or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Wednesday, May 27, 2009


There are people out there, native-born English speakers, who simply have no ear for the English language at all, not the slightest feeling for how it ought to flow, no conception of rhythm and meter and prosody, scarcely even the sense that words themselves have meanings.

Some of those people are professional writers, disturbing though the notion is. Published authors who've been paid for their labours! One of them is Jerry Jenkins, author of the "Left Behind" series, which has sold millions of copies and is being systematically dismantled by Fred Clark in a terrific blog called Slacktivist. A recent posting (discussing pages 28 to 32 of the second volume of the twelve-book series, so you can see that this is going to take a while) quotes the following sentence from the book:

Meanwhile, the four of them would stud up walls, run power and water lines into the hold, and generally get it prepared as a hideout.

That sentence has been plaguing me for weeks, because it seems to encapsulate so much of what's wrong with the book series. The clause "...and generally get it prepared as a hideout" bothers me, and specifically the word "generally" just makes me grit my teeth, because there's no better or easier way for the author to demonstrate that he just doesn't give a fuck. He couldn't be bothered to research what it would take to create a livable hideout for the characters, and he sure couldn't be bothered with writing vivid descriptive prose, so he just chucks it all away with the word "generally", confident (and no doubt correct in assuming) that his readers will just gloss over this sad, weak, pathetic little wad of a sentence, eager to get to the next item on the post-rapture checklist. All this, of course, is based on the assumption that Jenkins is conscious enough to know that good writing is possible at all; it may be the case that he's just some talent-free, tin-eared hack who simply stumbled onto a lucrative job.* Either way, it's depressing and enraging at the same time.

For sale at the store in which I work is a picture frame meant to hold a graduation photo, and written on the glass around the space for the picture are the following words (repeated four times each, forming the four sides of a square):

Celebration • Dream • Believe

One of these things is not like the other, wouldn't you say? "Celebration" is a noun. "Believe" is a verb. "Dream" can be either. It is obvious to anyone with even a passing knowledge of the language that the first word ought to be "Celebrate": three imperative verbs appropriate to a new graduate. The fact that this frame was somehow produced and marketed--the text was written, the object was designed, the glass was etched or painted, the completed shipment was deemed marketable by a corporate buyer--is mind-boggling. It makes you despair for the very idea of literacy.

*He's written a hundred and fifty books, too, which means that there are a lot of undiscriminating readers out there. Whether ignorant of the language or cynically uncaring, Jenkins is a staggeringly bad writer, and proof of this is found in every Slacktivist posting, but most directly in this one, which begins

It's a dangerous thing for a writer to introduce a fictional character who is, the reader is told, the Greatest Investigative Reporter of All Time. The pitfall here is the same as if you introduce a character by telling readers he is "the absolute funniest person who ever lived."

You can get away with this, somewhat, if you're writing about a great painter or musician. There you can get away with simply piling on the superlatives, perhaps describing the reaction of others to the artist's work. Readers do not expect you to actually show them a painting or play for them a symphony.

But if you introduce a character, as L&J do with Buck Williams, as a great writer and reporter, the reader has a right to expect that you will provide more than overheated adjectives. Readers want to read what the GIRAT has written.

and ends thus:

Anyway, here's how the GIRAT reported, firsthand, from the scene of an all-out nuclear surprise attack:

To say the Israelis were caught off guard, Cameron Williams had written, was like saying the Great Wall of China was long.

Just remember, when L&J discuss good writing, this is what they mean.

Now you can see why Clark called the "Left Behind" series "the worst books ever written".


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