About Reading [Poorly Written Books]

Sometimes it makes you want to pull your hair out, but it's worth it...usually.

There are two ways to learn how to write: by reading and by writing. Both of them are equally important. All it takes to get experience writing is a pen and paper or a word processor and a laptop. As for reading, you read all the best books you can get your hands on. Isn’t that enough?

I don’t think so.

I think a flaw in the way we teach English in America, at least in terms of preparing students to write their own stories and novels, is that we have a bias toward good books. Think about it, what did you read and analyze in high school? Shakespeare? Moby-Dick? Huckleberry Finn? Catcher in the Rye? Chances are, you read nothing but classics. Even if you had a progressive teacher who had you reading current books, I’ll bet they were still award winning and well-written.

There’s nothing wrong with reading good books. That’s how we as budding writers begin to develop our own voices and styles. We read them to see how they did what they did, so that we can one day write like them. From the good books we read come our aspirations and inspiration.

But that’s only half of the picture that we, as aspiring writers, need to be successful. Watching a master dance effortlessly through a mine field might take your breath away and inspire you, but it won’t do anything to show you where the mines are buried. Maybe one rare genius may be able to follow in their footsteps exactly and not blow herself up. But for the rest of us it can more helpful to watch someone else step on a mine so that know where it’s buried.

That’s where poorly written books come in. Notice I don’t call them bad, because I believe a book can be at once both good and poorly written. To me, a bad book is one that fails to meet its own expectations. Books like Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey, despite being written with all the grammatical understanding of a gerbil, are, I would argue, good books. I certainly don’t enjoy reading them, but many, many people do. And that’s all those books want for themselves. They’re not meant to be literature, to withstand the test of time and be this generation’s Sound and the Fury. They’re meant to be the potato chips of the literary world, consumed quickly and without thought, and by anyone’s count they’ve certainly succeeded at this.

But they are still poorly written, earning their success in spite of their writing as opposed to because of it. Books like this can get away with being poorly written, but they don’t have to. And these authors all make a lot of the same mistakes.

So even though it can be painful, read them. Learn from their mistakes so you don’t make the same ones in your own writing. You may not enjoy yourself, but I think your writing will be better for the experience. After all, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

What do you think? What are some of the most poorly written books you’ve ever read and did you learn anything about how not to write from them? I’ll share some of my own experiences later. I’m even thinking of making a podcast reading and critiquing Fifty Shades if that would be something anyone is interested in (I’m certainly not looking forward to the idea but I think it’s worth doing).

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247 comments on “About Reading [Poorly Written Books]

  1. I just. Can’t. Do it. Seriously, reading something badly written makes me feel like I’m sinking slowing into a quagmire of low-IQ mud. I once had a job at a newspaper and was forced out of necessity to read a lot of the stories by my predecessor in order to learn about what was going on. Oh my lord; the writing was crap. I had to go read some John Irving or something to get the taste of of my brain. If I didn’t I had serious problems writing sentences like See spot run.

    But hey, I do see your point. Perhaps I’m the stellar writer I am today because of that idiot’s drivel. 😀

  2. I haven’t read 50 Shades of Grey but it sems to be getting great reviews, in spite of it being poorly written as you point out. Then again this doesn’t surprise me. The publishing world is a business and they are looking to find the next big thing that will sell well and garner profits. A book that is extremely well written, but that will not have mainstream appeal will be overshadowed by a book that isn’t so well-written but has automatic mass appeal. This is also why they say being a great writer doesn’t necessarily guarantee being published.

    I still struggle with putting out sentences that are grammatically correct (so I apologize if my comment thus far is frustrating you!), and I try to read as many books as possible so I can to get a sense of different styles of writing. However, I do find that when it comes to improving my writing, the website “Grammar Girl” helps me much more than anything else I’ve ever tried.

    Congrats on being FP!

    • Bad grammar and syntax really only bother me when they get in the way of the story or message. Bad plotting and story structure are far more damning than grammar and I think that’s one of the wonderful messages books like this bring to aspiring writers. I just want people to remember that even if they can get away with that kind of writing, doesn’t mean they should.

  3. hayleens says:

    I have read and reviewed the Fifty Shades Series on my blog http://hslaterblog.wordpress.com/2012/08/21/fifty-shades-of-dull/

    Perhaps not as kind as you, I definitely share your view that they are poorly written. I do think these were probably the most poorly written books I have ever read, but as you mentioned, they are the ‘potato chips’ of literature and I was able to fly through them in three days providing good fodder for a review.

