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Wednesday, August 07, 2013

What a Really Bad Book Taught Me

I'm currently struggling to get through what is, quite possibly, one of the worst books I have ever read.  It's definitely in the top five worst, and I've been reading since I was four years old.  That's a lot of books to contend against.

Why struggle through a bad book?

Well, the short answer is this:  the best way to improve as a writer is to read a lot and write a lot.  Read good stuff to see how things are done well, and read bad stuff to learn what not to do.  Also, I'm slogging through it because I was dared to do so by a fellow writer and friend.  He begged me to read it so we could share in the misery together, as he was already neck-deep into the awfulness.

It's so bad.  I mean really bad.  I kind of want to punch the main character in the face.

My friend and I had a long phone conversation where we went back and forth listing off all the ridiculous plot contrivances, annoying characters, missed opportunities, and completely unbelievable dialog and we got to laughing so hard I was crying and couldn't breathe.  It's so bad, it's unintentionally enjoyable; like laughing at a bad B-movie.  It's almost too easy to make fun of it.

Once I dabbed my tears away and caught my breath, I said I felt guilty for making fun of it because at least the author 1. put something out there, 2. got it published, and 3. is successful (at least by bank account standards - it's a national bestseller) and here I can claim none of those things.  I've only mustered up enough courage to submit one short story (and it got rejected).  I am not even sure I'm that talented of a writer. Who am I to criticize a successful, national, best-selling author? (Not to imply that an intellectual or thoughtful reader can't assess a piece of written work and identify what was executed well and what didn't work.  I was just feeling a little too puffed-up and superior over this author and realized it.)   

 Sympathizing with my guilt feelings, my friend then asked the question, "Well, let's talk about what she got right."  So we listed off the things the author actually did well in the novel.

Even though the book is bad, it is still a gift in that I'm learning a lot from it.

The whole thing got me to thinking about our culture and how we are so quick to jump in and poke fun and criticize, or point out what is wrong - not just with a written work but with everything.  I know people who only like to watch the beginning of American Idol because they like to laugh at the contestants who fail miserably.  Those contestants are more courageous than most - at least they tried and put themselves out there.  We're like a pack of hungry wolves, sniffing around for the next sign of weakness, or the next thing to ridicule or tear down, and when we find it we pounce.  Why do we enjoy reading movie reviews wherein the reviewer hated the movie and tears it to shreds?  Why do we take glee in that?  A crew of hundreds spent months on crafting a film and we reduce it to a "one-star" failure in just a few scathing paragraphs.

Why is it so easy to tear people down, and so much harder for us to build people up?

I'm not implying that we shouldn't be honest about what is good or bad.  Constructive, honest criticism is good and necessary in any field in order to learn and improve your craft.  It's also necessary, as a consumer, to read informed reviews and know what is worth our time and what isn't.  Specifically, what I'm puzzling over in this little essay, is the eagerness and the joy we take in tearing things and people down. It's not an attractive trait. If we could only focus some of that energy on building people up, focusing on what they did right, focusing on where they succeeded, and only then following it up with gentle correction or constructive criticism, wouldn't that give them more courage to try more, to try harder, to try again - to be better next time?

So what do you say?  Let's make a deal. 

Let's try to show a little more mercy, and encourage more people to try their hand at writing, painting, singing or whatever they're pursing.  They may not be the next Rembrandt, but it may make our world a little brighter, and allow room for other timid folks to be a little bit more courageous.

And no... I'm not telling you the name of the book.

1 comment:

Chad Olson said...

This sounds a lot like offering criticism to fellow Christians, but applying it to all areas of your life. Anyway, I think you should name the book, to save other people the pain. You learned from it but other people might never read again! (I happen to know the book, wink, wink).

Here are my musings on criticism in a church setting: Judging Others