4 thoughts on ““Can a great book be badly written?” (Can a great author write badly?)

  1. Diana

    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.

  2. Roger W. Smith Post author

    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.

  3. Pete Smith

    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.

  4. Roger W. Smith Post author

    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.

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