Any one who wishes to become a good writer should endeavor, before he allows himself to be tempted by more showy qualities, to be direct, simple, brief, vigorous, and lucid.
H. W. Fowler, Dictionary of Modern English Usage
We all like good writing and dislike bad writing; we all want to write well, not badly. Yet the words "good" and "bad," when applied to any work of art are so much matters of taste that they often seem empty as definitions and arbitrary as categories. Inaccuracy will not necessarily make writing bad. "All Americans live in igloos" is a perfectly fine, even funny, sentence despite its incorrect facts. "I love Jane, and she has brown hair" would earn an "awk" from any editor, but love often ties lovers' tongues. "Bob ain't got no sense" redeems its double negative with its colorful colloquialism.
In a recent New York Times Book Review I read two pieces printed on following pages, the first, in my opinion, such bad writing, and the second such good writing, that I thought the contrast between them might demonstrate how to distinguish good writing from bad whenever and wherever found.
Exhibit A: a review by Jonathan Lethem of a coffee table book, Rock 'n' Roll Billboards of the Sunset Strip. Lethem gets the bad writing going in his first sentence:
On Sunset Boulevard, no traffic flow is gradual enough for the sensory occasion.
"Wait a sec," I said to myself on first reading, "I drove on the Strip in the 60s, and the traffic often crawled slowly enough to take in the billboards." "Sensory occasion": sounds fancy but what does Lethem mean by it? I don't know. Going on:
The driver or his passenger, craning to take in a billboard's extent through the insufficient frame of a windshield, is seduced into variant environs…
"Craning" — I like that — to see the billboards "through the insufficient frame of a windshield" — huh? — viewers are seduced into "variant environs" — huh? again. Does Lethem mean the backdrops against which the rock stars (Doors, the Eagles, Neil Young) are posed? The huge images entice drivers:
…onto some other street altogether: say, Abbey Road, once the 20-foot-high Beatles have crossed it — but wait, someone stole Paul's head!
What does this mean? Lethem seems to find it amusing, but his arch tone collapses in the cloying coyness of the exclamation mark.
Exhibit B: a review by Peter Bogdanovich of Stella Adler on America's Master Playwrights. His first sentence gives Adler the first word, a lively, challenging quotation:
"Life is boring. The weather is boring," Stella Adler used to say. "Actors must not be boring. Life beats down and crushes the soul, and art reminds you that you have one."
Bogdanovich goes on to say he studied with Adler, lying about his age to get into her courses, which he found "daunting," "electrifying," "theatrical but real":
As a teenager, even an avidly attentive one, I could not possibly follow everything she was saying. But it was all so wonderfully expounded that I was never less than riveted.
That quickly Bogdanovich has set up a plainspoken positive tone, begun a portrait of a dynamic, capable woman, and introduced himself as an eager kid bitten by the theater bug.
Lethem maunders on, bouncing from oh-so-daring images — "Jim Morrison's nostrils, Chaka Khan's cleavage or James Taylor's crotch" — to fancy long-word phrases — "triumphalist tribal ritual," "heedless monetization" — until he sinks himself and the baffled reader in murky sentences of undiscoverable meaning:
…the mercantile impulse trips into a paranoia-inducing mode in which our products, rather than facing us frontally, transform us into their own commercials by the subliminal-viral methodology of social networks.
[The book documents] an unlikely moment…of countercultural dreams by a recording industry briefly high on a myth of its own transformational influence.
Bogdanovich uses his review to paint a clear-eyed but affectionate portrait of Adler, and by the end he's told us much about her. She had an "explosive, sometimes stream-of-consciousness manner of speaking, all of it extemporaneous," that mixed "erudition with down-to-earth realities, show business know-how with a few Yiddishisms." Clifford Odets was her favorite playwright, Laurence Olivier her favorite actor — "[He] can hold the curtain up. He knows how the play is built. He's thought about it." — and Marlon Brando her most famous student:
When she asked her class to behave like chickens who know a bomb is about to drop on them, all ran around wildly clucking, except Brando, who sat quiet and calm. Stella asked him what he was doing and he replied, "I'm laying an egg."
Bogdanovich gives Barry Paris, the editor of the Adler book, credit for work well done: "Paris has done a magnificent job of condensing and editing a number of different talks into coherent and resonant chapters." Lethem barely mentions Robert Landau, the author of the billboard book, and despite a few words of praise — "well researched and full of respectful awe" — finds the text "redundant, and swamped by the pictures" and the whole book a "lavish" but "superfluous" failure:
…another dream of catching with binding and glue and gloss the ephemeral and ineffable, another chance to pay for the unpurchasable.
Throughout his review Bogdanovich projects a tone of generous tribute — "I feel privileged to have known this wonderful woman for 37 years." Lethem's la-di-da pomposity and obscurantist vocabulary — "a cargo-cult or allegorical phase in the relationship between advertising's vast sway over our lives and the notion of commodity" — projects a tone of stingy dismissal.
Lethem cannot claim originality for his self-centered tics. H. W. Fowler skewered many of them decades ago in his magnificent Dictionary of Modern English Usage. Fowler's short, razor-sharp essays on "Genteelism," "Irrelevant Allusion," "Love of the Long Word," and "Pedantic Humor," termed highfalutin' prose like Lethem's the work of "second-rate writers…intent rather on expressing themselves prettily than on conveying their meaning clearly."
Nor can Bogdanovich claim brilliance for his merits. His review is no more than, and no less than, a readable, interesting, informative, and personal piece by a skilled writer who knows and cares about his subject. Turning over the Sunday paper, I find that eminently satisfactory, and so too, I think, would Mr. Fowler.
The skill with which a writer sets up word sounds and rhythms, contrasts and consonances, allusions and quotations, puns and other playful devices gives readers much to enjoy. Yet writing is a medium, not an end in itself. Unless we can see and hear, touch, taste and smell a person, place, or idea through the words, the writer writes and the reader reads in vain. Bogdanovich writes well because he tells us much about an interesting artist and a well-made book. Lethem writes badly because he tells us next to nothing about the billboards or the book about them. He doesn't write to help us understand his subject; he preens so we will notice him. Instead of holding a mirror up to nature as Shakespeare advises, he holds a mirror up to himself and, apparently, he quite enjoys the view.