Friday, January 10, 2014

What I Learned from the Worst Story I’ve Ever Read

The hypothetical question:

You read a short story. It’s really bad. No argument. The phrasing of it was amateur, the concept obvious, the tone a deliberate but poor choice, the characters unlikable and underdeveloped, and the ending really, really random.

There is no doubt it's terrible.


You find everyone in your book club/classroom loved it.

Why did that happen?

True story: In a college creative writing class we were assigned a whole mess of short stories every day. Most of them were as you would expect (impoverished people looking at grass in a new light), but one stood out to me, so horribly painful I couldn't believe it.

I went to class. There, to my surprise, I found that not only did people disagree with it being “that bad,” but it was their favorite story of all the works we'd read. They were in love.

I couldn’t get my mind around it.

Now, when asking this hypothetical, there are two answers I get: One, “I am better read than them,” or two, “They’re not telling the truth.”

In essence.

At the time, I was primarily of the second mindset. Remember that I went to a school that could have easily been a cult if the teachers weren’t so lazy. Some of the issues I was going through at the time were about my opinion being so different than many of my fellow students. We would see a play, and I’d think, “That was stupid,” but my peers would say, “It was just above my head.”

I started to have a bit of a personal crisis, trying to understand the difference between a script being bullshit and too genius to figure out, why Beckett was beyond reproach, but the student copying Beckett was a no-talent idiot.

I had my own ideas, of course, but it seemed to me that the professors didn’t have a lot of consistency in “good” plays and “bad” ones. Two works did the exact same thing, and if the writer was famous or friend, it was genius. If the writer was not, it was bad.

And, this is also the school in which we had to read an essay full of scientific jargon an unfamiliar processes, in which, when the teacher asked, “Is this a convincing essay?” a student replied, “I trust him.”

The only thing you know about him is a three sentence bio-blurb he wrote above the essay.

I did feel, and still do, that the students “liked” what they thought they should, that their love of something was more often about thinking what they were supposed to.

I didn’t trust them when they said something was great.

But that couldn’t be the whole truth. For one thing, the teacher in this case didn’t press his opinions on us. For another, it was not the type of cerebral gibberish that made readers look good. As for sheep mentality, someone had to start it.

Plus, I know that people can get terrible reviews from one group, and yet see success in another. I know that when someone thinks your book is terrible, someone else might love it. I knew that the way I felt about this story was honest, too much for people to really just be lying about it, or even want to lie about it. There had to be something else there.

I am not better read. I read. I read what I like to read, rarely branching out. I’ve been burned by academia too many times for me to trust them when they have a “good” book. And while I read, it is not prioritized, and I tend to stall and stall and stall, then blitz through a story in about a day. I get through one book every two months probably.

When in a classroom full of diligent English majors, I would say they’re better read than me.

Secondly, I find that “being more experienced,” is not a way to judge the universal quality of a book. It’s not that the story that appeals to the better-read soul is objectively better than the one that appeals to the non-reader, but that writing is a comparative art form, meaning how much we enjoy it is about what it’s being compared to. If the world was to only write long sentences, then the author who wrote short sentences is an original genius. Also, we correlate superiority in books to superiority in readers, which means that being “better” read tends to be about reading the “right” things. One of the reasons so many people are embarrassed to like Young Adult books is because society looks down on teenagers.

If I want to look like I have the same mentality of a teenager, then I say I like Young Adult, if I want to look like I have the mentality of a house wife, I say I like romance. If I want to look like someone who lives with my mother playing WoW, I say, I like sci-fi. If I want to look like a strong and capable macho man, I say I like thrillers. If I want to look like a literary expert, I read Hemmingway. If someone who has read every Young Adult book under the sun likes your story, but the person who’s studied each name-dropped genius doesn’t, then the book isn’t “good.” Coming from the impression that many of the Kerouac lovers are about appearances, it can feel to me like it’s more of a propitiation of a desired world rather than the world we actually live in. In essence, it is possible to me that “good” books are defined more by people wanting them to be good then actually liking them, and that rings untrue to me.

The correlation of who likes the book, and how it makes me look to like a book will affect my willingness to read a book, and, unfortunately, how I judge the writing. Being better read should indicate a better understanding as to what’s “easy,” what’s being done more often, etc. But I would argue that this isn’t necessarily what designates a universally “good” book. In my opinion, something that is objectively well-made (which I also think is impossible) would appeal to everyone regardless of experience, and yet, not only do non-readers love things readers can’t, readers love things that non-readers hate.

This answer of being better read exasperates the problem for me. My question is why do people love things that others hate? If we’re not just lying, if it’s not just about comparison. The idea that they “just don’t know any better” isn’t clarifying.

