Is “Bad” Writing Required For Massive Bestsellers?

“Bad” is in quotes because what makes something good or bad boils down to personal taste. For example, I loved the movie Deep Rising, yet the awesome B-movie adventure probably fell way short of what constitutes a “good” movie for most viewers.

But what about books? I would like to take a few minutes to analyze the popularity vs. perceived literary value of four mega-popular book series, Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, Twilight, and Fifty Shades of Grey.

Before we get to the fun stuff, we need to talk about what qualifies someone to say something negative about an author’s work. How do we, as a literary society, endow someone with the special mandate to go out into the world and find stinky prose? What gives the guy writing for the New York Times more of a right to slam a popular novel than anyone else?

The answers are simple: we don’t, and nothing.

There’s a whole discussion to be had about gaining a “voice” in popular culture—cultivating a following of like-minded readers and/or listeners who are more akin to dashboard bobbleheads than hesitant philosophers. Everything is subjective. Every single opinion in relation to art is absolutely, one-hundred-percent OPINION (except with this movie, apparently).

We must accept that fact before we go insane trying to figure out why some people think they have more of a right to tell us what is “good” and what is “bad” than our nieces and nephews who loved the Harry Potter books so much that they read them all the way through eight times.

We also need to disregard any kind of mass psychoanalysis as it relates to a series’ particular popularity with a certain demographic (i.e., Fifty Shades with lonely individuals; Twilight with love-struck tweens, etc.) EXCEPT when mentioning that it could be for these factors alone that a series is so massively successful. That, also, is another discussion that could take hours.

We’re here to figure out why books that many elitists claim to have no definable literary value outsell more serious, life-defining works by a factor of roughly a bajillion. In fact, I want to explore the possibility that a book’s distinct lack of literary merit (read: stuffy, drawn-out prose; words that require the use of a dictionary) aids in its success.

Like a small spider crawling along the infinite strands of the interweb, I have unearthed sometimes-before-seen proof that more than a few people think that the HP, HG, Twilight, and Fifty Shades series are not on par with Dickens or Dostoyevsky. I’ll post the bad first, then follow that up with the good for comparison. We’re also going to look at age demographics and popular opinion, so try not to squeal too loudly in excitement just yet.

Harry Potter — The “Bad”

“Rowling is not a subtle writer, and one of the tiresome things about this book is how routinely it resorts to turning up the volume, rather than describing anything vividly.” — Philip Hensher (the Spectator, 2003)

“The plot is cumbersome. Most characters haven’t bloomed; they’ve only aged. Settings are befogged by vague writing.” — John Mark Eberhart (the Age, June 2003)

Both quotes are from this handy list.

The Hunger Games — The “Bad”

“…THE HUNGER GAMES suffers from a case of seriously bad writing.” — RL Brody (Full article here)

To save time I’ll simply post the link to a Google search of “Hunger Games”+”Bad Writing”

Twilight — The Bad

For this one, I am going to post a direct quote from one of the novels:

Aro started to laugh. “Ha, ha, ha,” he chuckled.

(More links, in case you need them.)

Fifty Shades of Grey — The Bad

Really?

Now For The Good

Enough bashing. Millions of people love these series. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t be best sellers, right? And up crops another bit of psychology we must forcefully ignore: the desire for people to buy something that everyone else is buying. Moving past that small hiccup which could, if explored further, be the unraveling of our entire discussion, let’s take a look at the overwhelming evidence that readers enjoyed these series by analyzing the review stats on Amazon—arguably the most accurate collation of information regarding how well a book is doing with the general public.

Harry Potter and The Sorcerer’s Stone — ~6k reviews on Amazon, 4.7/5 stars. #445 in books (yes, still).

The Hunger Games — ~9.7k reviews on Amazon, 4.6/5 stars. #189 in books.

Twilight — ~5.5k reviews on Amazon, 4/5 stars. #2809 in books (out of MILLIONS).

