Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Bad writing - from Cherry to Cherie

Cherry's cheeks were blushing as red as red cherries. Her new GP, Doctor Stud, was the stud of her wildest dreams and her naughtiest fantasies. His jet black hair curled in curls around his tanned brown face. His eyes pierced hers like syringe needles.
"Cherry Loveless? Lovely to meet you," he rasped in a husky voice.
Cherry felt her cheeks get even redder, as red as strawberries now. She was confused by her one thought. This stud is my doctor: my Doctor Stud.
"Cherry, can I ask you something?" Doctor Stud growled in a hoarse voice.
Cherry nodded, and her raven black hair fell around her cherry red cheeks like ravens falling around cherries.

At one of my writers’ group meetings, we decided to spend fifteen minutes trying to produce a piece of really bad writing. It became almost impossible to read out the resulting pieces in the pub later because we were all laughing so hard. But intentionally bad writing is funny in a different way from accidentally bad writing. While I can’t speak for my fellow writers, I have certainly produced bad writing before whilst aiming for something good. Intentionally bad writing can, paradoxically, be done very well or be unsuccessful in its own way.

Many of our pieces were spoofs of genres, and a spoof can fail if it doesn’t tap into the right characteristics. We were in a privileged position as listeners because we knew the intention of every writer in that moment was to write badly (well). But if a piece is not bad enough, it can be excruciating, as the reader wonders whether it is parody or just poor execution with serious intent.

Some of us tried to write badly by reversing some of the supposed rules of good writing. Avoid adverbs, for example. Don’t repeat yourself, and avoid cliché. I thought about these rules of thumb while I wrote about Cherry Loveless, as well as choosing inappropriate and unimaginative similes.

It was surprisingly challenging to do this, and that is not a veiled claim that my creative writing is otherwise flawless. However, I think writing deliberately badly without recourse to parody would be even more difficult. Not that there is any point in trying; there is enough bad writing in the world already.

There are as many ways for a piece of writing to be bad as there are for it to be good. Whether a reader finds a particular book to be good or bad overall depends on their tastes, or areas of sensitivity. I am a style snob, and if I find the mode of expression dreary, or clichéd, or poor in one of a whole host of ways, I can’t get past this to enjoy a story, however good it may be. I almost envy people who are oblivious to style, and can engage with a page-turning plot as if watching a film.

Plenty more people are turned off by the opposite balance in a book that is all style, no car-chase. Despite my facetiouness, I do of course admit that bad writing can be stylistically exemplary, but turn readers off with its content.

The third – and probably worst – kind of bad writing must be that in which the style and the content symbiotically work together to make the reader feel revulsion towards both. The best example of this I can think of is the excerpt from Tony Blair’s memoir that was nominated for the Bad Sex Award in the Literary Review. I will leave you with it, lest I break the spell:

"That night she cradled me in her arms and soothed me; told me what I needed to be told; strengthened me. On that night of 12 May 1994, I needed that love Cherie gave me, selfishly. I devoured it to give me strength. I was an animal following my instinct."


  1. Very funny.

    Some things are so bad they can come round again to be good. Like Father Ted or corny jokes.

    Eddie Izzard does a sketch on this theme - he describes the circle of fashion as: dull - normal - cool - cooooool - hip&groovy - looking like dick head! He is saying there is a fine line between the very good and the naff - chew one matchstick (cool: James Dean); chew two matchsticks (uncool; wurzle)

    Something similar applies to eye patches!

  2. And I see the Fly is now following you - look out; sharp lady.

  3. Why does this quote conjure up fornicating jackals?

  4. Okay, both the post and ensuing comments made me laugh---a first for today---thanks Zoe!