Saturday, 16 April 2016


The Importance of Reading Bad Writing

I have tried in my way to become not only a writer, but a good one. I’ve gotten better at the craft although I’m not there yet. I’ve got time to improve but I don’t know how much of my time remains nor how much I can improve upon the voice and style I’ve spent years sharpening. Like most scribblers I began with writing what I know. Surprisingly, even that approach involved research. When I wanted to write outside myself I learned that that sort of expansion required even more research, a lot more. These explorations were always guided by sound advice to read good writing and learn from it, examine it, dissect it. Put it back together again. Think. Maybe the road chose me but I chose my companions wisely.

One of the modest joys in my life as a reader is American detective noir. I have exhausted the output of the literary masters of the genre: Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Ross Macdonald and John D. MacDonald. Lately I’ve been haunting used bookshops seeking out their third-rate knock-off mass market competitors. Gold Medal or Popular Library paperbacks from the late 50s and early 60s with insanely lurid covers, vulnerable curvy dolls clad in sheer unmentionables posing for armed, cynical, Playboy witty, cigarette smoking men.

Most of these pulp authors are deservedly forgotten. Their prose makes Mickey Spillane’s read like Shakespeare’s sonnets. Shall I compare thee to ‘I, the Jury?’ Yet who am I to sneer? They were more prolific than I am and they sold many, many more books than I ever have. Who is more obscure?

After all hell breaks loose, the world-weary protagonist gets mad as hell. Chances are he will fall madly in love with a femme fatale who wantonly offers up her plump/pert/firm fruit/melons/cantaloupes for his lusty enjoyment. It’s not easy being a shamus or a gumshoe with a gat. Still, it’s a living, tough as it is to adhere to a strict personal code of conduct in a corrupt and dirty, naked city where mercy came to die. And there are some seductive, albeit deadly, benefits besides.

Clichés are true because they are broad, everybody understands them. They are without nuance, cleavers not scalpels. But at the end of the day, nobody wants to read them again and again. By the same token, no reader wishes the enjoyment of their experience to be hindered by the exclusivity of jargon and acronyms. Bad writing begs translation into English, but there is no key, no Rosetta Stone for the reader.

Bad writing, provided you’re able to recognize it, teaches you what not to do. Time is precious and two hours weren’t wasted snickering my way through ‘The Computer Kill,’ a Sam King suspense novel from 1961 written by a fellow named Raymond Banks. I reabsorbed a lesson about writing, and life too: knowing what not to do is as important as knowing what to do and how to do it, which may or may not be the same thing. It’s simple, but complicated, much like constructing a sentence.

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