    I do agree that you need to read every kind of writing. Why make basic mistakes when you can learn from others’?

  4. Hi! I’m so in love with your blog post. You considered almost everything! Thanks for being such a good writer, Im inspired 🙂

  5. And btw, may I write something similar to this? I want to tackle a specific topic in regards with the different perspective of readers

  6. I agree with other comments that a compelling story is one of the most important elements to keep a reader interested in a book. I appreciate all writers’ efforts to craft a story, but I refuse to waste hours of my life reading Twilight or Fifty Shades of Grey because enough readers have forewarned me through reviews and conversations that the writing and story development is awful. The closest experience I can compare to their own is reading the Hunger Games books. I really loved the initial story idea, but the lackluster writing and poor character and story development over the course of the series pulled me out of the books many times, especially the third one. However, reading something with many writing issues has helped me become more aware of my own use of grammar and how I develop characters and stories, so there is a positive learning side. 🙂

  7. kthorpe says:

    I agree with you in principle, and I haven’t read Fifty Shades (blech) but I wouldn’t doubt it to be poorly written…

    However. I’ve read the Twilight series more than once, and I fail to understand why people claim it to be poorly written. Is it Shakespeare? No, and it’s not trying to be. But it is grammatically sound and quite well-styled according to the principles of its genre. Have you read it?

    • I’ve read all the Twatlight books and the Bree Tanner garbage. Not only is it poorly written, it’s under developed as a whole, repetitive, and the author’s use of unnecessarily large words is ridiculous.

      • kthorpe says:

        lol! Is Bree Tanner the 50 shades lady? Googling… oh! no, it’s another S. Meyer book. okay.

        Well, I suppose we’ll have to agree to disagree 🙂

  8. Sarah says:

    I agree completely! I’d never thought of it as a classroom strategy, but as a kid, I was an avid reader. I read all the classics I could, often well beyond my years and understanding, and had a rule that once I had started a book, I had to finish it. It was excellent training. As you point out, forcing yourself to continue through a book you’re not enjoying because of its poor writing has an upside: you begin to notice why you don’t like the writing, what is missing, what is overdone, what is unclear, and so on. I became quite the little critic. Reading books that were too hard for me was good, too, as it gave me something to aspire to and hinted at a world that was currently beyond my reach but that I could hope to understand some day.

    Great post that has elicited some interesting comments. Congratulations on being FP and I’ll check back to see what you’re up to in future.

    • Hi, Sarah. I think you probably approached things in a pretty good way concerning your discipline of reading whatever book you happen to’ve picked up until you were done. And I think that if people really do want to educate themselves about what’s good and what’s bad, there’s nothing wrong with being a bit of an autodidact (i.e., being self-taught). After all, not everything’s learned in school, by a long shot. I would only ask the question of people who say they LIKE to read what they acknowledge is bad writing what they are learning. I can only judge by myself, and can say truly that when I read tons of silly romances and cheap Gothic novels (not the classic romances and Gothics, which actually created the formulas the others are still borrowing and running into the ground), I wasn’t really learning how to be a superior type of person, I was only learning how to be a lazy thinker and a person who relied on cheap thrills for my entertainment. I don’t mean, of course, that a person should try to be “superior” in attitude or bearing to other people and snub them, for example (and I for one think the author of this blog is being very brave to open up an issue which could get him snubbed either way); but to borrow the motto of one of the armed forces, for example (I can’t remember which one), I think we should try to be the best we can be. And though I’m currently checking “Fifty Shades” out of the library to see if I really want to write a post on it, I have to confess that I absolutely chortled and giggled my way madly through the first 25 pages or so, until suddenly, it wasn’t funny anymore. It had begun to seem that the author wanted me to take her seriously. And aside from the bad writing (for example in one place, there’s a misplaced modifying phrase or clause which makes a sentence suggest that the male erection has magical abilities, or appendages, anyway), I seriously doubt that real BDSM is anything like what she has made it out to be, though I’m operating–thank God!–in the absence of all knowledge of the subject matter. I can say that I can see a connection, remote but there, between the kind of emotional SM the characters in a typical cheap romance go through and what the characters in “Fifty Shades” go through, but making it a literal physical experience as well as an emotional hell for the character(s) doesn’t really cover the distance between the two. Anyway, I’ve gone on long enough, but I’m really impressed to hear that you are reading and thinking critically at the same time. After all, that is the goal the author of this blog is hoping to bring about. I just hope it works out for everyone as well as it seems to have for you.

