One thing about my Fifty Shades of Grey post that inspired some mild controversy was my insistence that it’s not that badly written.
What’s interesting about talking about “good” writing and “bad” writing is that when people use those terms, different people often mean different things.
When I talk about “good” writing and “bad” writing, I mean the prose. Is it readable on a sentence-to-sentence level? Is there a flow? Is there a voice? Do I get tripped up by a lack of specificity in description or are the details evocative? Is the hand of the author too apparent or am I able to lose myself in the world of the book?
This is all mainly accomplished on the sentence level. It’s not about character or plot or plausibility or whether the book is compelling or not and not at all about whether I like the book, it’s whether the author can write a paragraph.
I would posit (with partial confidence) that the way I mean “good” or “bad” writing is more common within the publishing industry and with literary-minded folk.
Outside of publishing, when people talk about “good” writing or “bad” writing they aren’t talking about sentences, they usually mean a broader look at the book as a whole. Whether the plot is plausible or not, whether characters are compelling, whether relationships are believable, whether the book as a whole is engrossing.
This, I do believe, is how we end up with Goodreads reviews where people call The Great Gatsby “garbage,” which has little to do with style and everything to do with whether the book was enjoyable for that particular person to read.
I can’t imagine anyone in the book business or literary aficionados calling anything like The Great Gatsby garbage in any context.
I, for instance, might say about a well-written book I didn’t like, “It was beautifully written and I hated the crap out of it,” but I separate the writing from my enjoyment. That’s because, I believe, when it comes to prose there’s less subjectivity than there is with personal taste (though I realize Fifty Shades presents a bit more of an ambiguous case – you might not like the prose either).
I’m not making a value judgement here, everyone means different things with their descriptions. But for me, when it comes to prose: Good writing is good writing and bad writing is bad writing. I might dislike a well-written book and love one that’s badly written. Personal taste doesn’t enter into it.
What do you make of this delineation?
Need help with your book? I’m available for manuscript edits, query critiques, and coaching!
For my best advice, check out my online classes, my guide to writing a novel and my guide to publishing a book.
And if you like this post: subscribe to my newsletter!
Art: At the Tax Collector by Jan Matsys
When I see that people elect a politician who is in a mental hospital, and then I see the kind of things they consider good, it just makes my job as a writer easier. Some puppies, a cute kid, maybe a kitten or two and it's good to go 🙂
KJ Bateman says
Nathan, I agree. You've analyzed the difference so well. There are books so poorly written that they interrupt the flow of the story making it impossible to enter that world; I skim to finish the story.
There are other books where the prose is breathtaking but the story or characters are so repugnant to me that I either don't finish the book or am left with a bad taste.
Elizabeth Varadan aka Mrs. Seraphina says
I can't imagine anyone thinking The Great Gatsby is "garbage". You have to wonder.
Sheila Cull says
Right on! I feel that you saying, "the book as a whole is engrossing," means to the reader – it's good writing.
Absolutely. I was just thinking something very similar today. I finished a book this morning, after reading it practically one sitting, and the end pulled the rug out from beneath me. I thought, "that was a good book…but I'm not sure if I liked it." Then I realized how contradictory that sounded. But, I'm glad to see others think the same way.
Constance Floyd says
I have read both books and I can say that both books are good reads but the genre is just different from one another.