Monday, August 17, 2009

The Worst Book I've Ever Read

Yeah, that's not really what I'm going to talk about. If you've read my post about the best book I've ever read, you probably won't be surprised to discover that I'm not going to try to pick an all-time low. But earlier this evening, I was reading a thread on Blog Catalog where people were nominating worst-ever books, and it got me thinking about what bad writing can mean to us as writers.

First, and perhaps most obviously, it can teach us what not to do. Many writers and editors and writing teachers suggest that the best way to develop a good sense of the language and improve your own writing is to read good writing on a regular basis. Sometimes, that provides direct lessons--sometimes we note a particular device that works well and adapt it to make it our own. But more often, we simply absorb the flow of good writing and it helps, almost unconsciously, to tune our ears. Reading too much bad writing, of course, could have the opposite effect; we don't want to immerse ourselves in badly-written prose to the point that it starts to sound normal.

But those clunkers jump out when someone else gave birth to them, don't they? The occasional tour of some poorly-constructed text can be an excellent lesson in What Not to Write.

More importantly, at least in my personal experience, bad writing creates perspective.

I was about sixteen when I read The Novel that would change my life. Though I'm not inclined to award the title of "worst book I've ever read" to anything, this book stands out in my mind as having been the worst book I'd read up to that point. It struck me how bad it was; it was hard to focus on the story because the writing was so very questionable. And that made it the most fascinating book I'd ever read.

You see, at sixteen I'd already known for years that I wanted to be a writer. I'd already been filling volumes--journals, short stories, bad poetry--for five or six years. But "writer" sounded a bit like "astronaut" or "rock star" back in those days. And then I held that paperback novel in my hands, published by an imprint of a major house, and thought, "I can do better." Not even "someday"--right then and there, in that moment, I was confident that I was a better writer than that published author.

Years later, I had a similar revelation looking at a short novel by a best-selling author. It wasn't that this novel was bad, but that it was so concise and simple. I was convinced that it couldn't have taken more than two weeks to write. That changed my perspective on the likelihood that I could write fiction while working full time, and the new perspective turned out to be correct: I've completed two separate novels in just about exactly 40 hours each, something I would never have undertaken without that flash of insight.

If you're an aspiring writer, read good literature. Study your heroes. There's no substitute for immersion in well-turned phrases. But every once in a while, make sure you look up and look around. Make sure you're aware of the full range of what's out there, and develop a realistic view of where in that spectrum your own work falls.

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