Posted on February 8, 2006 Posted by John Scalzi 11 Comments
A bit of intelligence from Elizabeth Bear:
“Feminism is never an excuse for laughably bad prose.”
Indeed not. Feminism is never an excuse; neither, for that matter, is socialism, capitalism, libertarianism, objectivism, Catholicism, Marxism, racism, or any other sort of -ism you wish to think up of, up to and including the ones that don’t, in fact, end with “-ism.” Indeed, in all the history of the known world, there’s been only one excuse for laughable bad prose, and it’s the special case of ferreting out evil publishing folks (an example of which you’ll find here). Otherwise: Bad prose is bad. Try to avoid it, even when you Have a Message. Messages don’t help bad prose, and God knows that bad prose doesn’t help the message any.
A corollary to this: Excusing bad prose with an “-ism” that isn’t actually in evidence doesn’t work either. Which is to say that not every book whose bad prose is defended from a feminist perspective has any relevant feminism in it (or socialism, capitalism, etc); the ideological rationalizations in these cases are bolted on after the fact to defend craptastic writing. One can usually tell when this happens. This is the “rock lyric” maneuver, in which some ambitious undergraduate tries to square his love of Def Leppard’s “Pour Some Sugar on Me” with his emerging intellectual insecurity by trying to find allusions to the world-historical left in lyrics like “You’ve got the peaches, I’ve got the cream, sweet potato, saccharine.” Yeah, it doesn’t fly, says the fellow who tried to tie some Kate Bush lyrics to the thinking of certain pre-Socratic philosophers, and got a nice fat “D-” for it. You live and learn.
In short, and to repeat: Bad writing is bad. There is no excuse. Don’t make or accept any — either bad writing or excuses. That is all. Thank you for your attention.
So then I should scratch my “Run-D.M.C. and Post Marxist Theology” paper?
Tricky, tricky, tricky, tricky, huh!
D-? That’s such an insulting mark. You’d think that the D would be enough. D- is ‘You suck AND you’re ugly!’ It’s ‘I slept with your wife AND wore her underwear!’
It’s such an insulting mark that I’m insulted on your behalf. Possibly the only mark that is more insulting is the D+, but that’s a mini-rant for another day.
One’s gotta ask: which Kate Bush songs and which scholars?
I was comparing the text of Kate Bush’s “Love and Anger” to Empedocles’ idea that “love” and “strife” were forces that attracted or repelled elements (at the time thought to be fire, water, air and earth). As noted, the professor wasn’t impressed.
But! I got an “A” on the paper in which I argued that Pink Floyd’s The Wall was a coherent psychological statement (which it is, actually: the narrator is having a psychotic break, and the the album lays out both the causes for the break, the immediate event preceding the break and the break itself, as well as suggesting at the end that the fellow is being made to cope with his issues). So sometimes it does work.
I’ve written enough bad prose to recognize it in three hundred words.
You should have a contest to see how many words it takes people to realize what they are reading is pure shite.
“I can turn my nose up at that in ten words.”
“I’ll do it in seven!”
My Dad, being the mischievous prick he sometimes is, critiqued one of my very first works like this, “Opening a story with the word ‘the’ is very prosaic. You should reconsider using it.”
Consequently I have made an effort to never begin writing a novel with the word ‘the’.
Gabe: I’ve often been told my profanity is too profane – go figure…
As opposed to appropriate profanity? What a concept.
Too profane? Try insulting/swearing by someone ELSE’s gods. I mean, in this day and age, you would have to be AWFULLY unlucky to have someone get angry at you for “Baal’s balls!” Or even “Coyote trick you to the desert!”
Then again, in the circles I run in, I’d probably get flattened, or worse, for those :-)
Amusing collegiate anecdote: to fill out credits, I had engineered my senior year to be mostly filler (due to a heavy workload in previous years). One of the classes I took was Video Theory, and one of the requirements for the course was to watch certain show the teacher recommended. One of these was The Singing Detective (the excellent 1986 BBC miniseries, not the weak 2003 movie). When I and several other students commented how it was very similar to Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” movie (in both terms of setting, mood and roughly plot), the professor stared at us blankly. “Like what?” was her reply. She had never even heard of it.
I was familiar with Atlanta Nights, but still couldn’t resist going back for another peek. What I hadn’t known was that Chapter 34 was written by Andrew Burt’s software. Here’s the opening:
Maybe it’s just me, but I find those paragraphs hard to reconcile with anything that even remotely resembles, ever so vaguely, any kind of “quality bar”….
I delighted in doing such things when I was in high school. An essay assignment said something like “Compare and contrast Jody in ‘The Yearling’ with a character in some other novel you have read.” So I naturally compared and contrasted him with Allison MacKenzie in ‘Peyton Place’ [for you younger readers, that was the big bestselling trashy sex novel almost half a century ago].
When I look back on my high school days, I must admit to a certain amount of sympathy for the poor teacher who got stuck with me in his 9th grade English class and then again in his 10th grade class.
Tasked with writing a thousand word essay on a significant poem (and knowing full well that ‘significant’ included size as well as literary merit) I wrote my thousand words in a deep (as in pile it up high and deep) analysis of an Ogden Nash poem (“Fleas” — the entire poem is “Adam / had ’em.”)
Ah, but I paid for my sins: I spent several years in the late sixties and early seventies as a high school English teacher.