Reading Terrible Books Isn’t a Waste of Time

A writer I really admire said the greatest piece of advice she can give to aspiring writers is to read good literature.  And she isn’t the only person I’ve heard/read this piece of advice from.  It makes sense: read good literature, learn what works.  Read enough good literature and you’ll see patterns, rules, and formulas emerge.  When you are first getting started, this is incredibly helpful.

I’ve been a lover of classic literature since my youth.  I read Little Women at age 10.  Next came Charles Dickens and A Christmas Carol.  High school introduced me to Pride and Prejudice and my instantaneous love of all things Austen.  During college and for several years after, I rarely bought a book unless it was considered a “classic.” (Harry Potter being the obvious exception!)  All that changed with those damn Twilight books.

For the record, I read all four books in about a week.  Also for the record, I saw immediately the lack of quality in the writing of Twilight, which enhanced my perception of the brilliance of the writing in my beloved classics.  To this day, I will tell anyone who asks that, yes, I’ve read Twilight.  I will also tell them that I’m not a “fan” of Twilight, but I have to admire Stephanie Myers a little anyways.

The quality of the writing in Twilight is very poor, in my opinion.  It’s all adjectives and repetition and teenage angst.  However, the plotting- the actual story and the world created- is pretty damn good.  I read all four books because even though I was annoyed by the poor writing quality, I was caught up in the story.  I wanted to know what happened.  It also made me want to write.

Before I read the Twilight books, the only thing I could have compared my own writing to was Austen, Dickens, Eliott, Hardy, etc.  How could I compete with such masters of storytelling?  I would always find myself lacking.  I never even gave writing a thought, and I think that’s why.

But after reading Twilight, I felt confident that I could write something, if not better, than at least AS good.  And if Stephanie Myers could write a 4 book series, the least I could do would be to write one book.  So I did.

I’m so glad I read the series.  It gave me a week’s work of guilty pleasure and a lifetime of satisfaction in knowing that I managed to write a book.  My book probably isn’t ever going to be published and while I like it, I can’t testify with any certainty to it’s quality.  But that’s not even the point, is it?  Knowing that I accomplished something so huge as simply putting the words down on paper and making sense out of them is enough.

I recently started reading another book, which I also find to be lacking in the quality-writing department.  Friends kept mentioning the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy to me (and later the Fifty Shades of Grey movie), insisting that I read it.  Like Twilight, I resisted for as long as I could, but eventually my curiosity got the better of me.  Unlike Twilight, I was prepared for less-than-stellar writing.  I’d read a few reviews and looked up the backstory behind the book (it started out as Twilight Fan Fiction then was self-published. There’s that damn Twilight again).  I knew what to expect.

My expectations were met- which isn’t often said for books.  The book isn’t bad (so maybe the title of this post should be “Reading Just Okay Books Isn’t a Waste of Time”), it’s just not good.  The writing quality is okay, there aren’t any major grammatical errors and it’s easy to read, but it feels forced a lot of the time.  The author likes adjectives and repetition, just like Mrs. Myers, and, in my opinion, she likes to sound smart (some of you may question my use of the word “sound” here, maybe you’d like “appear” better?).  But in attempting to sound smart, she comes off as the opposite, and frankly it makes me think that she’s trying too hard.  Writing should flow, it should feel natural and easy, but as I’m reading it, I can’t help but wonder if she had a dictionary, thesaurus, and medical journal open in front of her at all times so she could find the perfect, intelligent-sounding words for every occasion.  I’m only half-way through the book and she’s already used the term “medulla oblongata” TWICE.  Really?  Is that necessary?  I don’t think so (unless you are the Waterboy).  Also, her characters “giggle” way too much for 20-somethings.

I worry now that I may be coming off as trying to sound smart, too, so I’ll get to my point.  I’m appreciating this book because of it’s writing.  I know, that’s confusing, isn’t it?  What I mean is, I appreciate seeing all of the things I don’t like because it makes me realize changes I need to make to my own book.  I know I still have a long way to go before Twenty-Five is publishable (even self-publishable).  I find myself noting similarities between Fifty Shades and Twenty-Five and realizing that I have a lot of editing to do to produce the quality of writing I want representing me.

So I will persevere.  I will finish the book.  I may even read the whole series.  I probably won’t call myself a fan, but I’ll probably like it in the end.  Not in the same way I like P&P or Bleak House, but in the same way I like Twilight: as a satisfying-in-the-moment guilty pleasure whose movie(s) will probably be much, much better than the actual book(s).  And I’ll continue to allow myself to get talked into reading these trendy books, because just like great literature teaches me how to be great, terrible books teach me how not to be.

           

2 thoughts on “Reading Terrible Books Isn’t a Waste of Time

  1. I think there’s a balance somewhere, between dreadful writing with great stories and fabulous writing with dull stories. I want to read at least pretty good writing, with at least pretty good stories. Story still seems to come out on top, though. I’ve read plenty of lush and amazing writing, where I just have to give up after thirty pages because that’s all the story seems to be about: how clever the writer is with language. I seem to be able to get deeper into less-well written stuff that has a compelling story, though there are times when I’m just not going to bother.

    1. I agree, Sean. There are a lot of books that are considered “great literature” that I just can’t sit through. Gone With the Wind, Love in the Time of Cholera are two that come to mind. The stories may be great, but there’s too much writing overshadowing the story.

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