5 min read

Good writing and bad writing

Kajetan and author fencing in a dance studio, with rapiers, with a large mirror in the background
Fencing with Kajetan at 1000 Rivers, one of the original Valkyrie Locations

I used to be a snob about my reading. Didn't feel like it, but now that I've got a bit more context, I can understand what was going on. It's been a lot to unpack. Oddly enough, my appreciation for all writing started with food.

I love food. I'm a super-taster, which also means I was super-picky about food growing up. As I got older and came to grips with my tastes, what I enjoyed in food grew substantially. And my pickiness also got a lot more focussed. Looking at coffee, for example, once I learned to enjoy it, I started out the way most people do. I dove into dark roasts. I made strong, dark coffee.

This is because my first forays in coffee started with sweet, creamy drinks. And I wanted to explore the root flavour more, to get to more of the "original" or "authentic" flavour. So dark roasts and espressos were my go-tos for a while. But after a bit, I realized I didn't really enjoy those. The flavour profile was certainly rich, and intense, but something was lacking for me. It wasn't until I tried a very expensive Cup of Excellence coffee in medium roast that I understood what I wanted...complexity, depth, and RANGE. Flavours that could take you on a long journey around just what your pallet could experience. Now I live for light roasts, and their floral, caramel, berry, and citrus potentials.

But wow...trying to share that joy with other people is hard. Coffee drinkers aren't looking for the same thing I am. Mostly, what they like about coffee is that it's a pleasant hot bitterness to balance the sugar and cream.

Stepping away from coffee for a moment, why is McDonald's still popular? Their food is terrible. And yet, I still eat there. I still crave what they call a hamburger, although it bears no honest resemblance to what a burger is from other restaurants. I enjoy it less because of the flavours, and more because of the experience. And for sure, the flavours are part of the experience. There is a receptor inside me that says "this is normal, this is our baseline, we are in a comfortable and safe place, and enjoying a treat" when those flat pucks are being chewed on by my mouth. I have similar receptors for nachos done in the microwave with tabasco sauce sprinkled on them, or canned channa masala.

These are not good foods, but they fit inside me in a certain way. That's not a bad thing, because the experience of eating them has a worthwhile place in my life. Just like the coffee, though...the experience is not for everyone. Nor should it be. Variety makes life rich. A double-double coffee is someone's ideal experience, and that is as valid as any of my single-origin light roast coffees that I love.

So the interesting bit in that, though, is the uniqueness of each experience. If you eat McDonalds at all, you've realized that while the burgers are pretty standardized, some locations make them just a little better than others. Some days the burger hits your buttons and you feel great, other days it's a sad experience. Even producing a mass-market stamped product of sameness, there is room for variety.

So maybe I'm pushing the analogy too far, but I'm finding this is somewhat akin to my experience reading lately. I've been doing market research on what people read. Mostly to see where I can reach out to readers of a certain genre, to let them know my books will appeal to them, but also with a bit of an eye towards writing towards those markets. I'm also reading widely so I can understand the craft of writing better. An author might write what I feel is terrible fiction, but if they put out a book a month and a ton of people are buying them, then they absolutely have something to teach me about writing.

I started hitting some obscure genres. Courtney gifted me with a Kindle, and a Kindle Unlimited account, to help me with this process. This lets me read at my preferred rate of a few books a day, and not worry about whether I'm getting my money's worth out of the book. With this advantage, I started reading authors and books I would normally never touch. Genres I don't like, crappy covers, bad blurbs, whatever. I read books with no sales as well as bestsellers.

There are absolutely bad writers out there. And terrible, terrible books. Those books are written by writers that just don't really care about anything other than what they are writing, and only barely about that. You can tell those, usually in the first paragraph or two.

The truth is, though, bad writers are rare. As are great writers. The vast bulk of writers are, strangely enough, average. The bottom end of average is works where the author hasn't developed any craft. The top end would be where the author has developed a professional approach to writing, which shows in every bit of their work. The only thing that stops them from being great is that vast gulf of talent that somehow separates.

But here's the thing. In that average space, opinions thrive. What makes a book good or bad rarely has anything to do with the skills of the writer and has a lot more to do with the background of the reader. Readers really want their McDonald's experience, and get furious when it's actually a Wendy's burger.

For myself, I found that I initially bounced off of a lot of writing because of my internal biases. I couldn't enjoy some works because I was "better" than that genre. LitRPG was a perfect example of this. I use the term broadly here to cover a number of genres that are related.

I was told by an author in the genre that it wasn't for me. That the quality of writing was not great, and it was aimed at a specific audience that I wasn't a member of. That part was correct, as I'm not really a gamer, so the context was lost on me. I did, however, learn that I enjoy the genre because of the skill of the writers. It's not a skill that most readers of other genres would recognize, because of biases. Solid plotting skills, an ability to propel the story and offer hooks that keep a reader turning page after page, book after book? Most authors struggle with this, but genre writers tend to be very strong here.

And we dismiss them as bad writers. It's the same root cause behind why scifi and fantasy were dismissed back in the day. It's not the quality of the writing, it's that we call writing that is not aimed at as bad, instead of correctly identifying it as not to our tastes. Probably because there is an implicit shame in having tastes and preferences, because it raised the ugly spectre within us of bias. If we are biased towards a type of fiction or food, then we have to admit that maybe we have biases about things like gender, age, race, religion and other things that we think we are better than.

It's important that we confront our biases in small things, so that we can rehearse confronting our biases in larger things. What do we lose by not reading literary genres that we don't enjoy? About as much as we lose by not eating at Mcdonald's. But if we make it a habit of only sticking to what we prefer, then our actions effectively contribute to a structure of bias in our life, and that is something we need to be very cognizant of. I find that if I want to particpant in, and grow a strong culture around me that I enjoy participating in, I need to practice reaching outside of my biases. That starts by admiting that I like McDonald's, and then sometimes choosing to eat a falafel salad instead. While reading a paranomal romance novel.