It’s All Relative: Thoughts on the Goodness and Badness of Books

By Jon Bishop & T.A. Alston

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The conversation below took place via email.

T. A. Alston: Jon,

You’re going to be reading a paper you wrote entitled Coke Cans and ‘Carrying the Fire:’ Walter Benjamin’s ‘The Story Teller’ meets Cormac McCarthy’s ‘The Road’ at an academic conference. This is exciting! I know how much you’ve worked on that paper, and to be invited to speak about must feel elating.

But, if I must be honest, as happy as I am for you, I cannot imagine myself attending a conference about Cormac McCarthy. That’s what is is, correct?

The reason I say this is because a couple of years back you recommended that I read McCarthy’s The Road. I picked up a copy at Barnes & Noble and read about 50 pages before I set the book down and thought: Nope, not for me. I’m sure you’ve had this experience.

And it’s not to say that The Road isn’t a good book. It just isn’t my taste, which brings me to a passage Tao Lin wrote on his ex-blog Reader of Depressing Books.

“i don’t think i’m ‘better’ than anyone else or that my view is ‘better.’ ideally i don’t ever think in terms of ‘better,’ just ‘different.’ and for now i need to be able to say why i left out a certain sentence or a certain story and not have to say, ‘because someone else didn’t like the certain sentence or certain story.’”

This passage comes from an email he sent to an editor he was working with to publish a chapbook. The chapbook never saw the light of day because the editor called him “immature” and that as a young writer, he needed to take suggestions/edits seriously. That as an editor, he was only trying to help him reach a larger audience. Here’s another passage from Lin:

“yes, i know delillo and lorrie moore and every other famous writer gets edited more than i do. i also don’t understand what their philosophy of living is. they publish on corporate publishers. i think delillo just observes society. lorrie moore i can more understand since she writes about feeling depressed in relationships, which has nothing to do with society. yes, they are famous and respected. i don’t know what the point of being famous and respected is. you used the word ‘better’ many times. read james chapman’s comments on the editing. i agree with him. in business there is ‘better’ because there is a goal. in art there is no ‘better’ because there is no goal, except for what goals each individual creates arbitrarily for him or herself.”

Is it right to say A Brief History of Seven Killings is better than, say, The Road? Can one even determine what makes something better? Isn’t it all relative? I personally think some books are better than others, but, as I mentioned earlier, it mostly has to do with taste.

What are your thoughts on there being “no better” in art?

Jonathan Bishop: Thanks! I’m certainly excited, but I’m also very nervous. I’ll just have to push through my nerves.

Your question is an interesting one. I agree with both you and Tao Lin. There’s “better” and “no better.” It’s taste, like you said. To me, the best thing to do is to evaluate a book on its merits. Ultimately, the story is a communion between the writer and the reader. Did the writer succeed? Did he or she entertain me? Do the characters breathe? Did I get what he or she wanted to say? Was it clearly written? And so on. That, I’d say, is how we figure out if the book is good or bad. And we can’t always trust critics when they tell us which books are great. Consider Moby Dick. I loved that book. But when it came out, everyone hated it, and it ruined Melville. Now he and Moby Dick are revered. Critical opinion can shift. That’s why I think it’s always best to try to evaluate the book on its own terms — which is why comparing A Brief History of Seven Killings and The Road likely wouldn’t work.

But I do think there are bad books and bad writers. Bad writers, to me, are people who aren’t willing to put the work into their stories and who also don’t understand how a story works. I’m thinking of the guy Marlon James mentioned in a Facebook post, the one who is suing the Iowa Writers’ Workshop for rejecting him. He thinks he’s a genius and that they’re rejecting him for being too old. But I looked up his book. It’s not very good. It doesn’t meet the criteria I established above: it’s unclear; the writing is bad; it’s not entertaining; and the dialogue doesn’t sound real.

