Writing Rant

Tuesday, April 06, 2010
I like to write. I've always made this patently clear. I also like writers who write well, but what does "writing well" mean, actually?

I recently left a comment at a writer's blog in which, among other things, I mentioned why I don't care for John Grisham's writing. My comment was summarily deleted. Why? The context of my comment was this: one professional writer (not the owner of the blog to which I'm referring) noted that it's common for readers, in online reviews of books, to criticize editors for writers' work. This writer wrote a blog post addressing that point, saying that writers, not editors, are responsible for what appears in print. What follows is my comment in reply to that statement:

I'll readily admit that I've done that before (but only in terms of what are obvious snafus and not because the book "sucks"), but it was also your blog entry, [name deleted], that later disabused me of that idea. I'll even admit that one guy I like to pick on most (regardless of how well he sells) is John Grisham.

When his book King of Torts came out, a friend recommended it to me, saying the writing was "smooth." I resisted even bothering to try to read it for months. Then, one day, while at a nearby book store, I picked it up off the shelf out of curiosity, and... well... to be quite blunt, Grisham's first sentence completely turned my stomach:

The shots that fired the bullets that entered Pumpkin's head were heard by no less than eight people.

There is just so much wrong with that sentence that the mind boggles. In the first place, "shots" don't fire bullets. Pistols and rifles do. A "shot" is the discharge of a pistol or rifle. The word that Grisham must've been looking for is "report," which is the sound of a pistol or rifle being fired. (For example, one possible way that sentence could've been written is: "No less than eight people heard the report of the shots that riddled Pumpkin's head." That construction gets rid of the misuse of "shot" as well as the passive construction at the end of the sentence, and I'm sure that even my version could be improved, as well.)

And then there is this sentence, which occurs later in the first paragraph:

Another, the neighborhood recycling fanatic, was digging through some garbage in search of aluminum cans when he heard the sharp sounds of the daily skirmish, very nearby.

According to this sentence, not only did Pumpkin get shot in the head multiple times, but apparently this happened on a daily basis. (Makes me think that Pumpkin oughta be a character on the TV show Heroes.)

When I first read these words, I used to say I didn't understand how an editor could let such inaccurate use of the language slide by. I've now changed my tune on that one thanks to you, [name deleted]. I'll gladly lay the blame for this nonsense firmly at Grisham's feet. I've read (or perhaps I should say that I've stomached) a couple of Grisham books (they gave me severe indigestion) and, sad to say, this sort of thing happens far too often in his books for my liking so I don't read his books anymore. I can't read them. What I like to call my "infernal internal editor" just screams so loud at Grisham's misuse of the language that it sets my ears to ringing.

That said, Grisham is clearly very successful, if I might state the obvious, and I may never attain to such heights myself, but I sure as hell can't bring myself to read another word of his. Neither can I bring myself to compromise my own writing to write to such low standards. In fact, I once quoted the opening paragraph of this book at Patrick and Teresa Nielsen Hayden's blog, and everybody had a good laugh at it.

For me, his books have become a sterling example of how not to write (although I'm sure that some positive lessons can be gleaned from his writing, as well). I'll also gladly suffer the blows that my attitude may incite, both now and in the future. Bring it on!

When I noticed that my comment had been deleted, the blog owner left a reply. Here, in sum, is what was said in essence (please note, what follows has been substantially reworded):

Take note: Attacking writers, especially bestsellers, is not permitted. Take caution.

All new writers have this idea in their head that bestsellers can't write well. That's a myth, and I'll write about it later.

All new writers tend to moan and groan that grammar and correct details should matter in fiction. They don't. That's a myth. I'll write about that, too.

I've still a lot of beef to grind.

Right. To be blunt, I don't have to be a published writer to know that this is complete and utter bullshit. Bestsellers are not unassailable. No one is. In fact, that's some holy beef shit right there that oughta be killed, if you ask me. There are professional novelists who write extremely well, and there are some who don't. Both write salable fiction, sure, and one might argue that saleability has nothing to do with the quality of writing, but why should the quality of writing be ignored?

As to grammar, in my comment I made what I think are extremely valid points and most editors worth their salt would agree with me. The only thing I said in relation to grammar had to do with passive versus active voice, and any professional editor will tell you that active voice should be used about 95% of the time. Further, I didn't say the sentence was grammatically incorrect, because it isn't. Passive voice is just as grammatically correct as the active, but in fiction the active is preferred far more than the passive. I think that most editors (I keep saying "most" because the owner of the blog to which I'm referring is as much an editor as they are a writer) would agree with me that Grisham's first sentence was a piss poor one. Sure, the man sells millions of books. Sure, some argue that "quality control" in writing is in the hands of the readers (not writers who are readers), but what does this really tell us?

You can say that it tells us that the story is really good and that readers don't give a shit about the quality of the writing, but you can also just as easily say that readers don't give a shit about the quality of the writing because they don't know any better. I don't think you can say, however, that a story's entertainment value and its saleability will necessarily suffer if editors and readers demanded better quality writing from authors. There was a day, after all, when that was true, and that would imply that the current state of publishing — by which I mean the final output that gets into the hands of readers — is in a state of decay. Does that mean that I advocate perfection? Hell no!

Was I saying that everything has to be grammatically correct? Not hardly. I know better than that. Sentence fragments are plentiful in modern fiction, but one must still be skillful at composing them to make sure that what one wants to say comes through clearly and without misinterpretation. In dialogue, you can kiss grammar's ass good-bye for the simple fact that almost no one speaks grammatically correct sentences all of the time. Speech patterns, favourite phrases, tones of voice, all that sort of thing is, in part, what marks one fictional character as different from another.

As to correct details, you can't argue with the fact that "shots" don't fire bullets. As to correct details, if I'm writing about weapons and I get details about a weapon wrong (features of the weapon, when it was made, the model number, the name of the manufacturer), readers who know better will be certain to write me scathing letters informing me of my screw up.

In a subsequent exchange between myself and the blog owner, the blog owner related an experience he had had with a professional editor/writer over the same sort of issue I've related here, criticizing in a bestseller a sentence he'd thought poorly written and grammatically incorrect. The editor/writer this blog owner had been talking to snorted at him, and he claims that when this happened, you knew you were in trouble. The editor/writer asked that the book be brought to him. He looked at the book, then asked the blog owner, “Putting aside the fact you think the sentence is wrong, why did this writer put that sentence in that spot at that point?” The blog owner says that it took him five years to get the answer, to understand what that bestselling writer had done and why. I've no problem with re-examining Grisham's book, to understand why Grisham had used that sentence and why he'd written it as he had done, but understanding the reason why something was done doesn't mean that I have to imitate a style that I think is disgusting.

Garrulus' Travels

Canada ::: England ::: France ::: Germany ::: Greece ::: Guam* ::: Ireland ::: Italy ::: Japan ::: Philippines* ::: Portugal ::: Scotland ::: South Vietnam* ::: Spain ::: Thailand ::: Turkey* ::: Wake Island* ::: Wales :::

LEGEND
Greece — countries where I've lived
Portugal — countries I've visited
* — airport layovers

Goals 2010

  • Find a Job
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  • Lose Weight
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    current weight: 192 lbs (87,0 kgs)

  • Write 250,000 words
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  • Read 30-40 books
    — 20-27 must be fiction —
    11 — fiction
    7 — non-fiction
    18 — TOTAL READ

  • Learn Portuguese
    Complete Hugo Portuguese course
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    verbs: —

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  • Folding Bicycle
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