  9. klrs09 says:

    What an excellent post. Congratulations on being FP’d.
    I agree with your viewpoint — poorly written literature can teach us a lot. But, it is such a slog to read it!
    However, I can’t say that about Fifty Shades — I am one of the unwashed who read the book and actually enjoyed it (have only read the first one), recognizing all the way through the terrible flaws in EL James’ writing. BUT — as others have also pointed out — it’s not the poor writing that kept me reading – it was the story. And that was something one of the very first writing instructors I had told all us eager author wannabes — publishers don’t care if you can spell — they care if you can sell.

    • Piece of advice, I read the Twitlight fanfic (Master of the Universe- 604 page .pdf) that EL James a.k.a. Icequeen’s Snowdragon wrote a couple of years ago that was used as the template for this series (she changed the names and used Queen’s English for God’s sakes) and I want you to read them again AFTER you’ve read Alina Reyes, Anais Nin, Fanny Hill, and Anne Rice’s Belinda and The Sleeping Beauty Chronicles. The BDSM is grossly incorrect (go to Sapio Slut’s blog and you will see how a sub truly lives), and besides a 22-year-old college student NOT having a laptop or email address is so UNBELIEVABLE unless she came from an Ultra-Orthodox Jewish sect, was Amish, or a Fundie Mormon.

      • klrs09 says:

        Totally agree with you — and all things I clicked into as I read. Did a bit of research on my own re BDSM after reading FS of G and yes, what is depicted in the book is NOTHING at all what the real deal is about. Still, even with tiny bit of knowledge and insight, and understanding of the writer’s failings — she told a good story. 30,000,000 people can’t be that wrong.

  10. Yes, 50 Shades of Grey is definitely a bad book. I made the mistake of thinking Twilight was a really bad book, and then this one came along. “Grammatical understanding of a gerbil” about covers it. I’ve been covering the books on my blog with recaps to preserve my sanity, and to keep up with the many, many positive reviews of this book. At least you can get a little comedy out of them, if nothing else. There are also many other blogs poking fun at these books, and I’ve been enjoying them immensely. It makes me feel like I’m not alone in wondering why people love books that are badly written.

    You make a good point about why it is important to also read the badly written books. I am an aspiring writer (and English major believe it or not) and after reading a chapter of 50 Shades, I am reminded to go look over my own writing. Did I use the same word over and over? Was that sentence a cliche? Also, these books make you think. What is it about them that makes people love them so much? Is it better to be “feared” than loved? 50 Shades is not going to stand the test of time like the classics, but it has touched on something. I’m a little concerned about what that something is, but you can’t ignore it.

    The only frustrating thing is that, as a writer, you know that people are getting away with mistakes that should never be permitted in a story. The key is not to sink to their level in your own novel writing. It is fun to snark on them, though, and I’ve had quite a good time of it. Congrats on being freshly pressed. I invite you to come check out my blog sometime. I’ve enjoyed yours.

  11. I totally agree with you. My son is fifteen and wants to be a script writer. I’m a translator and I come across some pretty bad texts, and every now and then I have him read parts, so he can see why good writing works. Great post. And about Shades of Grey, we could start with all the times the protagonist says “oh my”.

  12. Marie Anne says:

    I have a hard time reading poorly written books, but I have forced myself to do it. The most recent was a short novel that tied into the Guild Wars video games, and only to better understand the plot and the timeline. But reading your blog post, I realize it’s just as important to know how not to write as to know how to write. I had to read most of those books you mentioned in high school and college, but I most enjoyed English when I got to read Beowulf, The Iliad, and The Canterbury Tales. Many English teachers have a very narrow focus of what good literature is, and I think it alienates a lot of students and doesn’t make them want to read on their own. Only by exploring as many genres as possible will they find what they truly enjoy. As for the podcast, go for it! I love reading and listening to online critiques 🙂 And congrats on Freshly Pressed!

  13. This is very true. Not too long ago I read a book that was very well-written in terms of interest & pace, but the story line was so full of holes; my credibility was stretched to the breaking point over & over. A little effort could have corrected most of these.
    For example: a protagonist doesn’t spend six years plotting revenge on a bullying classmate, and live for several months in his area to scope things out, then kidnap the wrong person by mistake, and then send letters to this bully at his address in the far-off city where he’s been living for some years. If your protagonist has his enemy’s address, he KNOWS where the enemy is at and should have KNOWN the enemy is not the person he kidnapped. Revenge isn’t that dumb.

