itself, quietly from my bookshelf, but that’s more about halting phrases, misused (or unused) punctuation, a plethora of plethoras and a general need for an editor.

Lack of “character development” or “plot development”, for me, generally means I’m going to like a book, simply because it’s probably about something else. Again, I like allusion and symbolism, both of which often take a front seat to a more mainstream definition of plot and character. Yes, I like the weird books, seemingly about nothing.

Have I lost you, yet? Hopefully not. For the best, most recent and, probably “most palatable as defined by mainstream” example of my favorite kind of writing, check out The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery. For throw backs, and slightly weirder samples, check out Slaugherhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut, V. by Thomas Pynchon, Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco and/or The Glass Bead Game by Herman Hesse.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. November 4, 2010 8:44 am

    Wow, I loved reading your answer to this! Mine is much less in depth and you touched on so many great points about the topic that would have taken me weeks to flesh out.

    I often hesitate to recommend books to others. What might be okay for me to spend a couple of hours reading could be the only book they read all month, and then it might be a really bad choice.

    Anyway, this gave me a lot to think about. My novel reading habits have devolved over the years to a lot of escape fiction and I haven’t spent time with more serious books in a while.

  2. November 4, 2010 10:37 am

    I think good writing can be deceptive. In the fantasy universe, Terry Pratchett is great at writing the comic fantasy novel, as was Douglas Adams.

    They make it look so easy…until you read a bad example of it (and believe me, they’re out there) and you realize just how deceptive it can be.

    Does it mean that the books are great literature? No. Well written, yes.

  3. November 4, 2010 10:57 am

    Here’s mine:

  4. November 4, 2010 11:17 am

    Writing which does not detract from the plot is good writing..

    BTT: Good or Bad

  5. November 4, 2010 12:32 pm

    I think that good writing is one of the most important things that I look for when reading, but I agree that various writers can still tell a good story without having the best literary style. I think you make an important distinction between say, the books of Sartre and the books of Wally Lamb, but I can and do enjoy both. These are some very interesting points you bring up, so thanks for sharing!

  6. November 4, 2010 12:45 pm

    I think good/bad writing can be defined in different ways, but here’s my attempt to sum up

  7. November 4, 2010 1:02 pm

    A very good answer! Check out my What Were They Thinking?! post this week at The Crowded Leaf.

  8. November 4, 2010 3:12 pm

    Good writing is not boring, and peaks your interest, throughout the book.

    Bad writing is when a book doesn’t have substance & doesn’t appeal to the reader in many ways.

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