Re the following comment, from the New York Times Book Review’s “By the Book” feature:
Can a great book be badly written? What other criteria can overcome bad prose?
Reading Theodore Dreiser’s work has been likened to finding a very powerful Russian novel in a really bad translation. Tone-deaf works of fiction rarely achieve lift-off. Nabokov, last century’s master finisher, perfected his every sentence on its separate note card. Exquisite sentences make for wonderful books. In my view, bad sentences can only make bad ones. — Allan Gurganus
— “How the Bible Divided, and United, Allan Gurganus and His Father,” The New York Times Book Review, January 10, 2021
Perfectionism can suck the juice out of a novel.
I’m sorry, the present writer (yours truly) finds Lolita unenjoyable and unreadable, and too clever by half.
James Joyce was a genius of literature and language. His novels can also leave the reader feeling emotionally empty. His characters are mythological stand-ins, types. We peer into their minds, but they themselves don’t seem fully recognizable as idiosyncratic people the way a Dickens character such as Pip or Mr. Micawber does.
If we are going to relegate writers to inferior status on account of stylistic gaucherie, we have a problem when it comes to novelists such as Defoe, Balzac, and Dickens. (And I don’t deny Dreiser’s atrocious style.) They wrote in haste and often carelessly. It’s easy to find evidence of this. Even Shakespeare did, but then his genius trumps all such pettifoggery.
Note the following comment by a reviewer on Amazon.com:
[Our Mutual Friend] is the last of Dickens’ novels and contains some stylistic quirks. He talks a lot about “dust” which is presumably a metaphor for something, but he never says what. … His prose is also sometimes curiously mannered. He has lists of things which he repeats in numerous consecutive sentences. At other times he writes in a kind of shorthand using incomplete sentences. However, these eccentricities aside, it is as good an example of his work as many others. There are plenty of characters and caricatures to enjoy and many sub-plots to follow. As ever, you can trust Dickens to bring them all to a conclusion by the last page. He is also pleasingly sarcastic about social conventions, politics and money. There is no need to reveal any of the plot except to say that the action takes place in London and is centered around the river Thames. If you like Dickens, you will not be disappointed.
— Martin Grundy, review of Charles Dickens, Our Mutual Friend, Amazon.com, August 16, 2014
In other words, as always, Dickens manages to deliver, sloppiness and haste of composition aside.
— Roger W. Smith
January 11, 2021
What a thought-provoking post! I think the answer to the main question is that it all depends. Defining “bad writing” is like defining “good writing” too, in a way. It must be subjective to a certain extent. We may possibly only recognise the absolute extremes of both. Is “bad prose” the one that is presumptuous, has too many adjectives or too little? unfit for that type of a book? unclear? clarifies too much, clarifies too little? People seek different things in different books. Nabokov and Joyce’s prose may be excellent, but it also has this ability sometimes to bore one to death, why deny that? Dickens’s target audience was also broader. He had different goals too, and everything also depends on a context and the nature of a book, story, etc. There are so many variables here, including the number of books one produces, etc. Yes, Dickens may have produced something with some sloppiness and haste, but I imagine there will be thousands upon thousands of authors working today who would give anything to write like Dickens at his worst and sloppiest. If Dickens wrote “badly”, then what can be said of the vast majority of present living and breathing authors? Sometimes I get that notion that perfect prose is the one that simply feels perfect and best suited for that particular type of a book, story, reader, etc.
Thanks, Diana. Perceptive comments, to wit:
“Defining ‘bad writing’ is like defining ‘good writing’ too, in a way. It must be subjective to a certain extent.
“People seek different things in different books.
“Sometimes I get that notion that perfect prose is the one that simply feels perfect and best suited for that particular type of a book, story, reader, etc.”
These comments are insightful and helpful. You read and analyze literature, as do I, from a READER’S perspective.
Yes, but . . . .
Why shouldn’t one appreciate both — good writing and good stories? “Roger’s Rhetoric” is devoted, I think, to improving the quality of everyone’s writing. Is Dreiser exempt from this?
In my view, Dreiser was mediocre writer who built much of his fame on summarizing with pretty bad prose a tragic true story well covered in the press, from whom he plagiarized liberally. Wouldn’t his novels been better had he been a good writer?
As for Nabokov, have you read “Speak Memory”? Agree with you on Lolita, but Nabokov’s autobiography is a fascinating and well written work which Dreiser could never achieve.
Re your comment, “Why shouldn’t one appreciate both — good writing and good stories?” This is a valid point worth considering.
But, to take examples from my post, writers such as Defoe and Dickens, who composed hastily and sometimes wrote carelessly, were not just good storytellers: They were brilliant writers whose works are worth studying for that reason (as well as great reads).
I did read “Speak, Memory.” I do not remember it well. And I read at least one other Nabokov novel (besides “Lolita”), “Pnin,” in full (I confess I liked it) and one or two others, I think in part (may have not finished).