  14. I was TOTALLY going to mention 50 Shades when I saw the title of this post. While I see what you mean, it still pains me to read poorly written books. Like, physically PAINS me.

  15. katie says:

    I understand your point, but I really can’t bring myself to read poorly written books. I lost interest in Twilight about 100 pages in due to poor character development. I understand she’s a teenager but her character was too ‘manic’ and hard to follow to really form an interest in her.

    Although most books, especially series will have their hiccups, so long as the writing is well done these things don’t bother me. Especially since I don’t remember the small details where the hiccups tend to occur often….

  16. pixiemumbles says:

    I just couldn’t bring myself to read Fifty Shades of Shocking Writing after picking it up from my mum’s bedside table, opening it at a random page and reading “Thank you for the impeccable desk sex”. I mean come on, really?
    I only just made it to the end of the first Twilight “book” (I’m sure it was sneezed out one morning) and honestly can’t understand why it’s published, and it baffles me as to why it’s so popular, with such a wealth of better-written vampire literature out there. The books and their fans especially have angered me so I’ve banned all talk of it from my forum!
    I’ve made many attempts at writing my own fiction, and I think I just don’t have the imagination for it any more. When I was younger, I could dream up any number of storylines. Though now if I appear to have a decent idea, I pick holes in it like potential character flaws, plot holes and the rest of it.

  17. moxey says:

    I read the Twilight series as a way to keep in touch with popular culture amongst tweens and teens (aka the kids my kid goes to school with). What helped me to get through it was reminding myself it was written for a younger market than what I am accustomed to reading. Still, the books were poorly written, even from a YA lit standpoint, though I think the writing and editing improved some by the time I got to the fourth book. Either that or my brain had sufficiently degraded by that point.

    I’ve read the first Hunger Games book and found it much more compelling – the writing is better, the characters are better developed, and the story is far more interesting.

    I find that I tend to resist books that are on the best-seller lists, at least while they are on the list. It may be several years before I deign it necessary to read Fifty Shades, if ever.

    Your point is well taken. We need to read the various levels of writing that get published, if for no other reason than to give ourselves hope that someday WE will be published.

  18. I finally got around to reading “Dracula” last year, and, while it’s a great and awesome story, the writing (even for the time) was sometimes hard-to-follow. I’d even classify it as BAD writing.

    I think a lot of pre-20th century books/novels are like that, though; there just wasn’t a whole lot of literacy going on to begin with, so having enough to be able to write a novel-length story was something of an achievement! (It could be argued that Alice in Wonderland was well-written, though..)

  19. bharatwrites says:

    Never thought of it this way. Using bad writing to teach good writing is useful and dangerous. We learn to identify bad usage by reading a lot of good stuff and developing an intuition for correct construction. That’s how we know that some sentences sound bad before we know exactly what’s wrong about them. Immersing students in well-composed paragraphs helps them develop these self-correcting mechanisms. So I am afraid that exposing them to bad usage might corrupt their impressionable minds.
    But I think it’s stupid to make students read F. Scott Fitzgerald or Jane Austen when they’re young. They’re not old enough to appreciate the classics, and it makes them think that writing is nothing without flourish. Students forget that certain styles are best left to their times.
    Nice post. Congrats on getting Freshly Pressed!

  20. I would be interested in that podcast on a “50 Shades” critique. I borrowed it (couldn’t bring myself to buy it), and I’m reading it as an exercise to determine what’s appealing about this book and what’s not. Would love to hear another writer’s perspective.

  21. Sorry, but this arrow comes from Sherwood Forest, formerly Southgate High School. Yer first paragraph pretty much sucked. I don’t think there is any bad writing, That shaft went through the heart of many a potential budding writers. Early in their efforts there was a teacher who handed back a vacation story, a pet dying, or some family member passing and it had an “F” or “E” in red ink across the paper and that was that!

    You read what you like and you like what you read. This literary world is full of pomposity and the overstuffed libidos of the “Holier than Thou’s”. No misspelling yet, it’s all intended.
    Most people are not old enough to remember when the so called classics first hit print they were harshly criticized and banned for years. It was only through underground readership and library’s having those hidden rooms that they survived to see the light of modern day.
    Anytime someone puts letters on paper it comes from experience, and the interaction of the human mind ( “Ambition should me made of sterner stuff”–you know the rest of the story) to try and convey what they feel, and maybe even talk about the weather.
    Readin, RIten, and Rithmitic went the way of the woodshed whip and the heavy hand that wielded it.

