When is Bad Writing Bad?


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Some might argue that there is something of worth to be found in all literature. I believe that is true… to a point. There are some books that one can tell at first glance are pretty bad, but that doesn’t stop some people from not only reading but enjoying such questionable fare. Can anyone say ahem… Fifty Shades of Grey?

Bad writing is a matter of opinion, so I’m sharing mine.

Lately I’ve been thinking about this a lot. As a reader and a writer, I want to know what other people are reading and writing.  So I regularly check out both the self-pubbed books as well as the traditionally published books on Amazon.  I’ve seen some self-pubbed books where the synopsis is full of grammar errors and/or sport laughably cheesy cover art.  With that, how could I possibly have hope for the body of the book? Sometimes the very premise of the book sounds ridiculous.  And thanks to those people good enough to rate and comment, you need only read what others have to say to  know that the book may be sub par. You don’t need a degree in rocket science to know that you’re looking at a book of less than stellar quality. Despite the fact that I, in my self-appointed know-it-all-ness, have labeled such books as garbage unworthy of my time, let alone my money, in more instances than not, they sport four or five-star ratings.  I am mostly referencing indie books but by no means do indie authors hold the monopoly on bad writing.

So, I ask, what gives?

I’ll restate my earlier sentiment. Bad writing is a matter of opinion.

Several months ago I came upon a podcast book that was incredible, but not in a good way. The iTunes synopsis failed to insinuate it was a vampire tale. If you’re not rolling your eyes yet, hold on, I’ll do it for you. It was a Twilight-ish knock-off with a Mary Sue as the main character. And this Mary Sue was so extra Mary Sue that I sort of wished she would die. She was the most beautiful woman in all of the land and every man (there were no other women in this book – Bechdel Test FAIL!) fell hopelessly in love with her delicate fine-boned face, porcelain skin, hair like flames, and pretty petite body. The protagonist was inconsistent to the point of borderline schizophrenia, and utterly purposeless beyond her role as innocent damsel in distress. The story was aimless and predictable. The characters, in addition to also being aimless and predictable, lacked depth. The plot was cyclical. The book lacked proper editing. The grammar was awful. The verbiage repetitive and simplistic. The book was and still is, in my humble opinion, an enormous FAIL. I finished listening for the very purpose of writing a poor review. I was determined that I would warn off other unsuspecting people.

After I finished listening to the book, I pulled it up on Amazon and  Goodreads to see what other readers thought of the book.  I found out two things.

  1. This debacle is a series. Yes, there are more.
  2. The book has better than a four star rating.

I came to the conclusion that most likely those people who aren’t interested in this type of story either never get past the synopsis or if they were duped like me, stopped reading close to the beginning of the tale. What type of people would be interested in this story? Probably those who like romance, drama, damsels in distress…people who thought Twilight was a work of art but who maybe can’t read Twilight because the words are too big…. Okay okay.  I was just joking. I didn’t mean it. Okay, I’ll let it go.

Someone close to me suggested that I might be jealous of this author’s success. The objective person that I try to be, I gave the comment some thought, for about 0.21 seconds. I’m not jealous because I can happily say that jealousy is not and never has been my deal. I don’t want what other people have. I only want what was meant for me.
That said, I am baffled and intrigued about what makes people who they are, such that poorly written vampiresqe romances with idiotic  protagonists are interesting; such that SF, thrillers, or true crime appeals to others. Perhaps, and this is a scary thought, such writing isn’t really bad at all, perhaps my taste and understanding is skewed.

Maybe.  Right?

I mean that would explain a lot, like how one person would read my book and give it a glowing review with five stars and another person would give my novel only one star. It’s happened, and why not?

We all come with our own set of beliefs and baggage and for that reason alone entertaining and worthy literature is a matter of personal opinion and taste.

Eh. To each his own. As for what of worth I found in that book, let’s just say I learned what to write if I want to be instantly popular and what not to write if I want to maintain my self-respect.

Sorry, I had to get in one more jab.

There is something else to consider here as well. Apart from bad mechanics and problematic characters and storylines, these authors at some point felt they had a story to tell. Should they not get credit at least for the effort and guts to try? I don’t know the answer to that question myself, but I just thought I’d throw it out there. I mean it all boils down to this:

  • Who decides which literature is worthy?
  • How’d they get qualified to make that judgement?
  • What criteria is used to determine worthy literature?
  • Is there, can there, and should there be a universal measuring stick?

Seems way too subjective to me, which means there are no easy answers.

So what books have you read that you absolutely love but have the sneaking suspicion are actually quite bad?

  • Hi,
    I have never read the Twilight series, although my sister has and she told me it’s very poorly written, with many grammatical errors.
    I do  buy books on the strength of authors and have been disappointed – not because of bad writing, but more because the writing was too good – too intelligent, rather.
    Two books I am determined to try and re-read are The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen and How the Dead Live by Will Self. I bought them years ago and needed to look up nearly every word and it ruined my enjoyment. It even put me off reading. I couldn’t understand how they were best sellers or how they gained so much praise!
    But I probably bought them 10 years ago and I am going to see if there’s a difference in starting them again.
    I know it doesn’t tie in exactly with what you asked, but I thought it fits the point you were making.
    Thank you for the indirect reminder to re-read these two books!