“I can’t read this book because the writing is so bad.”
That’s all I said.
I didn’t say the book was no good. I didn’t say I didn’t like the book. I didn’t say the book was worthless or that it hadn’t topped all the bestseller lists for months or been made into a blockbuster Hollywood film. I didn’t say the author wasn’t successful and rich and the luckiest damn writer in the world. I didn’t say I could do better. I didn’t say the story sucked or the characters were unbelievable or only a fool would read this trash.
I didn’t say ANY of that stuff.
I said I couldn’t read the book, which is NOT my opinion, but a fact. I’ve tried on several occasions and been unable to get past the first few pages because . . . and here’s the kicker . . . the writing is so bad. FULL STOP. MAN THE TORPEDOS. And this too is NOT my opinion but a freaking fact. I’m not talking about talent, ideas, imagination or any kind of an abstract concept, I’m talking about skill. Writing is a craft. It can be taught. It can be learned. People can improve the skill. Does perfecting the skill necessarily mean anyone can learn to write better and then write the greatest novel of our time? ABSOLUTELY NOT! That’s where all those abstract concepts come into play — talent, imagination, great ideas, a unique vision, a burning desire to write, something compelling to say . . .
But the FACT is, there are better and worse ways to string words together to form sentences and tell stories, really basic structural guidelines that if followed help build a strong technical foundation for a story. I’m talking about stuff like the passive voice — “Drugs were seized by the police.” “The police seized drugs” makes the sentence active, more direct and punchy. I’m talking about stuff like overusing adverbs. One adverb every now and then might be tolerable, but when they pop up in every paragraph that’s lazy writing. “The radio blared loudly.” Blared is a strong verb showing loudly. “The radio blared.” How about “He clenched his teeth tightly.” Is there any other way to clench your teeth? “He clenched his teeth.” I’m talking about stuff like using cliches — white as a ghost, black as tar, leaves fluttering in the wind, a dark and stormy night — make something up for christsake! If everyone and their dog (my cliche for the day) has said it, go another way, be original.
There are more things, but you get the idea. Doing these things produces bad writing. And a lot of bad writing is produced, published and sold in mind-boggling quantities. Just because a lot of people buy it, doesn’t make it any less bad.
So I said I couldn’t read the book because the writing was so bad.
If you think about it, I’m actually kinda qualified to say something like that — I mean if you WANT to believe that bad writing is just a matter of opinion and not a technical fact — when you consider that I’ve worked everyday for a lot of years with words and writing and writers, that I am a writer and an editor and pretty much nothing else, that writing is my niche and area of expertise, one might think that I would know a little bit about what I’m talking about, that even if bad writing doesn’t exist and is just a matter of personal opinion that the opinion of someone such as me might be worth a bit more than the opinion of someone who isn’t in the writing/editing field. One might think . . .
As a writer I’m always trying to improve my craft, learn ways to make my writing stronger. Great writing doesn’t flow off anyone’s fingertips on the first draft, as evidenced by the crappy writing I do here, all first draft stuff. Great writing evolves through editing and rewriting. A lot of things have to come together in order to achieve truly great writing — you’ve got to have the skill, but you also need the ideas and the talent and vision behind the skill. Writing is damn hard! But when it’s done well . . . ah! Beauty. Joy. Pure. But to become a better writer it’s good to read a broad range of books from the greatest masterpieces to the most poorly written. There are lessons to be learned from reading bad writing as well as good.
When I said I couldn’t read the book because the writing was so bad, I didn’t mean the book should never be read by anyone ever. I wish I could read it. I wish it didn’t irk me so much. I wish I could get past the writing and see what the millions of people who loved this book saw. But here’s the thing, I read a lot of bad writing in the run of a day as part of my work. I read some really great writing too, but the percentage of bad to good is high. And I work long hours, I read a lot. Most of the time I work on helping to make the writing better. So my days are spent turning bad writing into better writing. When it comes to my personal reading, the reading I do for pleasure or to perfect my writing craft, I crave great writing or at least good writing, writing done well enough that the editor in me isn’t hitching up over passive sentences or too many adverbs or cliches. And I don’t have a lot of time for personal reading, I have to make a conscious effort, I mean I included it on my New Year’s list for godsake. So why, when I spend so much time wrapped up in bad writing anyway, would I bother wading through more bad writing in my spare time? It’s not logical.
But all of this is moot anyway. Because the tiff wasn’t about the book or the author or the New York Times Bestseller list or writing at all.
I said I couldn’t read the book because the writing was so bad . . . I should’ve known what would happen. I should’ve known to preface the statement with, “It’s just my opinion but . . . ” I’ve learned to drag out this phrase and plop it at the beginning of sentences to avoid being attacked. I realise this is a point of contention as well because my statement is seen as the provocation or first blow, so the attack I feel is viewed by opposing forces as nothing more than defensive measures. I would say I’ve got about a 50% success rate at avoiding these confrontations, and the other 50% I forget and we argue. In this particular case though, it honestly never crossed my mind because as I’ve already made quite clear this wasn’t my opinion but a fact.