    This post in dedicated to the teachers who nurtured the mind of that young man sitting in the back of the class with the disheveled clothes straight from the clothes hamper, because mom was still passed out on the couch.
    This post is dedicated to the overweight girl sitting farther than two arms distance from everyone else because she “SMELLED” and the other kids made fun of her.

    “Friends Romans and countrymen, lend me your ears”.

    When I think of all the “E” giving teachers I had, I can’t recall a single one, but I recall vividly and with great admiration the one who said: just write it down, just say what you feel and don’t worry about the spelling or grammar because it is your story and all stories are precious.

    Thank you for listening and writing.

  22. Joe R. says:

    I agree wholeheartedly! As a reader of both pop lit and actual literature you enjoy the masters all the better when you read some trashy lit. It’s like getting a meal from a master chef after eating fast food. Being able to articulate why one is better than the other, or what mistakes one made that the other didn’t, should help a writer analyze his own work a bit better.

    I think this could apply to multiple disciplines. As a one-time-wannabe-filmmaker, I feel I learned quite a bit from watching bad movies (and being able to say why they were bad in specific ways). You could also do this with Journalism, Science, Business, etc. This should be a movement! 🙂

  23. My daughter loves the Twilight series and movies. She also really loves the Harry Potter series. She re-reads Harry Potter — often, but not Twilight. She acknowledges that the Harry Potter books are better, but does not know why. I get your point. There is some benefit to reading at least parts of the “potato” chip books in order to get to the “why.”

  24. I have to disagree that Shake spear – particularly Romeo and Juliet – is a good book. My class read it this semester and we were pretty much in tears the entire time, mainly because the darn thing was basically in a different language. That aside, I agree that ‘perfect’ books (The Hunger Games comes to mind) make writing seem much more daunting than, say, The Paper Man (which I couldn’t get past the first chapter of). Congrats on being Freshly Pressed! 🙂

  25. StetotheJ says:

    Poorly written books, anything Mills and Boon, Leo Kessler and Dan Brown are all poorly written, but i do quite like Kessler none the less. Fifty Shades was dire, I reviewed it and wanted to go and kick a dog, but I didn’t. I would argue though, that the poorly written book that sells will become a template for the dumbing down of literature. Although I sincerely hope not.

    • Far be it from me to get all philosophical, but there’s a problem conceptually, at least potentially, with exposing people to the bad or inferior to get them to spot it and avoid it. It’s known philosophically (and in some religious circles, though I don’t frequent them) as “getting to know the devil by looking for his cloven hoof.” There’s always the opposed school of folks too (“by their fruits shall ye know them”), and I myself have used the technique that Josh Craig is discussing to get students to pick up on writing flaws. But too often, they felt they were somehow being “mean” or “elitist” or “snobby,” etc., to demand good writing of authors who after all were and are demanding a share of our good dollars for their books, or their continuing reputations, etc. I would just like to say that there’s nothing wrong with being popular as a writer. Charles Dickens is accounted a good writer (though there are always literary fashions, and sometimes to us now Dickens seems dated and sentimental), but he was also very popular with the Victorians of his own time. The point is not whether or not you rake in a lot of dough and have a lot of admirers, but whether you can do so while also maintaining something like a quality that people will continue to appreciate for years to come. Because, after all, to write well, as Longfellow, the intoning high priest of once popular poetry said, is to “leave footprints on the sands of time.” Eventually, we’ll probably all get washed away. But isn’t it intriguing to think that someday the descendants of all the bugs and viruses and germs which seem to be determined to supplant us might look on our literary remains and try to decide just what it is we were doing, what this scribbling means? I would like to be around in literary effigy at that point, and not as a bad writer.

      • StetotheJ says:

        Dickens, is a good case in point, don’t get me wrong, I have no problem with popular writers, or even poorly written books, if the author has good ideas and artistic integrity. I tend to view books from your last points, point of view, would I like our legacy of literature, that some future sentience may come across, to be Fifty Shades? I appreciate your thoughts.

  26. Abhi says:

    Personally, I totally relate to your view point. I feel “poorly written” books are as essential as the classics, i dare say!
    As budding writers, classics tell us what to do and the other brother tells us what not to do!
    We never will know how well someone was in a dance performance unless we see a mediocre one.

    Good one!
    Cheers!

  27. A Spare Mind says:

    “Books like Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey, despite being written with all the grammatical understanding of a gerbil, are, I would argue, good books.”
    Love this! Love this entry, as well! And as for actually reading poorly written books… Does this count? Read pages 1-5 and then hurl it across the room? Because, if you think about it, in my lifetime pages 1-5 adds up to many thousands of poorly written pages! 😀
    Congrats on the Fresly Pressed!

