Updated: Jun 9, 2021
Does anyone know what ‘bad writing’ is?
I read plenty of reviews and essay about film, TV, video games, and theatre, and I can’t figure it out. I’ve noticed that more and more often I read of this new plague afflicting our culture. In my research I’ve seen many works receive the honour of being labelled “badly written,” at some point by someone. Game of Thrones, Riverdale, James Cameron’s Avatar and Titanic, several Star Wars films, the Snyder DC films, several Guillermo del Toro films including Pacific Rim, and more recently the work of Joss Whedon come to mind. In the world of pop culture think pieces and video essays, the term bad writing is used with abandon, often without being defined.
So, what is bad writing?
Maybe it comes down to the various writing ‘rules.’ They have catchy names- show don’t tell, kill your darlings, etc. Maybe it’s about plot holes, dumb dialogue, inconsistent characters, pacing issues. Maybe writing is subjective, and we can’t say something is good or bad if critique is based solely in opinion. A cursory google search will point you towards hundreds of articles aimed at teaching writers how to write. For those who are just audience members with no interest in finishing a screenplay, that still leaves the question open.
The definition of bad writing is so tightly woven in with ideas about taste, education, class, and opinion that it is impossible to give a definition that covers everything. Bad writing, at the very least, is the opposite of good writing. But again, now we are left to figure out what good writing is instead. Alix Ohlin, a Canadian author and academic, attempts to clarify this in her 2011 article ‘On Bad Writing.’ In it, Ohlin argues that-
Good writing reminds us of the miraculous, infinite complexities of language, its endless potential to delight or challenge or offend. Bad writing shows us how slippery a tool language can be, how easily it can fail us or, more properly, we can fail it.
If good writing is mysterious, then bad writing is obvious. A well-written play is a beautiful, expensive car, and a bad play is a jalopy missing a wheel that seems to careen about rather than handling itself with precision and dignity. But, of course, this lack of mystery looks different in every medium.
So, I can’t define the term; what I can do is illuminate how the term can be used to blunt our ability to engage with a work.
When I tutor high school English, I enjoy providing my students with texts that are accessible but thought-provoking. That’s why I started teaching with Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery. Published in 1948 in The New Yorker, this short story has a simple plot conveyed in simple language- a normal, small American town holds their annual lottery to decide which citizen should be stoned to death. The story is brief, its violent ending striking with unexpected viscera. The reader is left reeling, questioning why on earth such a normal place would resort to barbarism for no reason. The Lottery is a portrait of mindlessly conservative ideology, and uncovers the hypocrisies that make up the human experience.
And, on the first read, all my students hate it.
The most common response I get is that they don’t understand it. Most of my students hate the ending in particular. These are what I get most often-
Why did they kill her?
What’s the point of the lottery?
Why do they do it if they know they could die?
Why do they want to hurt the children?
Can’t they just kill the people in charge?
Jackson ends the story at the point where we have the most questions; the reason she abandons us there is to allow the readers to think for themselves. Once my students ask their questions, I tell them to just guess. They always give me interesting responses- maybe the people are afraid, or they secretly like it, or it’s about stopping overpopulation. Their lack of certainty is a good feeling to get students comfortable with. As consumers of art, we won’t have the answers to every question a work asks- what we can do is be open and receptive, so that our confusion can be reformatted into a new perspective.
My students aren’t the only ones confused by Jackson’s tale- in fact, The New Yorker received more complaint letters about her story than any other work of fiction they had ever published. Ruth Franklin, Jackson’s biographer, describes the author’s reaction to the letters in a piece for The New Yorker. Jackson expressed dismay at the abuse she received from her readers. Franklin explains that-
Readers wanted to know where such lotteries were held, and whether they could go and watch; they threatened to cancel their New Yorker subscriptions; they declared the story a piece of trash. If the letters “could be considered to give any accurate cross section of the reading public … I would stop writing now,” [Jackson] concluded.