Now I’m going to qualify this by saying that I believe everyone has the potential to become a good writer. It just takes work. Writing is humbling. You have to say “I’m not there yet,” and then you keep pushing. “Good” is worth reaching for. Maybe none of us get there, but we can always move a little bit closer. But some people believe they’re already there, which isn’t true.

Overall, though, I think this is a conversation we as a culture need to have. If more established writers talked like Tao Lin, then I think aspiring artists might say: “You know what? I’m going for it. I don’t have to worry about matching ‘the greats.’ I just have to worry about being me.”

Alston: Okay, so I have to push back a little here. You mentioned the person that was rejected from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, Dan Thomas. I have to assume that you did not read all 103 pages of his book. How, then, can you really say that it’s not good? Of course bad writing is bad writing, no qualms there. I downloaded a sample of Thomas’s book and read a few paragraphs. I agree: it’s not entertaining and it didn’t grab me. However, the novelist Bret Easton Ellis said that although Tao Lin is the most interesting prose stylist (good writing) doesn’t mean that his novel Tapei isn’t boring (not entertaining).

I agree, too, that the dialogue — from the little that I’ve read — doesn’t sound real. But that’s the case in what some would consider great books. Zadie Smith, who I think is a master at dialogue, said that “everybody speaks exactly like Don DeLillo” in his novels. But who would say that White Noise and Underworld aren’t great?

I’m not sure if Thomas’s writing is bad writing or it’s just not my cup of tea. Remember, I thought the same of The Road, and that book won McCarthy a Pulitzer.

So, questions:

1. Is it possible to say someone’s book is not good (bad) if we haven’t read it in its entirety?

2. Can a book be good only if it’s entertaining, has realistic dialogue, and is clear?

3. What is bad writing, exactly?

Here are my quick answers to the questions above:

1. No.

2. A book can be good and boring. A book can be entertaining and bad. A book can have realistic dialogue and be bad. A book can have unrealistic dialogue and be good. I’m not sure about the unclear/clear situation. Some might say that Infinite Jest is unclear, but many revile that tome.

3. For all I know, what I’m writing now is bad writing, though I’d like to think otherwise.

I love your point about everyone having the potential to become a good writer. Some people are preternaturally gifted; others need to work on it. And if you’re not preternaturally gifted, how should one go about becoming better? If you’re serious about becoming a published author, should you try your hand at an MFA? Or should you pull a Jonathan Franzen and just read books and write write write and save yourself the money it would cost to get an MFA with no guarantee that you’ll get the connections you need to make it in this competitive and fraught publishing world?

I also want to add something else: I hate it when people are deemed as an aspiring writer. As Kevin Powell once told me via email (I am so mad I deleted our exchange. He liked a piece I wrote about Frank Ocean coming out.): you’re either a writer or you’re not.

Bishop: That Zadie Smith quote is fantastic — and true. Everyone in his books really does talk like him. And I agree: we can’t determine whether a book is good or bad if we read only some of it. But I do think we can get a sense of it by taking a look at it. Like, I’ll read the first few pages of an unfamiliar book to determine whether or not I’m going to buy it.

In terms of badness, I’ll really only call a writer bad — and agreed about aspiring: I should have said young — if, like that Thomas guy, there’s a certain haughtiness there. We are all students of writing. To automatically assume you’re miles and miles ahead of everyone is wrong — and whenever I’ve encountered people like that, I’ve noticed they are the ones who usually need work. I agree with the people who say the act of trying to tell a story on the page, no matter how it comes out, makes you a writer.

But I guess my question is this: Is the sample act of writing enough to make you a writer? Or is there something more? Because if it’s merely the act, then everyone is a writer. But I do think it’s something more. Here’s why: I like to play basketball to relax and I like watching it, but I wouldn’t call myself a basketball player. I have never studied the game and have never tried to seriously improve my abilities (and I’m not sure how far I’d even get: I’m not that athletic.).

Plus, I’m incredibly mediocre (read: bad) at it. Yeah, I played recreationally as a kid, but that’s it. Occasionally shooting hoops on the weekend doesn’t mean I’m Steph Curry (and some people in the writing world sort of act that way, I’d say.)

