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Illiterature

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I am convinced that story is vital to ourselves and to our culture, especially when it illuminates or challenges. I also love language, particularly when used skillfully. Great writing can not only amuse but fuel imaginations, open troves of experience previously unknown, light dark corners of insight into our natures, and offer the simple but substantial pleasure of finely wrought prose. Naturally, when the world clasps particular stories to its bosom, I get curious. Perhaps they could offer something worthwhile to me, as well. After all, popular does not have to equate with godawful.

You might already see where this is going.

So, I read the first chapter of Twilight. I suffered an aneurysm, developed a speech impediment, and have had a twitch in my left eye ever since.

I then browsed through half a dozen versions of Nicholas Sparks’ novel – why he keeps changing the title, I don’t know – and could sense my brain growing arms so it could hold a straight-razor to slit its tiny wrists.

By the time I walked away from reading huge chunks of the 50 Shades travesties, I was suffering post-traumatic stress disorder.

A recent study suggests that consuming a mere three pages of 50 Shades (or five pages of Twilight, as its deleterious effects seem slightly less severe) results in a temporary drop of twelve IQ points, with damage becoming permanent by midway through the second book in either series. Ok, I made that up.  I’d like to see that study done, just the same.

Oh, I’m just getting warmed up.

The Twilight fan-fiction gone rogue called 50 Shades of Grey is so infested with clichés, plastic characters, and thesaurus abuse that it has achieved the seemingly impossible: it is worse than Twilight. Best I can factor, its author’s reading diet consists solely of Cosmo and the YouPorn comments section. You should establish a safe word before reading it, in case the pain becomes intolerable. It is Diet Bondage, half the calories, twice the sickly taste, and made for people who colour coordinate their Kindles with their shoes and watch The View for an intellectual workout.

As for Nicholas Sparks, my loathing of his work expanded to include him personally when a friend showed me an article in which he not only compared himself to Sophocles and Shakespeare, but referred to the work of Cormac McCarthy – a real writer, of the first order – as “Horrible, pulpy, overwrought, and melodramatic”. That singularity of superdense irony notwithstanding, I now have to live with the knowledge that the homonymicidal Nickleback of fiction, the talentless sap who shat out the unholyeldergodswhatisthisagonzingpap Notebook, took a piss all over Cormac McCarthy. On what sick, primitive hell-world does that happen without earthquakes, tidal waves and righteous fucking Valkyries appearing to gnaw out his feckless tongue?

When I read that article the look on my face was the same as if I’d walked in on Santa Claus masturbating to a photo of Betty White. Go ahead, pick up one of this guy’s books. Peruse the drab grocery-listing of insipid emotions; the stilted highschool-crush dialogue; the lumpish descriptions without smell or flavour; the affected, cloying, by-the-numbers ‘romance’. Does this hack really think he’s a great writer just because emotionally stunted idiobots read his puerile shite? It doth make one swoon. And by swoon, I mean bleed out of the eyes.

Here are the things I learned from my brush with Twilight and 50 Shades: stalking her and acting like a vicious, manipulative control freak not only turns a woman on, but is a sure way to her heart. Also, self-esteem and self-respect just get in the way of true love. From Nicholas Sparks I learned that true love will always find a way, right before one of you dies, and all the important emotional insights are felt at the level of a fourteen year old girl.

Illuminating, indeed.

In case I wasn’t clear…

Nicholas Sparks (The Notebook x 20), Stephanie Meyer (Twilight) and E.L. James (Fifty Shades) are terrible writers, technically and artistically. Now, you can afford to be lacking in one of those areas and still have something to offer a reader, but sucking donkey balls in both categories is too much to bear.

I can only imagine the poor editors saddled with trying to make this dreck readable, sitting with manuscripts in hand, thinking how they could be doing a job more pleasant, like flaying puppies or sponge bathing Rush Limbaugh. Honestly, if any of these books ever did pass through the hands of an editor, it was to throw it at the eighth grader they keep locked in a spare closet, left to survive on dustballs and stale Cheetos, suffering not only malnutrition but frontal lobe damage from whacking his head off the hanger bar every time he tries to turn around. And they made him edit it. Because they hate him.

To borrow from the excellent Dorothy Parker, these are not novels to be tossed aside lightly. They should be thrown with great force. Although, that kid in the closet would probably disagree.

Ok, I admit that taking on those three examples of illiterature – or my alternate term for such, ‘shit-lit’ – is picking low-hanging fruit. I chose them because they are ubiquitous and universally popular, not because they are the sole – nor, gods help us, even the worst – offenders. The bookshop shelves are rife with literary asscankers and purveyors of pustulant preteen pablum. I suppose I could at least try to understand how these authors captured the cultural zeitgeist, and why poorly written tales with shallow emotional cues and stock, underdeveloped characters are resonating with readers, instead of just dismissing them as drivel. But doing so seems like dissecting a dog turd.

