lookihaveopinions

Tag: bad writing

Me

“If I haven’t captured the emotional core of the book—the thing that makes it matter—then it starts to feel like it’s just words on a page. Sometimes those words are clever and sometimes they’re [not]. When they’re very clever, I can occasionally write 30 or 40,000 of them before I realize that there’s nothing beneath them.”

—Rahul Kanakia (x)

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A good analysis of why twist endings often fail

“A book with a big twist ending has two masters: it needs to support the OSTENSIBLE reading (the one it wants you to believe until the end) and also provide evidence for the veiled reading. The problem, though, is that it the narrative usually bends and fractures under the weight of this secret, and you end up with huge holes in the logic.”

—Rahul Kanakia (x)

Kanakia’s post is worth reading in full. He goes on to suggest that in lieu of a twist ending, writers should consider milking the story for dramatic irony (the reader knows but the characters don’t) and just plain drama (showing the character’s struggles as they happen).

On how to respond to a volcano full of baby skulls

“[T]he bad artists, of whom there are many, are whining or moaning or staring, because it’s fashionable, into the dark abyss. If you believe that life is fundamentally a volcano full of baby skulls, you’ve got two main choices as an artist: You can either stare into the volcano and count the skulls for the thousandth time and tell everybody, ‘There are the skulls; that’s your baby, Mrs. Miller.’ Or you can try to build walls so that fewer baby skulls go in. It seems to me that the artist ought to hunt for positive ways of surviving, of living. You shouldn’t lie. If there aren’t any, so far as you can see, you should say so, like the Merdistes. But I don’t think the Merdistes are right—except for Céline himself, by accident, because Céline (as character, not as author) is comic; a villain so outrageous, miserable, and inept that we laugh at him and at all he so earnestly stands for. I think the world is not all merde. I think it’s possible to make walls around at least some of the smoking holes.”

—John Gardner (The Art of Fiction No. 73)

On artistic “failure of nerve”

“I do think there’s a failure of nerve involved in the creation of a mediocre book. But I still have no idea know how to recognize or guard against that failure of nerve. I suppose that, as in most things, you just try your best.”

—Rahul Kanakia (x)

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“The voice of your soul is breath.”

—tag on a Yogi tea bag

CURSE YOU

“What is done today is the tomorrow.”

—Yogi tea bag tag

On objective history

“Mr Baptist has not written an objective history of slavery. Almost all the blacks in his book are victims, almost all the whites villains. This is not history; it is advocacy.”

—the final lines of the Economist‘s review of The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism, by Edward Baptist

It’s impossible to keep up with current events without halting in your tracks from time to time, wondering if you’ve fallen prey to Poe’s law.


The more I look at this review, the more it amuses me. It is 538 words long. The first 215 words tell how slaves were “marketed like livestock” in the United States. A bit book-reportish, but serviceable. After that, the reviewer abruptly introduces what I assume to be Baptist’s thesis: that early U.S. economic growth was built on slavery (39 words).

Now we’re getting to the interesting part. The next 250 words are spent arguing that Baptist overstates his case. Sure, slavery was a contributing factor, but let’s not forget America’s “individualistic culture, Puritanism, the lure of open land and high wages, Yankee ingenuity and government policies.” The review does not, however, go on to address any of those factors, perhaps for lack of space. Instead, the reviewer points to another book (The Slave Trade, by Hugh Thomas) and says essentially, “What he said!”

There’s some patter about how “[s]laves were valuable property,” and therefore slave owners must have been motivated to treat them well. The reviewer rolls out this old chestnut with an air of originality and without flinching. Some writers would feel the need to at least pay lip service to the concept that no conditions of slavery can be humane; our reviewer remains bravely cheerful.

No attempt is made to isolate the causes of economic growth and productivity, or to argue coherently for one over another. The reviewer’s main point, I suspect, is that it is impossible to know for sure. And if we don’t know, we really can’t blame anybody, can we?

Then those last 34 words veer into frothing nonsense, and that’s a wrap.


At first, the demand for an “objective history” amused me more than anything else in this piece, but now it’s making me angry. Objective history. As though objectivity is just what happens if you do the research and write and try not to advocate for anything in particular.

Non-fiction writers shouldn’t be objective. They should be haunted by the idea of objectivity. They should be students of their own biases. They should be advocates for every good cause, however hopeless, however hopelessly complicated. They should never forget they live in the real world.

This is pretty good

“Been getting a lot of asks for writing advice this tour. My response is always: read a lot; write a lot; enjoy both; allow both to be bad.”

—Jeffrey Cranor (@happierman) July 23, 2014

On one meaning of criticism

Whenever I see a writer criticized for obscurity and pretentiousness, I somehow expect the critic to write clearly, unpretentiously, and well. This is not always the case. Often the critic makes a far worse mess of far modester ambitions.

Should we accuse such a critic of being hypocritical? To do so is surely to miss the real meaning of the criticism. Criticism is a way of saying, I am here, I have opinions, I am important. And often that is also true of the writing being criticized. There is no contradiction, no hypocrisy. We are all frogs piping back and forth across the bogs, I am here, me, me, me.

On under-invention

“I think most feckless writing, like most superficial thinking generally, bops along the surface of the dense and subtle realities that make life real and interesting. Most writing is too vague and abstract—which is to say, it’s under-invented; it doesn’t dig down to the blood and meat.”

—Jack Matthews (in an interview)