One thing writers love is hanging shit on other writers. Lord Byron mocked John Keats’ ‘piss-a-bed poetry’. Baudelaire called Voltaire ‘the king of nincompoops’. William Faulkner sniffed that Ernest Hemingway ‘has never been known to use a word that might send a reader to the dictionary’ – to which Papa retorted, ‘Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words?’
Writers prefer to consign our own bad writing safely to satire or a vanished novice self – or both, as in Sue Townsend’s viciously hilarious portrait of bad teenage writer Adrian Mole. Indeed, jokey literary events where writers read out their deliberately terrible erotic fan fiction, or sublimate the shame of their rediscovered juvenilia, are reliable crowd-pleasers.
I suspect that calling someone else’s writing bad is a way of performing a critical authority we hope will inoculate us from writing badly ourselves. Every cheap laugh at the leaden prose of Dan Brown, Stephenie Meyer and EL James, every champagne-bleared dismissal at a writers’ festival party and every link to the latest lit-journal clusterfuck thrums with disavowal. An entreaty: it’s not me.
What is it, though, to be a bad writer? Seeing my own name attached to this makes me uneasy and embarrassed; what if this wasn’t impostor syndrome, but the beginnings of a shameful self-realisation? You see, bad writers don’t necessarily lack nuts-and-bolts craft (though the worst ones certainly do). What they lack most is self-insight. Like fish unable to perceive wetness, they are fixated on ideas of themselves that they struggle to acknowledge, much less escape.
‘Bad writing is almost always a love poem addressed by the self to the self,’ observes author Toby Litt in The Guardian. ‘The person who will admire it first and last and most is the writer herself.’
Because their work is inextricable from their egos, bad writers respond poorly to even reasonable, constructive critique. In an October 2016 essay at the Sydney Review of Books, Michael Mohammed Ahmad vividly sketches composite portraits of the bad writers he has encountered in his teaching work with SWEATSHOP: Western Sydney Literacy Movement – all of whom share a self-satisfied rejection of his criticisms.
Ahmad’s essay was widely shared, perhaps because those who work with aspiring writers regularly encounter the sorts of bad writing he skewers, but feel less able to express their frustration publicly. SWEATSHOP has built its reputation not only on engagement with multicultural, working-class communities across Western Sydney, but also on a combative workshopping technique Ahmad likens to a boxer’s sparring practice, in which the group interrupts readings to offer robust jabs of line-by-line feedback.
Even as I delighted in seeing bad writing righteously slammed, I was disquieted that Ahmad’s otherwise lucid diagnoses seemed dismissive, even contemptuous, of the writers as people. Ahmad seeks to inspire, not to demoralise. But perhaps he has grown cynical after many brushes with badness, because he seems to believe humiliation is inspiring.
Ahmad frames the process of overcoming badness as a sports-movie training montage: you emerge from weakness into strength, from ignorance into wisdom, with a voice that is original because it understands itself at last. But to the bad writer, it may feel more like hazing. Or grieving: to abandon deeply internalised ideas about your abilities is indeed to kill your darlings.
Ennis Cehic was a member of the West Writers Group at Melbourne’s Footscray Arts Centre from 2014–15. At The Lifted Brow, Cehic reflects that after submitting to SWEATSHOP’s ‘sincere but ruthless’ workshopping technique, he noticed his own group’s dynamic changing from careful encouragement to something ‘hungrier’ and ‘openly more critical’ that he found more mature and intense.
‘We never thought that pushing further in would bring us to a deeper feeling,’ Cehic recalls. ‘We didn’t push hard enough to take it to great.’
Perhaps it’s necessary to rupture the amniotic comfort of writers’ workshops that only coddle and reinforce bad writing. Indeed, when language professors Richard Jean So and Andrew Piper used machine learning to analyse 200 novels written by graduates of leading American MFA programs, they discovered a dispiriting uniformity. In The Atlantic, So and Piper report that conventional creative writing education ‘isn’t about developing a unique style at all, but about learning how to sound like already published writers. It’s about gaining entrance to the club.’
Cehic recounts being pushed to a state where ‘fear becomes the true motivator’ of creativity. Perhaps, then, bad writing becomes understandable – if not excusable – when we think of it as self-protective: a way not to feel afraid. Litt observes, ‘Bad writing is written defensively; good writing is a way of making the self as vulnerable as possible.’
I’m not suggesting we should indulge bad writers. But perhaps confrontational critique doesn’t always help people reach the vulnerability that good writing requires. Perhaps it only feeds their unconscious privilege, or adds more weight to the heavy story they desperately want to tell. Bad writers need to escape their worst selves, but they aren’t bad people.
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