Lessons from “Bad” Books

A few posts ago, I mentioned that I don’t “do” vampires. I don’t like movies featuring them, books about them, or–worse yet–book-and-movie empires revolving around them. But in the interest of reading around, and of knowing whereof I spoke when I wanted to criticize, I had to do it. I read the Twilight series.

Here’s where I start to cringe. I don’t want to admit that I devoted many hours to teenaged vampire romance. But in writing Jacob Wrestling, I needed to know the landscape of YA fiction, and Twilight and its mimic are, for better or worse, the bulk of that landscape. As I’ve said before, one can learn just as much about the writing craft from a “bad” story as a great one. (And Twilight’s been charged with badness running the gamut from poor story structure to moral depravity.  My favorite charge against Twilight comes from the religious right,  though the books promote abstinence, traditional marriage, and an anti-abortion mindset. Funny, that.) In a poor book, there are still lessons are on the page, though in the form of cautionary tales rather than good examples. While we could shoot the barrel-fish of thematics, gender-role reinforcement, and setting bad examples for our teenaged girls, I’m more interested in what goes on at the sentence level with Stephanie Meyer’s prose. If I crack one of the books, let’s say New Moon, at an arbitrary midway point, it takes me just a few moments and three pages to collect this list:

“I breathed deeply.”

“My eyes narrowed enviously.”

“I’d been needlessly reckless.”

“I examined myself clinically.”

“I frowned guiltily.”

It doesn’t take the keenest eye in critical reading to spot the similarities in these sentences: adverbs. Adverbs that describe the obvious (recklessness is by definition needless), adverbs intended to convey something the dialogue or first-person narration could have taken care of (guilty feelings aren’t all that hard to convey without explicit tagging), or adverbs that just seem creepy (something about giving oneself a clinical examination sounds…wrong).

In poetry, we don’t throw adverbs around very much at all. Strong nouns and evocative verbs are at the basis of the well-rendered line. Because it was so rare for me to use the adverb in a poem, I was surprised when my thesis advisor campaigned against its single instance in my Masters’ collection. I thought the word was rather snazzy, and, in a way, the poem revolved around it. I was flummoxed by my mentor’s insistence that the adverb was so wrong, so bad. In the end, I left it in. When Burn This House comes out from Red Hen Press, you can make your own assessment as to whether I or my advisor was right.

But since the war over that one word, I’ve never committed an adverb to my fiction without a great deal of thought. If I consider the context long enough, it’s rare that I don’t find a way to get the point across with a more elegant turn or phrase or a more subtle and connotative gesture.

So what happens if we strip the adverbs from Meyer’s prose? Well, “I breathed” and “I frowned” start sounding rather dull indeed; they’re basically homeostasis pretending to be action. If we point out the fact that several of these are also dialogue tags, this creates another problematic situation. I’m a firm believer in the word “said”; it’s rare that anyone needs to “whisper,” “glower,” “murmur,” or “exclaim.” If the action and dialogue carry enough content, the volume and manner speech ought to be obvious. Now that we’re rid of the adverbs, and the excesses in dialogue tags, ” ‘Uh-oh,’ Jessica said apologetically” turns into nothing but an “uh-oh.” Okay, so we’ll give her the “said.” But still, this is some uncommunicative dialogue! Without adverbs and heavy-handed tags, the page doesn’t hold much more than flat characters, unrevealing talk and ironic narration.

Whatever troubles Twilight may have thematically, it’s this nuts-and-bolts level of construction that really gets to me. But millions of teenaged girls can’t be wrong about what they like, can they? If the writing’s not so hot, why do girls swoon for these books? Next time, I’m going to attempt to identify what it is that Meyer’s getting so right.

16 Replies to “Lessons from “Bad” Books”

  1. me too re TWILIGHT. There are sentences without main clauses in those dumb books! For fun vampires and a twisty sense of humor try the Charlaine Harris books (on which the HBO TRUE BLOOD series is based). It ain’t great literature, but it’s fun, sexy, and most importantly, grammatical.

  2. Thanks, Stephanie! I might be persuaded to read about more vampires if the recommendation comes from you.

  3. I just love the quirky synergy between what you are saying here and what I just read from King in “On Writing”. Both are concise apologetics for the fundamentals. In particular

  4. (not sure what happened there…)
    In particular that you each point out the elegance of communicating in the sentence itself rather than relying on what amounts to a cheap meta tag radiates a strong parallel of thought. Quirky (and wonderful) because of where you each choose to take your creativity using the same basic principles. I have long relied on adverbs as a crutch. Time to change!

  5. I haven’t read the Twilight books, but I do know of friends of mine in their twenties that read and enjoyed them… I myself wondered how much of their appeal for teenagers came from the movies with cute boys in them! I guess on one hand we can be happy that the books are out there causing young girls that may have no interest in reading to read, hopefully it’ll instill a love for reading in some of them! I suppose it’s a lot like some of those ‘trashy’ romance novels that aren’t really great lit but do get people reading!

  6. I think this discussion is really interesting. I don’t like Twilight and I think it’s poorly done on many levels, but I can’t get behind adverb hatred. I don’t like to use them too much in my own stuff, but I’m not sure the justification for not using them is actually valid so much as a way of making sense of the anti-adverb trend after the fact.

