On Bad Writing

Everyone who knows me knows that I am an avid reader; my nose is almost always in a book whenever I have a spare moment, and even when I really don’t. I enjoy many different authors and genres, though I may not be overly enthusiastic about some fantasy and sci-fi series, depending on the style. I am one of those people that can’t abandon a book even when I am not enjoying it very much; I feel I owe it to the author to stick it through to the end to see if my opinion changes throughout the novel or story. In reality, there have been few books that I have disliked to the point where I truly wanted to quit them, as I usually find something intriguing or enjoyable about most stories and easily get wrapped up in a fast paced plot or interesting character.

Yet the novel I just recently finished was one of the few I would say I felt like was a waste of time, and a prime example of very poor writing. It was one of those novels that makes you wonder how some people get published and who decides that a manuscript is worth investing in. I wish to leave the name of the novel out, so that I can address my concerns without necessarily tying everything to specific references to the novel or seem like I am going on a tirade against a particular author.* My concerns with the novel were in part reactions to some of the details of the novel, but I want to speak primarily to principles of quality storytelling- of presenting a story that readers feel a true connection with, and finish feeling as though they understand something a bit better about their fellow humans. At the conclusion of a story, shouldn’t we feel as though we’ve had some insight into the lives of others, and feel like we are better able to understand and connect with them? Isn’t writing, at it’s heart, about our shared human experience, the truths we experience every day regardless of our race, gender, or age? Perhaps I am too idealistic in believing this.

The problem I had with this particular novel is that is seemed to be what the author imaged a “epic, grand” novel was suppose to be, rather than a naturally evolving novel, with compelling characters and a plot that was captivating and intricate. Instead, the novel jumps from one unbelievable situation or “coincidence” to the next in a way that is seemingly endless and frustrating. as there appears to be little logical progression or any attempt to resemble a real life experience (note that the novel doesn’t present itself as being fantasy or magical realism). Certainly, the unbelievable happens in many novels, and is usually welcome to some extent, since aren’t we seeking an escape through reading as well, however temporary it might be? Yet there must be some balance- the mundane, day to day events presented in contrast to the extraordinary ones. The novel is set primarily in Africa, though there are scenes in India and America as well, and these settings are described quite vividly. At some moments, the description feels a bit overwhelming, in fact, as if all your senses are being assaulted.

By many technical or “formal” standards, this novel could certainly be held in high regard. There is a complex plot, shifting points of view, and many narrative layers. While the characters are somewhat developed, they do no seem to experience any major changes, remaining generally static except for a few instances.

What was most concerning to me was the progression of events and their implications. The novel is essentially a biography of the narrator- he begins with the brutal story of his mothers journey from India to Africa, and then the traumatic event of his own birth (and his twin brother), and recounts events throughout his childhood and adolescence into adulthood. This type of sweeping narrative is no easy task, but it is an astounding thing when done well. I was relatively absorbed until the events began to deviate from the focus on the complex relationships between the primary family members and adults in the narrator’s life, and turned towards the sexual. I hardly consider myself sensitive to intimate scenes in writing or film- I’ve been exposed to enough that I generally do not feel awkward or offended. But when I read about the narrator’s first sexual desires and first intimate moments at the age of eleven, I must admit I was a bit startled and concerned. Certainly, all adolescents begin to have such moments in their early teens, but I believe eleven is a bit early for any real desire. I tried to remember what my own feelings were at that age and couldn’t recall any strong feelings of sexual curiosity. Perhaps I am the odd one, but this just seemed exaggerated and unnecessary.

From that point on, the novel turned into one about unrequited love and betrayal, and sexual repression to a mild extent. Yet the plot also expanded into murder and political revolution with guerrilla warfare, and much more. Each chapter brings one unimaginable event after the next in what feels like an endless spiral of tragic circumstances and coincidences. Throughout it all, our narrator seems undeterred from his ultimate goal, though this is not to say he has no powerful emotional reactions to these events. Yet, in the end, he ultimately shows little compassion for “the love of his life” or his own twin brother.

