Last week I attended the ‘Bad Writing’ Symposium organised by Kings College London. Scholars from across the country – from Trinity College Dublin to Cambridge University – came to share their thoughts on genre writing and attitudes towards it.
It was a swelteringly hot early Autumn day, and I arrived in good time after fighting through the morning rush hour on the trains and tubes. I worked my way through the university building, up to the sixth floor, and into a large white room with quotes scribbled all over the walls, large skylights and huge hanging globe lamps. A spiral staircase in the corner, and a huge drawing of the event’s icon: the Cthulhu typewriter.
The day was divided up by various panels of talkers, with tea breaks, a lunch break (free sandwiches!), a guest speaker, another panel of talkers, then a group discussion (which I’m afraid I didn’t stay for – it was a very long day). Here are some of the highlights.
What is ‘Bad Writing’?
The introductory talk by Sarah Croft naturally began by discussing what is meant by the term ‘bad writing’. Ideas included:
- ‘Badness’ of aesthetics and morality of a piece of writing… badly written, immoral content…
- Authors who consider their word ‘bad’, but is actually well received
- Work that is considered a failure, for any reason
- Genre writing as a formula, following patterns associated with ‘low’ fiction, creating a co-dependency on a wider body of work
- Writing that is too close to a genre without carrying its own artistic weight
- Genre writing is associated with pleasurable reading… perhaps as a guilty pleasure
I think genre writing gets a bad rap because of its formulaic nature. The issue of co-dependency means that some novels are only read because of the success of their predecessors in the same genre. A ‘bad’ genre novel has no artistic merit of its own. What proportion of genre fiction that falls into this category is probably a subjective matter, which is why some people brush aside all genre writing as ‘bad’. Obviously, this is not the case.
Stephen King: The Master of Post-Literate Prose
Bernice Murphy then spoke about Stephen King, using him as a case study to identify the social views of the differences between genre and literary fiction, accessibility and success.
- Genre fiction is often defended by the argument that it offers a valuable insight into the psyche of modern society. (Though the weight of this argument is questionable.)
- You can tell what people value by the books they read. (Can you judge people by their bookshelves?)
- Genre reading is relaxing because it is pre-digested and undemanding. There are no major mental strains on the reader.
- There is the opinion that if the masses like it, there must be something wrong with it! (Because the masses want undemanding literature? Does undemanding literature mean ‘bad’ literature?)
- If a writer is a big name or a brand, they are usually not edited as much as they should be [because a) they will sell anyway and b) they become an expert in their own writing that is more authoritative than any editor.] King wrote under the pseudonym Richard Bachman, and though the novels sold quite well, their sales increased considerably when King was revealed as the true author.
- Literary fiction is self-conscious and self-defining, because ‘serious’ is an undefinable concept. King tried to write in a more literary style at one point, and it flopped.
- The expectations of a reader can define a ‘bad’ novel: a popular novel badly written but with a good story is considered okay, but with a literary novel the quality of prose can save it, regardless of story.
- There is a perceived hierarchy of fiction. Literary and genre fiction should not be set against each other. Yet, some genre writers express the desire to be considered literary… [Or perhaps they simply want the same level of respect - which is to do with perception rather than the writing in itself.]
Why Reading Bad Fiction Doesn’t Necessarily Make Bad People
Joe Crawford talked about the rise of the novel in the 18th century and perceptions about ‘bad’ writing back then, and parallels in today’s society.
- Classifications create each other. By labelling some writing as ‘good’, it means some writing must automatically be ‘bad’ in comparison.
- There is the perception that bad writing attracts bad readers. People who read bad writing are not intelligent enough to understand the boundaries between fiction and reality, the allegorical and the literal. They interpret wrongly. There is a destructive internalisation. (Modern parallel between violent computer games.)
- The rise of the printing press showed Gothic fiction reaching the masses (the ‘bad’ genre writing of the times.)
- Metternich (Austrian politician) was adamant that the free press and social order was incompatible. Much of the upper class held this view.
- Many people in the upper classes fought for censorship in the 18th century. The free press of the internet has proved their fears wrong. We don’t go mad with immorality because we can’t distinguish between fiction and reality, and the worth of what is written. We have the ability and intelligence to judge for ourselves. It is suspected that we have always been like this.
- People watch plays and read books because they don’t want to take everything so seriously.
- Fiction can lead people astray (and violent music, computer games etc) but only when those people are disconnected from reality in the first place.
- Ironically, the 18th century masses understood that Gothic fiction wasn’t real, but the literary/social hierarchy bough into a ‘fiction’ that these novels were bad for people and caused harm. A ‘spook’ that has been haunting our social structure ever since…
Other interesting talks included an examination of racism in adventure fiction, and an exploration of the Scream movies and the extent of success of their critique of the slasher sub-genre.
For me, the highlight of the day was the guest speaker, Paul Cornell, New York Times #1 bestselling author, Hugo award nominee and writer of Doctor Who and both Marvel and DC Comics. He spoke about the history of definitions of genre… Which I will write about in my next post.