Books that are well-written can be well-written in a lot of different ways, whereas books that are poorly written tend to be poorly written in only a few way (my apologies to Tolstoy). One book that’s widely considered poorly written is Fifty Shades of Grey – even the author herself has said so. I read it out of curiosity, to see what it does well in spite of being poorly written.[^1] But I found myself thinking more about why it comes across as “bad” writing. What marks “bad writing”? Here are a few paragraphs from early in the book:
José and I are good friends, but I know deep down inside he’d like to be more. He’s cute and funny, but he’s just not for me. He’s more like the brother I never had. Katherine often teases me that I’m missing the need-a-boyfriend gene, but the truth is I just haven’t met anyone who … well, whom I’m attracted to, even though part of me longs for the fabled trembling knees, heart-in-my-mouth, butterflies-in-my-belly moments.
Sometimes I wonder if there’s something wrong with me. Perhaps I’ve spent too long in the company of my literary romantic heroes, and consequently my ideals and expectations are far too high. But in reality, nobody’s ever made me feel like that.
Until very recently, the unwelcome, still-small voice of my subconscious whispers. NO! I banish the thought immediately. I am not going there, not after that painful interview. Are you gay, Mr. Grey? I wince at the memory. I know I’ve dreamed about him most nights since then, but that’s just to purge the awful experience from my system, surely.
These aren’t terrible paragraphs, but that last paragraph sticks out to me – there’s something off about it. Maybe it’s the unevenness in the narrative voice. The same voice that calmly notices “the unwelcome, still-small voice of my subconscious” also screams “NO!” and throws around cliches like “I am not going there.” Because the book’s written in first person from Ana’s perspective, these swings in the prose feel almost too drastic for the character. “I am not going there” comes off as trite because we’ve seen Ana do better. We’ve seen her think better. Yet, “I am not going there” is something that twenty-one-year-old Ana could very well think. It’s a part of her character. She is the kind of person who uses phrases like “I am not going there.”
I think that in literature we expect our narrators to be more articulate than we are. Even when the writing is from the perspective of an inarticulate character, we expect to be able to deduce a singular voice behind that person, a sort of narrative high ground. The challenge here could be: how do you maintain the narrative high ground that allows observations in the form of “the unwelcome, still-small voice of my subconscious” without changing her character?
Here’s one solution: write it in third person.
José and Ana are good friends, but she knows deep down inside he’d like to be more. He’s cute and funny, but he’s just not for her. He’s more like the brother she never had. Katherine often teases her that she’s missing the need-a-boyfriend gene, but the truth is she just hasn’t met anyone who … well, whom she’s attracted to, even though part of her longs for the fabled trembling knees, heart-in-her-mouth, butterflies-in-her-belly moments.
Sometimes she wonders if there’s something wrong with her. Perhaps she’s spent too long in the company of her literary romantic heroes, and consequently their ideals and expectations are far too high. But in reality, nobody’s ever made her feel like that.
Until very recently, the unwelcome, still-small voice of her subconscious whispers. NO! She banishes the thought immediately. She’s not going there, not after that painful interview. Are you gay, Mr. Grey? She winces at the memory. She knows she’s dreamed about him most nights since then, but that’s just to purge the awful experience from her system, surely.
Is this an improvement? I think it’s a bit less wild in its swings, at least. The cliches no longer feel as cliche because they’re mediated by a more-reflective, articulate third-person voice, who can impersonate the twenty-one-year-old Ana. The narrative voice dips into the character’s psyche at crucial moments, but the voice also comes back out of it. The line “Sometimes she wonders if there’s something wrong with her.” now seems to hang in the air (A new puzzle to solve: Why does this hang in the air better than the previous version?), and her denial at the end of the final paragraph feels sharper, more sarcastic (whereas in the previous version it’s less clear how aware Ana is of her own denial).[^2]
This is the kind of diagnosing and troubleshooting a writer does all the time with their own writing. But it also helps to try to rewrite (even mentally) things you don’t write yourself, and see if you can make it better.
[^1]: Feb 2021 note: When I first sent out this letter, it came across ungracious to some readers, maybe because I didn’t spend enough time on what the book did well – and there are things it did well! The text-message conversations, for instance, was some of the most natural and convincing SMS-bantering I’d come across. I’ve lightly edited the rest of this letter to be more constructive in my criticism.
[^2]: Ursula K. Le Guin’s Steering the Craft is a great resource for a lot of things, including the less-obvious differences between narrative point of view.