Having a emotionally distant or cold narrator can be an effective tool for a writer, but this novel doesn’t seem to be truly trying to present the narrator as such. What concerned me more than narrator’s reactions, in some ways, was contrived events as well as the presentation of female characters. Each traumatic event feels deliberately forced upon the narrator for the purpose of the novel, and the events that follow only perpetuate the downward momentum. Certainly, some women are portrayed as strong and virtuous in the novel, yet many are also portrayed as temptresses and irrational- such as the narrator’s main love interest. Her actions are the main catalyst for many horrifying events, leading to the tragic climax. She is rarely shone in a positive light- instead, we are mainly shown her often unforgivable flaws. In the later scenes, she is pitiable, but still does is not provided with any redemptive qualities. She is driven first by lust, then by anger and pride. Our narrator renounces her, yet also ends up accepting her back into his life in one rather awkward sex scene only to have her leave him again.

I will say, the author is a male. My trouble with the novel is both with is absurdity of the plot and the ways it perpetuates the woman as the source of evils. While he presents some in positive ways, his “positive” woman are generally submissive or extremely devout. The one strong woman who was independent, intelligent, and in some ways kind  is also shown as someone who “toyed” with the man who loved her, thus a mean-spirited “tease” and then one who finally accepts the role of a wife and turns only to religion at the conclusion of the novel. At the same time, the novel on the surface may appear to be “progressive” in that it exposes horrors of FGM and also describes doctors devoted to improving the medical care of women in rural Africa. For me, one does not negate or diminish the other. Woman are still the offenders, and men are better left alone to fulfill their potential.

After I finished the novel, I checked out reviews on Goodreads to see if anyone else felt the way I did. I only saw positive reviews, readers “dazzled” by the description and the powerful, moving story. Nothing that mentioned the troubling scenes of child sexuality or the general mistreatment and dismissal of woman to being the sex in need of redemption, riddled with injurious sins.

Perhaps I am being overly critical and my perceptions is “skewed” by my “liberal education”, as my father likes to tell me. I do not mean, through my analysis, to directly imply that the author is misogynistic, simply another member of the male patriarchy bent on suppressing women. I am not that spiteful. Regardless of the intent, the sentiment is still present, and yet it seems to be overlooked entirely. Yes, this is simply one novel that only received mild attention in the literary world. But the fact that these issues were not recognized at all in any critique or commentary of the novel is concerning to me since this is hardly an anomaly. Despite progress we have made- and yes, I believe we have made progress- there still remains a great deal of media in all forms that continue to present women in ways that are damaging and simply encourage attitudes that reduce women to unrealistic stereotypes. Men and women can be equally virtuous and equally malignant; is it that difficult to depict this through our art?

I suppose I have gone a bit off the topic of “bad writing”. Initially, I was aggravated by the  non-sencicalness of the novel, but as I reflected on it more the more I was both angered and disheartened to recognize the inability of a “modern” novel to allow for a female character to be intelligent, independent, and compassionate, an overall good person. While these types of characters do exist, and I do realize that every individual does not consist of purely positive traits, the simple fact is that it seems males will continue to be allowed to be tragic heroes while women will always remain either passive victims or malignant schemers who deserve punishment. Neither gender deserves to be pidgen-holed, regardless of it whether or not it is “just a show” or “just a book”. Art isn’t and doesn’t necessarily have to be a reflection of reality, yet art has a impact on culture and, therefore, values. If we continue to turn a blind eye to art that reenforces detrimental stereotypes and conceptions of the genders, everyone suffers.

Bad writing doesn’t just mean writing that is uninteresting, dull and uncreative, or unintelligent. Bad writing is writing both writing that is writing that is disingenuous, attempting to be something it simply is not, where meaningful action is replace with extreme drama and/or tragedy in an attempt to be interesting. Bad writing is writing that presents unrealistic and noxious images of either women or men, in ways that are may be obvious or subtle. The novel I just read encapsulates that, and I fear that there are many more pieces like it out there, receiving praise and quietly impacting our overall culture in a negative way. Creating communities that can recognize such images is of crucial importance, and having conversations about the implications of the images we see presented to us through popular culture is equal as important. Until this happens, we will continue to have bad writing, and make minimal advances towards real equality and a truly compassionate society.

*If you wish to know the title of the novel and the author, please feel free to ask.