  28. I read a lot of poorly written books because they are fast reads. Sometimes I don’t have the energy to have deep thoughts about what I am reading.
    Most of the time the characters in those poorly written books are as dumb as the poorly written sentences.

  29. aschmid3 says:

    Having read the “Fifty Shades” series, I hope any aspiring author would take away at the very least the importance of not using the same four words over and over. It’s distracting, because the reader either mentally trips over the word (didn’t I just read that?) or stops concentrating on the story because he or she is just waiting for that word to come up again (there it is — she “flushed crimson” again!)

  30. CherryBerry says:

    Imagine a world where everyone was the same – how boring! If anything, diversity will allow you a greater enjoyment of the literature you praise. I would encourage you to judge less and read more.

  31. Whilst I completely understand the point you make, and the inherent value of being able to learn from poorly written books – it would be far too painful for me to even consider reading Twilight or Fifty Shades of…

    Perhaps it is due to their instant success and my nature to avoid the herd. Or perhaps it is because I consider them to be the reality TV propositions of the world of literature.

    Yes – I can at times be a book/TV snob ;).

  32. Very interesting take.

    When I end up reading a book that was good despite the writing due to, for instance, a great plot (fiction) or an interesting thesis (non-fiction), I sometimes find myself mentally re-writing sections of the book.

    It would be really interesting to see if you could turn this into a teaching method: assign students a short story or chapter that is interesting but badly written and ask them to completely re-write it in their own style.

  33. originaljerseygirl says:

    I completely agree about Twilight and Fifty Shades. Not the most well-written books, but great stories. I guess that’s what people are mainly after these days, just a good story.

  34. stephm29 says:

    I agree with your views about reading both “good” and “bad” books; however, I don’t know that I’d call them “poorly written,” but simply written. I wouldn’t characterize the Twilight or Fifty Shades series’ as poorly written, but simple. They are easy to read, using simple words, grammar, etc. They are not complex reads such as Jane Austen’s novels, but for many people not looking for something heavy, these books are amusing. I thought they were entertaining to read. Now, I wasn’t inspired as I am by reading Persuasion or The Historian, but I enjoyed the easiness of the story. Like watching a comedic movie compared to an intense drama. The drama may have more depth and inspire careful thought, but to laugh at a simple potty joke can be just as enjoyable.

    The ownly thinge that mackes a navol harde to reed is when its got reel Bad gramur n’ lots o’ spellin arrers.

  35. Sophia says:

    Just a fair warning here.

    Be sure to cover your legal bases if you plan to read the entire Fifty Shades of Grey in a series of podcasts. That’s illegal. Only the copyright holder can authorize/sell the right to make an audio version of the book, which is what you’d be doing.

    Publishers and especially film makers (who pay millions for the rights to make a best seller into a flick and merchandize it) hate copyright infringement as it cuts into their profits. Trust me, they will land on you like a ton of bricks.

    • Thanks for the heads up. I think most copyrights have provisions for non-profit, educational use, but I’ll definitely want to have all my ducks in a row before starting anything. I certainly don’t want to take away from an author’s or publishing house’s success, but this book in particular seems to be very polarizing and I think it’s worth exploring it in depth.

      If I can’t actually read it, I’ll just give my comments, but I feel it would lose something without the context.

      • Hi, Josh! I’ve been so busy taking up space on your site all day long with my comments that i’ve rudely forgotten to wish you happy for getting Freshly Pressed! So, be happy; congratulations! About the copyright status and the podcast. I know where you might perhaps get some help. Though you’d have to do reseach about a podcast (and I can say nothing to help you with current technology, I’m still trying to shed some of my Luddite chains), you can find plenty of free, legal copyright and non-copyright-infringing info on eCO, the Library of Congress’s copyrighting site. They do have a provision for the minimal use of quotes to be used legally without breach of copyright protection. It’s listed in the section under “Fair Use,” and covers educational and non-profit uses, etc. There’s also something about Licensing there (though I can’t give a quick rundown on that), and you can also research “Creative Commons” for further licensing info on Wikipedia. The licensing of internet published material by Creative Commons hasn’t yet superceded eCO copyright, according to Wikipedia, but it does supplement it. You might find this to be of interest because some of Fifty Shades is featured in free published form on the Internet by Scrib’d. The problem I ran into there, though, was that there were conflicting bits of info on Scrib’d: on one line was printed James’s copyright notice, just below it was a line which offered a “free download” of the entire novel (I was trying to access “Fifty Shades Darker,” the second one). But it never did allow complete access. I got to p. 27, and it demanded that I buy something. That’s only fair, except that the notice for the complete free download remained. When I tried to download, furthermore, I got a warning from my security system on my browser that that was a known phishing site, so I got rid of it. There were also multiple kinds of downloads there, including ads, which made the whole thing rather confusing. Anyway, this is just to warn you–I don’t know if you will have better luck or not, but maybe there’s some access to quoting from the supposedly “free” download?) Good luck. Why not think of publishing highlights from your podcast on this blog site, so that those of us who’re still living in the dark ages can see it?

