Expanding, once more, on something I said in a previous post…
You might notice that I don’t review fiction too often. Aside from reviewing some books that are suitably obscure and, I think, deserving of more attention, or when there’s some interesting issues (good or bad) surrounding a novel, or if I just absolutely love something and can’t contain my joy, I don’t keep much of a book blog. One reason is that I rarely finish books I don’t like, and I feel uneasy about flying off the handle over a few pages of text. Another is that reviewing novels well requires a great deal of work. And with the huge amount of book review blogs out there I’ve become a tad disillusioned by certain concepts that creep in, especially when reviewers apply the microscope to sentences in some grand quest to prove arbitrary rules of “good writing” and evaluate texts thusly instead of engaging with anything else. I like good prose, mind you, and I’ve advocated for it repeatedly, but when you get down to cadence and rhythm and the rest, it’s more about the uniqueness in a given text, the author’s distinct voice, and not some ideal perfect writing style. I’ve read enough critics who seem to assume there is one.
I had a back-and-forth about this topic with Kyra Smith on Ferretbrain, a while back, and she summed it up better than my own stumbling attempts:
…[S]ince I started babbling my opinions about books on the internet I’ve massively massively scaled back on how much I’m willing to categorise something as being ‘bad writing’. The way we use language is so fluid and flexible that obsessing about the use of punctuation or cliché strikes me as churlish and unhelpful. Also a judgement of ‘bad writing’ is so often presented as objective rather than subjective. And a lot of the time when people criticise ‘bad’ writing what they’re actually talking about is writing that doesn’t adhere to arbitrary standards they have pretty much invented.
I mean, of course, there’s an issue of CLARITY – if something is not communicating what it’s supposed to be communicating that *is* bad writing. But from that point onwards the spectrum seems to me endless and uncategorisable.
Equally I often feel that reviewers who obsess about ‘bad writing’ and like to demonstrate the ways in which something was “done wrong” or “should” have been done differently are pseudo-writers, which is an approach to reviewing I particularly despise. I think if you’re reviewing a book it should be about, well, the book – not about you showing off what an awesome writer you’d surely be if only you could get published darnit.
–Source: http://ferretbrain.com/articles/article-875#comment_9810 (emphasis mine)
I rarely put a book down just because the prose is bad; usually, when authors can’t get a grasp on language, they tend to make more serious blunders. There are objective examples of terrible writing, like “The Eye of Argon”—but “The Eye of Argon” is also filled with malapropisms, bizarre, non-idiomatic phrasing, and plain old spelling and grammatical errors. None of those violate “rules of good writing” so much as they violate basic rules of the English language. Once you reach a certain level, writing quality becomes much harder to define and far more dependent on taste. As well, I’ve rarely come across a novel that sustains beautiful prose from cover to cover, even from writers I consider “good” at a sentence level. Just about anything at that length contains an awkward sentence or two unless the author’s name is Cormac McCarthy or Gene Wolfe.
Too often, I see reviewers pulling one or two awkwardly phrased passages from a novel and then mocking the author because “the whole book’s like that”…and often times, the whole book isn’t like that at all. It’s one of the easiest things you can do for a negative review. It’s also unfair, even dishonest.
I’m not going to harp on about this long. There aren’t many book reviewers I read regularly because too many opt for the above sort of shallow analysis rather than engaging with the context, themes, characters, issues &c., &c. of a text, but there are a few I enjoy for delving deeper: The Literary Omnivore or Russ Allbery, for instance, or the above-mentioned Kyra from Ferretbrain. Coincidently, two of these people have had formal education in the field of literary criticism.
How completely unexpected!