Philosophizing—Noticing when writing’s bad

When every author is a marketer, only marketers will be authors.

Here’s my question for you all to start you off philosophizing this week while I’m in San Jose: if no one notices bad writing is bad, is it still bad?

One of the things that’s been bugging me since about 1989 is the decline in the quality of what sells in this country. I know everyone always complains about their society going to the dogs as they get older (even the Ancient Greeks threw up their hands in horror when they thought about what the younger generation was doing to their culture. . .of course, considering modern Greece, they may have had a point). But it’s hard not to notice that in the 1960s you couldn’t have gotten on the best seller list without at least knowing one end of a sentence from the other.

I have been—I must say—deeply mollified to learn in the past year of the buy-out of American publishing companies by European corporations due to the deliberate devaluation of the dollar in the 1980s, as well as the 1979 Thor Tools vs. the IRS tax law that ushered in the era of the automatic destruction of backlists. At least these are facts. They explain something. They explain why publishing stopped, somewhere in the mid-’80s, being about a bunch of neurotic book-lovers like Harold Ross bumbling around New York City in a martini-induced haze and became about squeezing that last drop of blood out of the stone of every single solitary pathetic little published manuscript. They explain urban legends like books turning up on the New York Times best seller list before they’re even written. (Of course, nothing really explains the New York Times best seller list. . .)

Before I learned about these historical events in publishing, I was just one more baffled wordsmyth walking around for years and years demanding of complete strangers on the street, “How come Danielle Steel is a millionaire, and I can’t sell one stupid well-crafted, deeply-considered, carefully-polished poem?” (After 1994, this was actually a lie. I did sell one poem. To The Cream City Review for five bucks, and I still have that check framed, in a box up in the attic, along with the first dollar my husband ever made as a busker.)

It wasn’t just me, either. I knew other writers—amazing writers, dedicated writers, real talent, starving away on hot dogs and Miller and minimum-wage jobs. It never made any sense. Why, in this one industry, would consumers honestly prefer to spend their money on shlock rather than a job done right?

Now that I’m an independent editor, it’s gone from being a source of righteous anger to real grief. The writers I meet through this business, the extraordinary dreamers and crafters and grapplers with language, the thinkers and creators, the hope of literature as we know it. . .and their competition is not only published tripe, but the gazillions and gazillions of wannabes who see writing not as a particular art form special to that handful out there who find weird validation and spiritual sustenance in its pursuit, but as their rightful avenue to riches. The bottleneck. It’s like that scene at the end of The Day of the Locust when the herd of movie-goers stampedes and tramples the weak and innocent under their ruthless heels.

My client (and a dedicated literary powerhouse) Kathryn has said she’s afraid I hold the bar to good writing so high her fingers will be bloody by the time she pulls herself over it.

Do I ask too much of good writing these days? Am I fighting a losing battle here?

If the number of us who recognize bad writing as bad dwindles increasingly every year, as the calm acceptance of what sells in the check-out lines at Target and Wal-Mart grows, does that mean literature itself is not falling into a slump out of which it can be pulled, but that it’s actually evolving into a form no more related to the so-called “good” writing of the twentieth century than salamanders are related to sticky-toed geckos?

What’s the truth of our situation, people? What is good writing these days?

17 thoughts on “Philosophizing—Noticing when writing’s bad

  1. Jane Steen says:

    Good writing is what it’s always been: the writing that will outlast all the rest. Bad writing has been around just as long as good, but it doesn’t survive and we rarely see it, giving the impression that things are getting worse.

    Or sometimes it does survive; I’ve been reading (when I can stand it) a Georgette Heyer left behind by a houseguest. Oh! My goodness! How! Can she have had! So many fans!

    Keep striving for excellence, we need people like you.

  2. Ai says:

    I’m with Jane Steen. Good writing is what will survive the ages. Some bad writing will, but so will a LOT of good writing.

  3. Iapetus999 says:

    I’m always amazed when I spend good money on a book from a major publisher and it’s crap.

    That’s partly what drove me to writing, the voice in my head that said, “I can write better than this dreck.”

    And that was 25 years ago. Nowadays it’s even worse.

  4. Iapetus999 says:

    Is there a way to subscribe to comment replies or am I automatically subscribed?

  5. Kathryn says:

    At least you can take comfort in the fact that a willingness to fight a losing battle is often the subject of great literary tragedies!

    And that’s what we’re facing – a tragedy.

    When my son was enrolled in public school for 7th grade, I learned first hand about peer editing. He brought home a paper with five words circled and a comment. “These are not words.” One of the words, brace yourselves writers, was vivid.

    Twilight is written at a 4.9 reading level. How many high school students did their book reports on Bella and Edward instead of Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy?

    The vaunted SAT added a writing component several years ago. Even now, colleges can’t figure out how to use it in their evaluation of students and others don’t use it at all. The writing scores vary so widely from the reading and math scores, colleges would have to turn paying students away just because the kids can’t come up with a half decent essay or answer a document based question intelligently.