  36. pilgeist says:

    Most living beings don’t read books as if grading a high schooler’s paper, i.e. to see if it lives up to its own expectations. Divining a book’s expectations is subjective at best. Identifying poorly communicated ideas it seems is where the sweet spot is here. But I’m just drifting through.

    • The problem is when the writing obscures the ideas trying to be communicated. As long as the poor writing doesn’t detract from the story I’m more than happy to let it slide, though I’ll always think it a bit of a shame. What is unforgivable to me is letting the writing get in the way of the story being told, which unfortunately does happen.

      The joy of discussing something like books and literature is that it is so subjective. That’s what allows for such a rich conversation.

  37. iRuniBreathe says:

    There are certainly books that are popular (I liked the potato chip reference) in spite of being very poorly written. I think it’s hard to get through books like that, although for beach reading or just trash reading you will get your money’s worth. It’s not a book to sink your teeth into, but one to skim and enjoy being entertained and the forget.

    You make a good point about reading poor writing to understand that it is so. We cannot recognize something of value unless we can compare it to something lesser.
    I’m still not reading 50 Shades, but I will be more open to reading what I have previously turned down.
    Congrats on the FP!
    Cheers,
    iRuniBreathe

  38. What an interesting argument! As an English teacher, I often have students discuss what makes a book “good” in their eyes, and what makes one book “better” than another. It’s never occurred to me to ask them what they learn from reading poorly written books. Few of my students have strong writing skills, so I can’t see that reading bad writing would be helpful to them, but I see how it could benefit me as a writer. Maybe I’ll have to take a stab at Fifty Shades of Gray after all! As for Twilight, you can see some of my thoughts on it, and its terrible writing, here:

    http://siobhancurious.com/2010/05/20/ten-wonderful-things-part-four-harry-potter/

  39. There are few truly bad books out there, you are correct. Within each book lives an idea that could make a reader stop and consider something in a new light. That’s truly the point of a book. I am willing to slog through bad writing for a good story. Case in point: Neil Stephenson’s Snow Crash. If you’ve read it, you’ll get it, and if you haven’t read it, you should. Be prepared, however, as his storytelling style almost strangles his unique vision of the future in its cradle. This book inspired me as a young writer, and now that I’m older I still see it as a brilliant idea, poorly delivered. What I learned from it is that the idea is the thing, the writing is just the wrapping paper.

  40. Sometimes you want steak and lobster. Sometimes a peanut butter sandwich will roll your eyes back in your head in ecstasy. There’s room for all.

    While I completely agree with your take on 50 Shades, I’ve recommended it to my writers as a truly excellent example of the evolution of a writer. Regardless of what James’ measures of success are – and despite the varied public opinion on the value of her efforts – her journey from a dabbling pen to respectable storyteller is as obvious to any reader as the growth of bean sprouts in a kindergarten.

    With warnings to the uninitiated as to the blatant pornography – while not inappropriate to the plot and characters – and with sincere concerns for the teenaged girls curled up in the school cafeteria with a raggedly dog-eared copy, I’d strongly encourage any writer to spend the three days reading the entire trilogy. There is much to be learned about writing here.

    Congratulations on being Freshly Pressed!

  41. I recently read some books in the Harlequin book club and hated them. It was bad writing and bad referencing of new characters. I got as far as Chapter three but it was a great lesson in how I do not want to write.