Fifty Shades of Grey — Almost 14,000 reviews on Amazon. Fourteen. Thousand. #13 in books. THIRTEEN. Okay, I’ll stop doing that. Interesting to note is that is has received nearly as many 1-star reviews as it has 5-star. This means nothing when you’re dealing with slack-jawed lemming-waddle, but I said I wouldn’t dive into psychology, and so I must refrain.

Right then.

It’s obvious that people are buying these books. It’s obvious why people are buying these books. What I want to know is if they would be as popular if the prose was constructed in a more literary fashion, or would they be passed over in favor of less challenging fare.

There is a strong case to be made for clear, unburdened writing. Many of Stephen King’s fans mention his accessible prose and “easy-to-read” style. His voice disappears into the background, which I have heard more than once should be the goal of any author. And yet, his work doesn’t suffer from some of the harsher criticisms that have been thrown at the subjects of this essay. Mr. King is one of the top-selling authors in the world, and he did it with neither sparkling vampires nor supposedly terrible writing.

Check this out:

Chart

Number of Adults in Each Prose Literacy Level

Prose Literacy

  • Below Basic:
    • no more than the most simple and concrete literacy skills
  • Basic:
    • can perform simple and everyday literacy activities
  • Intermediate:
    • can perform moderately challenging literacy activities
  • Proficient:
    • can perform complex and challenging literacy activities

(Info from the National Assessment of Adult Literacy. More here.)

What does this tell us? For me, it shows that the vast majority of readers function somewhere in the middle—below Moby Dick but above Paris Hilton’s “biography”. This is an extremely important fact to consider because it determines the accessibility of a novel. If more people are able to read the book, more people will read the book. Also, literary novels are sometimes dubbed “confusing”, and when people are confused they feel dumb. There is no quicker way to make someone throw a book in the trash than to make them feel like an idiot. Everyone hates that. Again, psychology.

Moving on (we’re nearing the end, I promise).

One of the last things to address is what I believe to be a major determining factor in a book’s popularity: the age of the reader.

Growing older brings with it a certain cynicism that I admit to hating. I don’t feel the same way about movies and books as I did when I was younger. My memories tell me that I sunk so deeply into those worlds that the lines of reality blurred around me; that I was well and truly lost in my own imagination. These days I have to try my hardest to recapture a sense of that wonder. It takes breathtaking prose and an expertly-crafted product to make the real world fade into the background. I try to recapture the wonder of my youth on a daily basis. Sometimes I succeed; most times I do not.

All that is to say that young people have a special way of looking at things—a way that forgives poor writing and favors the created world; a way that ignores awful dialogue and embraces the true essence of the story.

In that sense, a poorly-written book targeted at a teenage audience has the potential to become a massive bestseller simply because said audience is capable of overlooking (or not recognizing) its flaws. Similarly, these books can potentially become unexpected hits with adults because they successfully recapture that feeling of excitement that is missing from lives lived in cubicles and riding to and from work on smelly buses.

My conclusion, then, is that “bad” writing isn’t necessary for a book to become extremely popular, but light, unchallenging prose broadens the appeal of the book and makes it more accessible to the vast population of readers, ultimately increasing its chances to make the leap from bestseller to, “Oh my God, it’s everywhere I look.”

There is yet one more discussion to be had about the feared dumbing-down of a new generation of young adults through poor writing, but with all of the other forces at work against the minds of the grown-ups of tomorrow, I hardly think reading—even if it’s a book that cannot stylistically hold a candle to Fitzgerald—should be counted among the most dangerous.

2 thoughts on “Is “Bad” Writing Required For Massive Bestsellers?

  1. Thanks for linking to my piece on the Hunger Games, and for including the quote!

    I haven’t re-read the Potter books in years, but one thing I remember being impressed about with them was that as the characters (and target audience) grew up, the books became more narratively complex and the language evolved a bit. (I’d have to go back to do an actual comparison for more details).

  2. Well said. I find the popularity of children’s books (aka “young adult”) among the adult reading public one of the surest signs of the dumbing down of the book industry.

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