    The pen may be mightier than the sword, but is it mightier than apathy?

    A hundred little things happen every day in the US that undermine the future of reading well in our country – poor educations, lack of time, social media, poor examples in the home, but none of that means the good fight can’t be fought.

    I agree with Jane. Great literature endures. We may go through a period when there is no great literature published, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t being written or can’t be written.

    Keep working hard and be ready when the pendulum swings back.

  6. Victoria says:

    Andrew, I’m sorry, I have no idea how WordPress handles comment subscription. I think you may have to keep checking back in. I’d ask my sys admin, but he’s in a top Linux convention right now hob-nobbing with the great brains behind open software.

  7. Lori says:

    If you tell me what direction you are from North of the Golden Gate, I will kneel and bow to you as if you were my own personal Mecca. (Well, that may be a bit much, but I’d *consider* it.)

    I’ve become afraid to spend money on books unless someone whose opinion I am calibrated to recommends it.

    And I’m not HUGELY picky, I read more for entertainment than the quest for great truths or mind-blowing prose, but still…I have standards. (Not that I don’t love the good stuff, but, I am a working mom, I am really in need of the “easy-in” book or I will never finish anything beyond magazine articles trying to help me keep my carpets clean.)

    I commit to trying to maintain my standards in a world of constant erosion. I don’t want all of us to vanish. Ack! I’m an endangered species!

    As if I didn’t have enough insecurities…

  8. You know, I see a lot of posts/comments like this, and it kind of sets my teeth on edge. I write romance novels, and I read many bestselling authors, so I immediately feel “judged” because I don’t write “literary prose”, and again because I enjoy mainstream fiction. If I happen to one day make the bestseller list, does that mean my book is automatically “schlock”? Because that’s how I feel reading posts like this.

    Are we talking “technically good” writing – ie, grammatically correct, proper punctuation, etc, or something far more subjective? Because in the end, aside from the basic rules of grammar, spelling and punctuation, whether writing is “good” or not is completely subjective. Just because one person thinks a book on the bestseller list is badly written doesn’t mean the next person won’t think it’s good – nor does it mean that the person who enjoys it has bad taste. Frankly, I think calling certain types of writing “bad” just because it happens to be mainstream is just arrogant. It’s a matter of opinion, and not quantifiable.

    If you’re talking about technically correct writing, then yes, I think our standards should be high. My own standards are high. If you’re talking about all the different ways in which a writer can use words to tell a story, then I say we need to be careful in how we judge our fellow writers.

  9. Kathryn Estrada says:

    My mother must have at least 1,000 romance novels. Her basement walls are lined with them. She’s been reading them for forty years and she will be the first to tell you (and has told me repeatedly) that even they have suffered from falling standards. Where most historical romances were once built within the framework of solidly researched material, she says that they are now so formulaic, so full of fluff, so determined to avoid anything that could be fact checked, that it’s basically just changing around the characters’ names and the places where they are first intimate. Sure, the i’s are dotted and the t’s are crossed, but they have no substance. Read The Wolf and The Dove, then pick up a current romance – see for yourself.

    I primarily read children’s novels because that is the genre I’ve chosen in which to write. I read newly published books as a guage of what is marketable. A few months ago, I read an “acclaimed” novel targeted at middle school boys that included the hero’s love interest being threatened with rape. (The girl was 14) Within ten pages, there were two nearly identical sentences. The book was full of anachronisms that jerked a reader right out of the story – Schlock with a capital S, but with a really cool cover.

    Today’s YA novels are packed with suicide, sex, eating disorders, bullying, absentee parents, alcholism, rebellion, neglect and despair – certainly relevant topics, but they are written at fourth and fifth grade reading levels. (Totally quantifiable at Are these books actually intended for 10 year olds? Then why write at such remedial levels? YA books, especially assigned YA books, at the very least, should lead kids to higher reading levels. Instead, they are simplistic as well as depressing. Kids fed a steady diet of these books will be lucky to comprehend a beach read when they’re adults.

    The books are designed to be read and tossed. Read and tossed.

    There is absolutely nothing wrong with reading for enjoyment and writing for readers who are LOOKING for “a trashy read.” Gosh, my mom would kill me if I said so. I think what this particular blog is about is wondering if that is all there is anymore or all that there will be.

  10. Lady Glamis says:

    This is a really interesting and thought-provoking post, Victoria, thank you. I hate to say that most of what I read disappoints me in one way or another, but even the classics can do that for me. I’m super picky. Still, I enjoy most things on some level. That said, i do think that the standards have fallen in a lot of ways. I can only hold to the hope that great literature will continue to survive and stick around longer than anything else.

  11. I absolutely love when a great storyteller is also an excellent writer. I don’t care how great the writing is though – story trumps all. And I don’t think you are in a losing battle. Kids growing up don’t know how to write as well as they should – so keep up the fight!

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    1. Victoria says:

      You’re welcome muchly. I I hope you learn how to write someday. Also I deleted the second spam comment you left here two minutes later—your clients really ought to hire someone who knows what they’re doing.

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