In everyday conversation I just state my opinion, whatever it is — I believe in reincarnation. Blake killed his wife. I think worrying is a waste of time. The only person you can depend on is yourself — The fact I’m saying these things implies they’re my opinion, otherwise I would say something else like Jim believes in reincarnation or Sue thinks worrying is a waste of time. For me, prefacing your opinion with “It’s just my opinion” devalues everything that follows. Actually it drives me a little crazy because it feels wishy-washy. It’s like telling someone what you’re about to say doesn’t matter in the least, but here it is anyway. What is so wrong with just saying what you think?
To be fair I wasn’t raised to say what I think. Children should be seen and not heard was an unspoken but enforced rule growing up and we were some of the quietest children ever. So well behaved you’d never know there were children in the house, visitors said. Shy, people said. Not allowed to talk, I remember. Speaking to adults was showing off and showing off was unacceptable behaviour punishable by the strap. Even when adults spoke first, asked me questions, I looked to my mother’s eyes to see if I had permission to speak . . . and I never saw anything there that would lead me to believe it was okay, that I wasn’t going to get flailed later if I answered. I have permitted despicable things to happen to me because I lacked the skill to speak. And I’m not blaming anyone, I’m not holding a grudge, everybody did the best they could at the time, I’m just stating a fact, a possible clue behind why what I see as weak communicating drives me nuts.
When I lived in Toronto I had to learn to speak up or get fired from my job. Literally. My supervisor took me aside one day and warned me that I needed to change my mousey style or I’d be out of work. They signed me up for assertiveness training, but by the time the course rolled around I didn’t need it. Oh, I took it anyway, but everyone there wondered why my company thought I needed it. The second I left my supervisor’s office that day I began the long process of teaching myself to be more assertive and outgoing, to speak up when I had something to say. It was a skill I worked on and practiced everyday. I pretended to be someone else. I even named my alter-ego to make it feel more like a play. I observed others and mimicked their behaviour. I remembered strong women I had worked with and thought about how they handled certain situations before I handled similar situations. And it was uncomfortable and felt wrong and fake for a really long time before it became natural. And I never understood how far I had come or why it had even been necessary until years later in Moncton with that whole sexual harassment thing with my boss and the way I handled it, dealt with him, in one of my more brilliant moments. But did that stop me from running from one abusive relationship to another and another until finally I had given all my power away and bottomed out to the point where I’m lucky to still be breathing? No, all the assertiveness training in the world couldn’t have helped me there. I needed to learn that lesson the hard way.
But now I’m straying too far from the topic at hand. When I said I couldn’t read the book because the writing was so bad, my mother took offense. She hadn’t read the book, has no urge to read the book, so I didn’t insult her personal taste. I never understand how these things happen, never see them coming. It’s always a shocking moment, where I’m taken completely off-guard and just thrown into a spin. It always feels like a slap across the face out of nowhere, for no reason. The offense had nothing to do with the book but with what she perceived as me being snobby (the very idea that SHE might have raised a snob, after all those years of drilling into our heads that we were no better than anyone else), judgemental, close-minded, and shoving my opinion down her throat. And nothing pisses me off more than what I perceive as the close-minded judgemental mis-interpretation of my intentions. Instant flames. These things escalate so fast, it’s difficult to know what’s really going on. It’s got to do with a difference of perception. What I see as weakness (just my opinion so it doesn’t matter), she sees as openness (I’ve got my opinion, you’ve got yours). What she sees as close-minded (this is what I think and that’s that, you’ll never change my mind so don’t even try), I see as directness (this is what I think). Something like that . . . all I know for sure is that if I had said, “It’s just my opinion, but I can’t read this book because the writing is so bad” the tiff wouldn’t have happened.
Are we doomed to keep going round and round like this forever? Or will I up the percentages over time and remember more often to preface my opinions in a way my mother feels less threatened? But why should I have to do ALL the work? How come she can’t accept that just because I say what I think in a direct way doesn’t mean I’m not open to other ideas? If I were even a quarter as closed-minded as what my mother makes me out to be, I would never learn anything new, never change my mind about anything. I’d be dumb as a post. And this doesn’t jibe with the way I feel about life in general. Philosophising has always been one of my favourite past-times. I love seeing the way different people approach the same subject and develop opposing theories. I love looking at something old in a new way and having an a-ha moment. I’ve got a curious nature. Discovery is a rush. I get a glimpse of something and I go searching for everything there is to know. And yes, I’m passionate about things and I can be frank and forward and even shocking sometimes, but I don’t see these things as being negative qualities. And when I do get all fired up about something, excited by something new, it seems like as soon as I open my mouth to say anything about it, two syllabels in I’m talking to the hand from behind the wall where I’m judgemental and closed-minded and automatically wrong. And I feel like that little kid again, who’s spoken out of turn, which pisses me off big time. Will we ever learn to really communicate? Will we ever understand who the other person is?
I visited too long this Christmas. Overstayed by at least a good three days. Something to keep in mind for next time.
Drinking: coffee (the cheap generic brand, see, spending less)
Listening To: traffic (my town is alive again)