I can only imagine the horror Jackson might feel at a world where writers can be routinely accosted by readers. Now, the swirling void of Twitter casts a far wider net for any readers looking to express their anger. Last year, Jeanine Cummins’s novel American Dirt was criticised for its use of Mexican stereotyping- this didn’t stop it from receiving plenty of good reviews and press, including from Oprah Winfrey’s Book Club. After growing anger online, the book’s publisher cancelled its press tour, citing “concerns about safety” and the “vitriolic rancour” that the book had inspired. In a press event a month later, actress Eva Longoria spoke about the cancelled tour-
What made me really upset was when the publisher said, ‘We had to cancel the book tour because of safety concerns,’ which made my community look like we’re crazy people going to cause trouble. We’re not. We’re just being outspoken about the inaccuracies of what this book represents.
Let me be clear- criticism is not the same thing as confusion, and there is a big difference in intention between letter writers angry about an ambiguous story in the 1940s and twitter users angry about the politics of racial stereotyping in the 2020s. What strikes me is just how similar these different intentions look, and how both are often categorised as badly written.
Is American Dirt badly written? Clearly it was captivating enough for Oprah, but many will argue that racial stereotyping is a form of bad, lazy writing. The reaction to this book is what concerns me. A litany of hate has been aimed at activists and concerned readers speaking out about Cummins’s book, while the author herself has received no threats (according to her publisher). The hatred is aimed at the women of colour criticising the book, not the white woman who wrote it. In the cases of The Lottery and American Dirt, it is clear that these negative responses really have little to do with textual analysis.
An angry comment directed straight at the author or critic has no history of unpublishing any text. This anger, justified or not, is a symptom of the problem. Bad writing is not a term used by scholars because it is too amorphous a term to be useful. Threats of violence and mild irritation exist on the same spectrum of responses because they are informed by something far bigger than just the quality of writing.
The reality is that deciding that something is badly written is a personal process, and often not a healthy one. It’s very easy to become upset when we hear that a beloved movie is badly written, or when someone defends a short story that we consider to be garbage. Art provides us with emotional guidance, and teaches us how to live our lives and what to value- to have this stripped away with the simple proclamation of “this is badly written” is an affront to us as self-possessed audiences. It is akin to calling us stupid; or in the case of American Dirt, racist. And, similarly, hearing others hoist the battle flag of “this is badly written” over a text we love is a sign to us that those waging war are idiots who aren’t worth engaging. Part of why this can become emotional is that the proclamation is, largely, impossible to argue against if your only understanding of writing is that it is made up of subjectivity and rules.
The question of whether or not something is badly written skips a step of analysis so basic that any conclusions rendered are essentially meaningless. What are we really saying when we say something is badly written?
Subjectivity, when used in bad faith or incorrectly, only serves to muddy the waters. If something is objective, it must be quantifiable and, therefore, scrutable. Subjective things then appear less credible, their debate less grounded in evidence. Emotional responses, because they are rooted in subjective experience, are not evidence. But if that were true, then my job as a dramaturg or anyone’s job as a critic shouldn’t exist. Subjectivity, like the confusion my students feel reading challenging texts, is a healthy and necessary aspect of engaging with art. Subjectivity means that the experiences of people of colour can be recognised as invaluable. But subjectivity is used by some as an excuse to disengage from art we don’t understand, and have no interest in understanding.
So, if you see someone decry the plight of bad writing, encourage them to instead be open and receptive. It is possible to turn anger into learning. Understanding what makes us angry in a text makes it easier to combat the harmful ideas that lurk beneath the surface of terrible novels.
Bad writing is a myth. It makes the reality of media criticism look a lot simpler than it actually is.
What do you think? What is bad writing?
Please leave your own musings in the comments. Thanks for reading!
Alter, R 2020, 'Why is everyone arguing about the novel American Dirt?', Vulture, 7 Feb, <https://www.vulture.com/article/american-dirt-book-controversy-explained.html
Flood, A 2020, '‘Real censorship’: Roxane Gay responds to American Dirt death threat row', The Guardian, 14 Feb, <https://www.theguardian.com/books/2020/feb/13/roxane-gay-death-threats-american-dirt>.
Franklin, R 2013, '"The Lottery" letters', The New Yorker, 35 Jun, <https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/the-lottery-letters>.
Ohlin, A 2011, “On Bad Writing,” Salmagundi, no. 170/171, pp. 174–183.
Shirley Jackson photograph © Laurence Jackson Hyman
Oprah Winfrey and Jeanine Cummins still © CBS
Woman reading photograph © Wix