You refer to “An American Tragedy.” Dreiser did lift large parts of the latter parts of the book from press accounts. Dreiser made enduring fiction out of the American Tragedy story. I am still inclined to regard “An American Tragedy” as a great American novel, despite its flaws. It exhibits both Dreiser’s strengths and his weaknesses. A few if not many people have commented (to me) how they were bowled over, like me, by its power.
I have read both of Dreiser’s autobiographies. The first one, “A Book About Myself” (also entitled “Newspaper Days”), is an unacknowledged classic of the genre. To say he could “never achieve” such a work is contradicted by this work of his.
I made it clear in the post (and have done so elsewhere) that the criticisms of Dreiser’s style which have been made repeatedly are entirely warranted.
Much of my reaction is based on my dislike of the American Tragedy, which I more or less had to trudge through because of what I considered poor writing, but to each his own I guess. And I don’t disagree with your point that great authors can often be less than great writers.
I haven’t read Newspaper Days, and will try to find a copy, although it’s out of print on Amazon.
A Hoosier Holiday is available, but it’s pricey and since one of the two reviewers on Amazon complains about its “slow, dreary stretches” — a number of which I recall in An American Tragedy — I’m reluctant to take this one on.
Interesting question. I feel as though a great book can not be poorly written but perhaps I haven’t read enough great books. I thoroughly enjoyed Sister Carrie and An American Tragedy although I read them roughly 40 years ago so again, perhaps I wasn’t a good judge of great books. When analyzing the last book that Dicken’s ever wrote, it’s likely the reviewer is already familiar with many other works by Dickens, knows the author well, and has previously subscribed to the man’s genius. Hence, he’s likely to forgive confusing passages or underdeveloped characters. Would Our Mutual Friend be considered a great book if it were Dickens’ only work?
I don’t think that every great book is brilliantly written, but I suspect that it has to be (at least) well written.
A thoughtful and interesting reply, Carol. Thank you. That’s a good point about “Our Mutual Friend”: Dickens’s last book. I think that the Amazon reviewer was a careful and thoughtful (unlike most) reader who thought that while “Our Mutual Friend” had faults (and was undoubtedly not Dickens’s best book), it still exhibited what made Dickens the writer he was. Well, you enjoyed “An American Tragedy.” So did I. And yet, it was poorly written. Poorly written, but powerful. I don’t think Dreiser is a great writer in a class with the greats of world lit. But, I would claim great status, say, for Defoe; and he wrote hastily and often (it seems) carelessly. Balzac comes to mind in this respect, and maybe Dostoevsky too. Nabokov thought Dostoevsky was a poor stylist and that he wrote “potboilers.”
I forgot completely my having read in its entirety Nabokov’s book on Gogol, which I possess, and. all or in part, Nabokov’s essay on Dostoevsky. The latter is very relevant since Nabokov, who wrote in a vein of contempt, found Dostoevsky to be a sort of Russian Dreiser who wrote carelessly – lacking style and polish – and whose novels Nabokov regarded as sort of melodramatic potboilers.
I also got to thinking why don’t I remember “Speak, Memory” well. I think it’s because it did not make a lasting impression on me, whereas many incidents, anecdotes, and persons from Dreiser’s “Newspaper Days” were unforgettable.
Interesting. I read Crime and Punishment around the same time as Dreiser and loved it. I studied engineering in school and mainly avoided as many English classes as I could. Having very little creative ability, I admire most novelists that can spin a good tale although Stephen King and other bestsellers do not appeal often because I find the writing too simplistic. But then I guess they’re not considered authors of great books. All this to say, I’m not a bit qualified to respond to your question but it’s been fun thinking about it. Cheers!
Thank you, Carol. My interest in literature is not primarily academic (as I believe you would say about yourself), and I have a pretty varied background when it comes to education and interests. But I will compliment myself and say that I am very well read and have good taste. I pretty much never read bestsellers and usually avoid books about politics, current events. true crime (with one or two exceptions), celebrity bios, etc. I want to be challenged by what I read and seek out the best writers. I read “Crime and Punishment” too and some other stuff by Dostoevsky, but then I got into Tolstoy. You might like Elisabeth van der Meer’s site on Russian literature at
She has a devoted following.
Pete – I replied to you by email, but — for those who may read this comment — “Newspaper Days” is available at various prices at the bookseller site
The unexpurgated edition edited by T. D. Nostwich (published by U of Penn) is the best edition. It was originally published as “A Book About Myself” (i.e., the book, bowdlerized, in the 1920s or actually teens I think).
“A Hoosier Holiday” is a travel book. The best edition in the Indiana Univ Press one (1997). I found it to be a charming book. It is a light read. Not great, but enjoyable. There are some passages of Dreiser philosophizing and commentary which are weak. Like a lot of Dreiser books, it is somewhat slapdash. But I think it’s good, and if not that, enjoyable. A car trip to the Midwest was not common then.
I trudged through “An American Tragedy”– all 800 some odd pages — and half noticed the poor writing. It was exhausting in a way, because of the length, etc., but I could not put it down.