Ok, Mr. Snootyarse, what is good writing?

Glad you asked. Certainly, how we each define ‘good writing’ differs. As with all things creative, quality is subjective. So, to clarify, by good writing I mean both prose and story; dialogue and characters; beginning, middle and bloody end. By good writing I mean that which shows proficiency with the language, and an ear for how people speak. Writing that moves beyond the one (or two) dimensional and even challenges you to rethink your own actions, emotions, thoughts, opinions. Writing that offers an original take on an old idea. Or, hell, writing that just damned well surprises. Spelling and grammar count, but in the way that square corners and solid crossbeams matter in a house. What makes it livable are the design, the flow from one room to another, and how pleasingly the rooms are fitted in colour and accoutrements. Saying that the writing, the prose, doesn’t matter, because it’s only a story, is like being content with living in a concrete bunker.

Sure, I count good writing as more valuable than most people. I honestly find such books as those vilified here to be painful and insulting. If you have never read The Inferno or Paradise Lost or Faust then, yes, I do count your life lacking. However, that is not a standard which must, or can, always be met. The occasional indulgence in a literary cheeseburger is also essential, it simply need not be the fast food equivalent. There exists no shortage of material that will pander to your baser nature, if you so require – and I’m not excluding myself here; I love having my baser nature pandered to, at, on, about, or otherwise prepositioned – but still crafted with skill and creativity. Genre writing is fine, but there is no shortage of erotic fiction, SF, mystery, horror and suchlike written above the level of a brain damaged fourth grader. Some of it is as good as anything in print. Yet, that quality work so often sits crumbling to dust.

Our ability to distinguish good writing from bad – worthy story from trite, original from cliché, full-fleshed characters from pasteboard, muscular prose from feeble – has apparently joined critical thought in the hell for human qualities. The barest whiff of facile emotion and fantasy fulfillment is enough to sate literary palates. Sure, it’s easy to mock Mr. Sparks’ insipid heart-string plucking, or the tawdry, feeble Mor(m)on fable called Twilight, or the trite candy S&Ms of 50 Shades. That’s because they are staggeringly inept, even at a level of competent, enjoyable pulp writing. They also dominate the sales charts, and are merely the most prominent examples of the dearth, perhaps death, of good writing. Creativity and talent are becoming increasingly irrelevant.

Seriously, folks, there has to be a bottom to the barrel.

Personal taste aside, there has to be a point at which the ineptitude is so apparent that anyone with a functioning temporal lobe must admit it is utter bogshite. So here is the other perplexing part of this phenomenon. I encounter many readers of illiterature who admit to its shoddiness, who know it is poorly written, but for some reason find it entertaining. Which is baffling in itself, since there’s fun, and then there’s homemade lobotomy. However, many more defend these books and their deformed siblings as good, even great, writing. As literary jewels, resonating with the common reader, rather than those uppity snobs, such as your humble author. Immediately to mind is Emerson’s quote, “People do not deserve good writing, they are so pleased with bad.”

In a last ditch effort to understand, I peruse reviews on Amazon, a decently efficient gauge of a book’s readers. For Fifty Shades, I find hundreds of women gushing (ahem) over it. Here’s a five star review of the boxset: “This book is so good…and I’m not a reader…I skim magazines usually. I could NOT put these books down! I read the whole triolgy in a week and a half. I highly recommend the whole triology!”

Accuse me of quote mining if you like, but that was at the top of the page, and turned out to be pretty typical. For instance, a lot of the Fifty Shades fans included ‘I normally don’t read’ and/or ‘I hate reading’ in their reviews. In other words, ‘Reading usually hurts my squishy thinking box, but this book didn’t’. It’s a running motif. Infer whatever you like from the fact that she is not only unable to spell a word which appears on the sweetjesus boxcover (‘trilogy’), but misspells it in two entirely different ways in the span of just over a dozen words.

So, my explanation is simple and snarky and unscientific:

Many people have atrociously shit taste, and just as many are semi-literate, at best. Unsurprisingly, there is significant overlap of those two groups. I ought also include those ripe for influence and desperate to be ‘part of something’. Something like a prudish, juvenile vampire romance, or a smutty book that is suddenly trendy.

These particular books, and their clones/siblings/inbred cousins, are not even junk food. They’re bland, generic store-brand versions of junk food. Now if you’re satisfied by generic junk, great for you, but I’m still going to be grossed out when I see you eating it.

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