But I have worked at writing. I’ve submitted myself to it. And I recognize I still have a long way to go. And no, I don’t think I’m the Steph Curry of writing, but I do think I could get to the point where I can make a living off writing. And that’s fine with me.

So badness, to me, is mostly attitude. It’s not just ability. (I don’t know if this analogy works.)

One thing I don’t like about the writing world today, though, is what you mentioned above: the MFA vs. Franzen thing. I’m not against MFA programs, but I do think their proliferation is a sign that writing and literature have become bougie signifiers.

Alston: Jon — playing basketball as a way to relax makes you a basketball player. Just like me making dinner at home makes me a chef.

Okay, all kidding aside — you’re right. The simple act of writing does not make one a writer. I guess what I was trying to say is that if you are serious about writing, meaning, you think about writing, you try and write often, and you dream of becoming a published author, makes you a writer. I think some, to use your word, haughty people might look upon those that have never published as aspiring writers. I think that’s nonsense. Writers write, no matter if they’re published or not. Being published just makes you an author.

Badness as attitude. That’s interesting. I’m not sure it works, though. To bring it back to basketball, you could practice every day for days on end and still be a bad basketball player.

I don’t know, man. I’m still tripped up on what makes someone a bad writer. Like, do we deem somebody a bad writer if they can’t string sentences together coherently? I’d like to think so. Do we deem somebody a bad writer if they can string sentences together coherently but just can’t draw us into the story? I don’t think so. I think that’s just taste.

I’d also like to think that there are writers out there in the world that are so naturally gifted that without even trying they can string together thousands of words and write a great novel and still have the wrong attitude. So having the wrong attitude can produce a great novel, and having the right attitude can produce a poor novel.

But again, is that just taste?

Oh, and the MFA thing. I don’t see anything wrong with someone wanting to get an MFA. Some people want the time to write a novel. Me, though, would rather read, read, read, and write, write, write, especially since my current undergraduate student loans will haunt me the foreseeable future.

Oh, and take a look at this. It’s from A Brief History of Seven Killings.

“I don’t really care what other people think about art, sir. Either you get it or you don’t…”

It’s all relative. There is no good or bad. Or maybe there is?

Ernest Heminway’s home in Cuba. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Bishop: I was talking this over with a former professor from graduate school — how do we truly determine good and bad literature? — and he said good and bad certainly exist, but taste and individual standards sort of make it hard to tell which is which. He told me someone in his MFA program submitted a story to a journal, only to have it rejected. He made a very small, almost inconsequential change and resubmitted it. It was accepted. Why? Two different editors had read the story.

A lot of is arbitrary, I guess.

So I agree with you, but I’m having trouble defining it. Perhaps good and bad are really reserved for the readers. Writers have to think differently. But I don’t know what we ourselves would call it.

Alston: But if it’s hard to say what is good or bad because of taste and individual standards, is there really such thing as good and bad? Seems like there would need to be a Pope of Books.

Anyway, we could talk about this forever. Let’s just say there’s no easy answer. Or that there isn’t an answer. Or…

What are you reading now? And how’s the novel coming along? I’ve been trying to write mine in the third-person, but something is telling me that I should attempt to write some sections in first-person. Maybe it’s because I’ve read two first-person novels in a row?

Bishop: I love the phrase “pope of books.”

You won’t be surprised to hear me say this, but I’m reading way too many things right now: One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, The River Between, The Signal Flame, and some assorted nonfiction. I think, because I wasn’t a serious reader when I was younger, I’ve been in catch-up mode.

I need to get out of catch-up mode. It’s impossible to read everything — and, as Teju Cole said, who cares if you haven’t read certain books?

The novel is going well. I just need to sit down and do it, though. I don’t want to take ten years to finish it, but, at this rate, that’s what’s probably going to happen.

It could be, or it could also be that the novel wants to be in first person. I remember Thoreen saying something like that once.