  42. madhaus7 says:

    I always reference a Quentin Tarantino quote in regards to watching those terrible, B-movies of the grindhouse age, “You got to drink a lot of milk to appreciate cream. But with these it’s like you gotta drink a lot of spoiled milk to even appreciate milk.” I LOVE watching bad movies because there’s usually at least one small aspect worth seeing. They always did something right even if everything else is awful. I’ve never really thought to adapt this concept to my readings. Unfortunately, lately I’ve only been interested in reading the classics like Hemingway and Vonnegut, etc. I’ve been trying to read some books by one of my favorite modern writers, Chuck Palahniuk and can barely stomach his style anymore. It all seems so stylistic and indulgent for me! And he’s one of my favorites! I don’t know if I’ll be able to read books that are even worse, truthfully.

    I’d love to hear a pod cast of you reading through 50 Shades. That sounds very entertaining! Post a link if you get around to it! Thanks for the fun post.

  43. gorunjess says:

    My sophomore English teacher assigned something she called “Beach Reading.” We were required to pick a best-selling author, read a book written by this author each quarter and for our final exam compare/contrast the work to the classics we read all year. At the young age of 16 I was taught the incredible difference between the novel and the best-selling brain candy that is churned out each year in America. I suppose I’ve been ruined for popular fiction ever since. Don’t get me wrong-I can read it, I can laugh at it and I can enjoy it when my brain needs a break from writing reports for work or reading research for a college paper. I’ve skipped 50 Shades because of how awful and repetitious the writing is reported to be. I’d love to hear a podcast on the topic. Thanks for the post.

  44. Irun San Gines says:

    As most of others, my opinion is that Fifty Shades of Grey starts with a great idea and finishes weakly. Maybe that is what a novel writer can learn. Sometimes starting is easier than delivering a good ending to the story. The problem with ending poorly a story is that readers become angry or even worse desappointed.

  45. Now, the question is badly written or what we think is badly written. I have read extensively and some of those books were just not as good as most others I have read. But, most of them provided me with a sense of enterainment. I have also read some books by famous authors which I think were not exactly well written, but hailed as brilliant books. The things is that they might have been well written or not. The point is that they are perceived to be great and no one admits they have not enjoyed them.

  46. R.A. Stewart says:

    This reminds me of a chapter in Judson Jerome’s The Poet and the Poem, a good book on the writing of poetry that went through several editions in Writer’s Digest Books in the sixties and seventies, in which he dissects a poem by Edgar Guest explaining, phrase by phrase, line by line, image by image, sometimes word by word, exactly what makes it a bad poem. I thought it was one of the most useful chapters in the book for anyone seriously interested in writing real poetry.

    I do something similar in the car with my daughter (who is practicing for her driver’s license). I’ll point out something some other driver just did and say, “What did that person just do wrong?” Happily, she always knows. Sadly, we always see several of these little teaching moments on even the shortest drive.

    You wouldn’t have to slog through the whole Fifty Shades to find examples of bad writing. There are, God knows, enough short stories and articles and to spare, these days. But you are definitely onto something here.

  47. It's only P! says:

    Target all the aspiring published writers on WordPress and look what you get? A lot of attention. 🙂 Your post was food for thought. What surfaced in my thought-obsessed-associative brain was the ‘Bouquet Reeks’ + Bouquet Extra, which I always notice on my (Dutch) library’s list of most read novels (1st + 2nd place). It’s been a long time since I opened one, like 30 years or so, but I remember well.

    Goes to show that there is an extremely large market for poorly written books because this is what Wikipedia says: Modern Mills & Boon novels, almost one hundred of which are released each month, cover a wide range of possible romantic sub-genres, varying in explicitness, setting and style, although retaining a comforting familiarity that meets reader expectations.

    Heck, we should all start writing for Mills & Boon, success guaranteed (and satisfaction too, it seems).

  48. Jenbug says:

    My original response to your blog was, “Okay, fine. I get it. It’s terrible, but it’s good. I’ll read the damn thing. Now, would all of you get off my back? Sheesh.”

    I realize that sounds a bit harsh, but almost everyone I know has been hassling me to read Fifty Shades of Grey (and the other two books in the trilogy). I just didn’t think I could stomach reading something with such terrible writing. However, you make a very strong point for reading it. How will I know where I stumble if I haven’t seen someone else do it? So, thanks. I sincerely hope I learn something. If not, at least my friends will stop bugging me because I can finally say I’ve read it.

  49. This post is timely for me. I often agree to read books from friends/online community who have self-published or are releasing excerpts. I got my hands on one recently and it is a difficult read– “a voice told her to go” a few pages later “she had to resist the voice telling her to stay”, etc. It isn’t “bad” just hard to read. The mines are glaring. Good thought about letting others step on them first! This could also be a case (for me) of spot it/got it. I see her mistakes because I might be making the same ones~

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