Tunnel Vision

The other day I was talking to a friend from a different part of the country, and she mentioned that her Borders was closing so she’d gotten a great deal at the liquidation sale. When I said I’d had similar experiences, she said, “Oh, yours was closing too?” and I told her about its bankruptcy.

Being immersed in publishing blogs and news, I’ve known about Border’s liquidation since it was first announced months ago. I was almost flabbergasted to meet someone who hadn’t heard. Hasn’t everyone in the world been mourning its closure?

This incident made me wonder how much tunnel vision comes with immersing yourself in the writing world. When you surround yourself with hardcore readers and writers, it’s easy to lose perspective and think everyone reads and writes as much as you do. But of course while I read a couple of books a month, many of my contemporaries at Northwestern–one of the nation’s premiere colleges–only read for class.

In particular, I wonder about this whole editing business (even though I love editing, think editors are incredibly important, and believe that when I edit, I do add value to a project). Before I started studying writing, when I was a lay-person reader, I could read a lot more books and not want to throw them across the room. For example, I read the Twilight series and didn’t particularly find anything to  complain about in terms of the writing. I haven’t gone back to read the series since, but I’ve heard the writing is atrocious, and when I do flip through the books, the one or two sentences I see are riddled with adverbs, ambiguous pronouns, and cliches. If I were reading it now, I’d probably have to stop. And on the flipside, when I tried reading literary fiction before, I had trouble appreciating it at all.

So now I wonder, which Katie matters more? The one who was truly just a consumer, reading books for entertainment, or the one who has been trained in the art of writing? Does the art really matter if consumers enjoy non-artful books just as much if not more?

In previous posts, I’ve talked about how much I deplore the label of genre fiction and the snobbery with which some writers regard it as unreadable. I still believe that genre fiction can be just as artful as literary fiction, but the more I read of it with honed writing senses, the more I find it filled with weak writing. Other readers love books that I can’t finish. Is the problem the writing or is the problem me? And as an editor when I see these works, should I be trying to propel the writing to a higher level, or should I write it off as a byproduct of the genre and focus only on the story?

This is probably a question I’ll be wrestling with for the next few years. I’d love to hear what other people think, especially people who haven’t studied writing. Do you ever stop reading a book because of poor writing? How important is story to you in comparison to the quality of writing?

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4 thoughts on “Tunnel Vision

  1. I don’t think I’ve ever stopped reading a book because of poor writing, but a weak, boring, or trite story with two-dimensional characters will make me stop reading a book fairly quickly. Of course, there must be some sort of lower threshold to my tolerance of poor writing, but I haven’t found it yet. Using Twilight as an example, I noticed the poor writing and the cliches, but the story was interesting enough that I soldiered on. I nearly put Twilight down during the 4th book when the characters and plot just got weird, but I decided to push through because I had gotten that far. So I guess for me the plot and character development are the most important parts of a book.

  2. I have stopped reading – most recently I couldn’t get past page 55 of The Hunger Games (did I hear a gasp out there?) It was all story for me. But I read for pleasure only. It’s not like required reading where you have to attack it with a critical eye. But I am sure for some, it is hard to separate the two.

  3. It had happened to me, but not that many times as I remembered. When you think about the amount of books that fill up a shelf in a ordinary book shop. A reader is bound to pick up a book and wonder what was the publisher drinking to get this trashy pile of pulp paper on the shelves. I don’t believe bad writing can be found in any particular genre either. Anywhere people go to work and produce inventions, great art, or even a good car. Their has to be a lemon or two in there.

    • It’s true; people definitely have different thresholds for what they think is good. It’s hard to say that what I consider poor writing is objectively poor and not just my taste. Still, there must be some rules besides grammar that we all agree to uphold, right? (Of course, a lot of modern writers–myself included–don’t even uphold all the rules of grammar when it comes down to it.)

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