The Bad Content/Good Literature Problem (and vice versa)

Have you ever been reading a book and realized “holy cow, this is kind of a bad book,” and not been able to finish it? I have, plenty.

What makes a bad book? Offensive content or sloppy writing? In English classes, professors drill it into you that a “bad book” must mean the latter–it’s just not written well. Maybe most people agree that good literature means it (whatever it may be) is communicated with excellence, or that there is something expressed in an artful way.

They don’t actually ever agree on a formula, but that’s why there’s still an English major. We like to discuss.

I read plenty of material in English classes that had horrible content–I mean, pretty dang wretched–but certain poems or novels were in the anthologies because they were good literature. Shakespeare, John Donne, Robert Herrick–they all wrote beautifully, but more often than not the subject matter wasn’t exactly edifying (looking at you, Robert Herrick a la “The Vine”).

How come we can excuse inappropriate content if it’s presented artfully, but a book that’s badly-written gets dismissed immediately, even if its content is admirable?

This is opening like five cans of worms all at once, and I know I don’t have all the answers to the questions I’m asking. I’m genuinely asking for some perspective on what makes something worth reading–whether you’re more motivated to read a book that will help you or a book that will entertain you. I want to know whether you would choose a better-written book with salacious content or, all things being equal, a not-so-eloquent book that has great themes and characters but nothing in it you couldn’t comfortably read aloud to your grandmother.

WHY DO WE HAVE TO CHOOSE BETWEEN GOOD CONTENT and GOOD WRITING?

AAAAAH.

I need to clarify something. I am of the opinion that children don’t need to read about grown-up things until they’re grown up. I am also of the opinion that grown-ups may choose to read what suits them. I think that there is some content inappropriate for some people that’s fine for others, and here’s the key thing: I think there are some stories that require less-savory details to be included, because stories should be in some way true to life, and there are parts of life that are less-savory.

I’m not arguing for censorship, or making every piece of literature the Bible. But I am frustrated that in order to write a good novel, some writers feel they must include some explicit scene or language, even if it isn’t needed for the story. It makes me mad as a hopeful writer to be told any stories I write can’t be good literature unless they include certain “realistic” elements, as if a book must be as heavy-handed as a movie in telling the reader what’s happening elsewhere.

am arguing for imagination, and for a sense of reserve when telling a story. I think, although I don’t know for certain, that a good story-teller is like a painter in that there should always be something more there than at first meets the eye. There is more in a good impression given to a reader, than in a thousand actions described.

And then I start thinking about the fact that there are such things as “Twilight” and “Fifty Shades of Grey” and I just really think the printing press should have been destroyed after all.

I mean really. 

To be continued, maybe, if I get mad again.

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