Something you could also do is see which sections read better. One thing I’ve done is write in first person and then switch to third person. First person allows me to get into the character’s head, making the subsequent third-person narration more believable. (I struggle with third person. I’m actually more comfortable in first person.)

I love this, by the way. This conversation, I mean. I said this to you in our Facebook chat, but I’ll say it again here: it’s rare when I get to talk about writing and literature in this way.

Alston: I’m not opposed to reading multiple books at one time. I mean, that’s what we did throughout college. However, I find that I never end up finishing a book if I’m reading two or more at the same time. With regard to being a serious reader, I’m the same as you. I never really read when I was younger. Well, I did read a lot when I was, say, between the ages of nine to eleven, but after that, nada. In middle school, I had to write a book report in English class and made the book up. A whole entire book report about a book that did not exist. I guess my writerly impulses stem from that moment. But in high school, I found a way to skim books and understand the important themes without ever having to read the entire thing. It was only when I started college that I began to read more seriously. Now, am in catch-up mode? Not really. I define being in catch-up mode as going back and reading the classics that you were supposed to read when younger. Books like: The Grapes of Wrath, Of Mice and Men (actually, that may be the only book I read in full in high school), Moby Dick, To Kill a Mockingbird, Lord of the Flies, etc. I recently let a co-worker borrow Black Boy by Richard Wright. I somehow forgot to return that book in high school. I still haven’t read that book, either.

I don’t feel a particular need to read the books that everybody has read. I just read what I want to read, and I think there is nothing wrong with that. With that said, though, I think people should be open to all types of literature, and literature by those that don’t look like them. For instance, if you are a White male, don’t just read White male authors. There’s a lot of great literature out there. Expand a little.

I’m 50 pages away from finishing A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James. Let me tell you, this book is F-A-N-T-A-S-T-I-C. The novel is so refreshing because I’ve never read anything like it. The prose is uniquely his own. The Man Booker Prize he won in 2015 is much deserved. I read A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara earlier this year, which is another novel that was refreshing to read, but if I were on the Man Booker voting panel in 2015, I would have chosen Seven Killings over A Little Life, too. (Sorry, Hanya).

What I’m reading next, I’m not sure. Maybe Nicotine by Nell Zink. Or The Cartel by Don Winslow. Or The Bridge by David Remnick. Or Welcome to Braggsville by T. Geronimo Johnson. Or maybe, like you, all four.

As far as my novel is concerned, I may be finished in 10 years, too. I hate how slow I’m writing. I need to write more. I try and write every day, but sometimes I can’t. I look at the screen and think, “This is bullshit. Why am I even trying to write a novel.” But I will persist. I must.

I think the novel does want to be in the first-person, but that’s because, even if some author’s disagree, novels come from experience. Our experience. We are writing ourselves into the novel, even if the novel doesn’t resemble our personal experience (does that make sense?). I don’t have a problem with third-person, I just think part of my novel wants to be in first-person.

And yes, Jon. We have what some would call a writing group. We share work with each other. We trust each other’s judgement. I really don’t have many people in my life that I can turn to and talk books with. They would just stare at me like a deer in headlights and say, “Okay, but did see that game last night?”

Bishop: I think we’re the same person. I did something similar in high school. The only difference: the book exists, but I didn’t crack it once.

And agreed about expanding what you read. I like how you put it: “There’s a lot of great literature out there.” People shouldn’t be afraid to dive in, although some, I think, are.

I’m hoping we can recreate what existed ages ago. We can help each other along the road to a major publication. It’s true, though. I often feel isolated when I try to talk about writing with Joe Sixpack. I don’t when we share our work with each other or when we just talk about writers and writing in general.

Alston: Not all friends are into the same things, and that’s okay. I have friends who love sports, and so writing would never be a topic of discussion. I think I would feel isolated if I didn’t have any friends who liked to talk about books and writing.

But enough talking. Let’s get back to our novels! And, hopefully, to major publication. Or small publication. Time will tell.