I spent many years thinking about this story, and over time I was more and more certain about it being “bad.” I found out more about the author—he, unexpectedly, came and talked to us at that same class. A PhD candidate for creative writing, he’d said, “I want to be a novelist, but I haven’t come up with an idea that I want to stick with several years.”

He had written the story for a class assignment to make the longest possible sentence, in which he just did a list of things the couple had bought at the store. (This is the non-sequitur ending I was talking about.)

I have a hard time dealing with people whose only projects are academically assigned. It is a form of snobbery on my part, but it is also a symptom of other issues—lacking drive, bravery, or a mind of your own, for starters. For me, it really said something that this man had only written a few class assignments over the years, all short stories.

Lastly, he was an editor on the first issue of the journal printed in, so it wasn’t as though someone else had read it and liked it.

Does any of this actually matter to me? Well, no. Not if I had liked the story, it wouldn’t have. But I started seeking irrefutable arguments why I was right and why they were wrong. Things like experience level, motivation for writing it, and general dedication were less arguable things for me to point out then I didn’t like it, then “It’s a bad thing to have no variation in your word choice, not a style.”

But over the years, I’ve softened, lost my belief in objective truth and quality, and started to become more about subjectivity and how to handle it.

When taking this story in that light, when taking the opinions of many people’s views on writing, when trying to find something that made sense to me, I came to a conclusion:

Every reader prioritizes things differently.

Here’s what you should know:

The Story:

Silly, ridiculous, but told in a nonchalant way.
Is published in a nice looking book, giving out in an academic setting.
Is published by the guy himself.

Likes supernatural.
Theatre major.
Has read a lot of amateur fiction.
Does not trust experts explicitly. Or anyone, for that matter.

My Fellow Students:
Likes contemporary fiction.
English/creative writing majors.
Has read a lot of academic stories.
Has faith in authority figures.

These things, our backgrounds, our interests, our personalities, all affect what we care about.

I was someone who read a lot of speculative fiction. At times, only read it. I like fantasy, sometimes sci-fi, and did not give two craps about reality. The only reason I didn’t read Fifty Shades of Gray was because I have no interest in modern day America. Even contemporary stories with magic are pushing it.

I, of course, don’t have in-depth information as to what my fellow students liked, but I had a good idea as to what kind of stuff they read. Most of them knew Harry Potter and Twilight, but those were exceptions, not rules. People from my generation have basic understanding of the supernatural without being interested in it, so it’s not as though they didn’t know what zombies were like. But, all that being said, they were more interested in writing and talking about—what I call—realistic books than supernatural ones.

But, the thing was, I had read a lot more about zombies and that sort of supernatural crap by amateurs, which meant that the shock value was missing to me. That I was reading a short story about zombies wasn’t surprising, that it was told in such a nonchalant and causal way wasn’t original. That same sort of tone is typical. People take horrible events and they talk about them like they’re doing the dishes all the time. So, that didn’t surprise me either.

What I think my fellow students like was that, as English majors, they were handed gritty, descriptive pieces about poverty. When suddenly something so silly and weird—for them—came up in that same setting, it was a fresh breath of air.

As a theatre major, I was being giving works in which women gave birth to cheese graters. Weirdness did not shock me. It, in fact, annoy me. I had seen so many people trying to be weird, trying to write “about nothing,” spewing gibberish, claiming every sneeze and typo was intentional, and just doing random things for the sake of being random, I started to consider weird writing as hack writing. English majors tend to read works that try too hard to be cerebral. Theatre majors try too hard to be freaks. Know what happens when you’re constantly exposed to freakishness? Weird becomes typical.

It is true that our reading experiences attributed to our like and dislike of the work. Were either of us wrong? I say no. No one can read everything, and most people (yours truly) will seek out similar work over and over again. Maybe what some of those English majors needed was to be told you don’t have to be intellectual and dramatic all of the time. Veronica Roth, author of Divergent, was a creative writing major, and she often blogs about how belittled she felt, how much she had to hide what she truly wanted to write: science fiction.

I believe the sudden difference was enough for them. I too believe that some of them exaggerated their like for it, going with the trend in the room, I believe that many entered lacking the skepticism I had. (He’s published, so it must be good.)

I don’t think the story is good, I don’t think the world would be a worse place without it, but I have realized two things: It gave me a lot to think about, and it doesn’t matter. If anything, it should be a relief. The way I felt was honest; I know that. I doubt that I am unique enough that others wouldn’t agree with me. But now that I understand why, maybe, it was a good story to them, it has let me off the hook a little.

I don’t have to write with objective standards. I don’t need to write for the audience that likes the worst story in the world. I just need to write for the one who agrees with me about what is the best.