    I look at old classics and see a lot of stuff that would absolutely never be published today. Adverbs, adjectives, purple prose, too much interior monologue, too little… well, you get the point. I’m not at all saying these books are bad or that these features about them are bad. I’m saying they’re no longer fashionable.

    Additionally, adverbs don’t get in the way of the enjoyment of the casual reader. I really, really think certain writers and critics are the only people who notice that stuff. It’s the “I didn’t know it was bad until someone told me it was bad” issue. And then other people know it’s bad because we tell THEM it’s bad, and on and on. That doesn’t make it objectively bad.

    I’m sorry I’m getting all philosophical, but I have to. Stephenie Meyer’s books are bad for a lot of reasons that have little or nothing to do with adverbs, and if they were bad because of adverbs, Ulysses would also have to be considered horrible. Aside from some very frustrated undergrads, people don’t seem to think that.

    Last of all, casual readers don’t seem to mind so much if they’re told instead of shown a lot of the time — especially young ones. If you look at the average SAT reading scores, you’ll see that most high school students aren’t the best ever at reading comprehension, and so they may well not intuit something that isn’t spelled out. More challenging books are good for those kids nonetheless, but Twilight will always be a better beach read.

  7. Your articulation of this familiar feeling is much appreciated. As a newspaper editor, I wish I could lift it for our correspondent handbook (if we had one).

  8. Michelle, I do tend to think it’s a good thing for kids to read, whatever the topic. And while teen vampire books may be considered “trashy,” I’m not sure that means they can’t be well-written. It would be fantastic if our kids could get engaging teen lit with that sort of wildfire popularity that’s *also* well-crafted…

  9. teenmamainc–agreed. The adverbs aren’t the final word on badness in Twilight! 🙂

    If we think about “classic” books, it’s a good thing to remember that the novel is a rather new form in English; depending on the scholar you talk to, the first novel was either published around 1500 or 1700 (the discrepancy of opinions is another topic for another day!). Any way we slice the timeline, the English novel is far younger than the epic poem, drama, or song. The novel is still finding its way. So I don’t think saying “gee, Daniel Defoe did things a certain way, so that must be fine” is a particularly sound defense of any technique in fiction. Had Defoe read Forster’s lectures on flat and round characters, he might have realized that Moll Flanders wasn’t that well-rendered a person after all, and revised accordingly! All fiction writers are contributing to the dialogue about and the craft of the novel (hence the “trend” you see re: adverb hate).

    That said, I can’t really defend my dislike of adverbs beyond saying that it disrupts *my* experience of a book. Art is subjective, as we know, and what bothers me may not bother you. But I suppose I’m not talking to the “casual reader” you mention, because, if you scroll back through some earlier posts, the project I’ve set for myself is to pull out items from various books and discuss points of craftsmanship. I’m talking, in essence, about reading quite intently and plundering all the good things to learn from a text. “Casual” reading isn’t really in my vocabulary!

    Nor do I think we should encourage people to read casually, just as I don’t think we should reason or make decisions casually. I feel a book should be entertaining, but not pure entertainment.

    I certainly appreciate your comments–I like being made to defend my often categorical remarks!

  10. Lynn–I would, with great glee, compose an entire grammar and style handbook for the newspaper! 🙂

  11. Kelly, that’s a great point I hadn’t thought of that the novel is a very young form and therefore some things in old novels really are poorly done. I argued the point of adverbs though because, to me, they aren’t particularly disruptive. They aren’t beautiful, but they don’t technically disrupt any grammar rules, and I mostly look for understandability.

    I also disagree that people shouldn’t read casually. Well, I don’t read casually, but I think reading with the intensity that you and I do would be a poor use of time for the average person. I see casual reading as similar to casual architecture appreciation or casual knitting. You don’t know how much you don’t know, but that’s fine. Though the obsessive (because, I have to be honest, I’m obsessive and I think most writers are when it comes to prose) attention to detail in prose can be deeply pleasurable, I’m not sure it’s particularly important.

    Or… again, I’m rambling, and this isn’t meant to be definitive… but I think casual reading isn’t necessarily casual. It still changes people and enriches them. However, word choice may not be important to them, and I don’t actually think word choice is the sort of thing that makes you more human when you ponder it. There can be ways to read passionately without giving any thought to adverbs.

  12. teenmamainc,

    You make a good point. Maybe what I’m after is writing that works on all levels, from the cursory once-over to the close, obsessive reading. Even if most people won’t notice the line I spent an hour or two tinkering with, maybe one will. I guess it’s the equivalent of painting the floorboards behind the refrigerator, where no one’s likely to see your work. But maybe someone’s willing to take that look…

  13. I agree with you re: adverbs. I was taught in writing classes in hs and undergrad, they’re just…NO…and Twilight series guilty of that.

  14. Sorry I’m late to the party. This was a great discussion about the flaws one can find in popular writing/culture. Loved the comments about the poor, misused adverb. I used one in a short story once—stuck an ly at the end of one of George Carlin’s seven words.

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