Still Bad

The ‘bad writing’ discussion continues. A reader wonders in the Guestbook if ‘bad’ is the best word to use.

OB, very ascerbic, very plain and right on, on the Bad Writing theme. But I think the very the phrase itself needs a housecleaning (or maybe a whole renovation), since “bad” can mean a splay of things: bad-ass, bad-as-evil, bad quality, bad as in WRONG, bad as in naughty … I think YOU mean “bad” as in convoluted, arrogant, obfuscatory, and Wizard-of-Oz academic, no?

Yes. Good point, FK. But I still like the word ‘bad’ for the purpose, and I think the possible other meanings are eliminated by the context. Even the headline on the In Focus makes explicit what kind of bad writing is at issue. And I’m fond of the word ‘bad’ for a number of reasons. The first is its bluntness, simplicity, clarity – how very unlike it is, in fact, the fog-generating unclarity of jargon-mongering. Then there’s its non-euphemistic aspect. I detest the widespread use of the word ‘poor’ as a substitute for bad when people (apparently) don’t want to hurt the feelings of whatever it is they are calling not-good – even if the thing in question is an inanimate object not created by a human. People say things like ‘It’s poor weather for sailing.’ Because – ? Who exactly is going to be offended if we say it’s bad weather for sailing? Poseidon maybe? But that’s a digression – and yet it’s not, not entirely, since language is the subject under discussion. Euphemism tends to obfuscate and should be avoided when possible. (When possible – thus obviously if your best friend asks you ‘How do I look?’ you should not answer, briefly and to the point, ‘Bad.’) Then there’s the fact that ‘bad writing’ means ‘writing that is bad as writing.’ Writing that doesn’t do the job writing ought to do, or any one of the many jobs writing can do. Bad engineering is a bridge that falls down, bad architecture is a house that falls down, bad running is a runner that falls down, and bad writing is writing that makes one long to be illiterate again.

And then there are various resonances – such as Paul Fussell’s amusingly vituperative book Bad, from which I got the phrase (one that he quotes from an old professor of his) ‘Bad, bad, very bad.’ It seems so obvious, and yet people don’t say it enough. I say it all the time. Another resonance is with Kingsley Amis and Philip Larkin, who filled their correspondence with pointing out how bad a lot of things were. David Lodge once remarked somewhere (sorry I can’t remember where) that the amusingly blunt, direct language of Lucky Jim may have come from the Ordinary Language philosophy that was all the rage at Oxford when Amis and Larkin were there. So perhaps there’s that resonance too, at several removes. And then of course there’s Denis Dutton’s Bad Writing contest, which I think he probably named that for much the same sorts of reasons I adduce here. The writing in question is bad, it’s not poor or weak or unfortunate or regrettable or infelicitous, it’s just plain bad. It doesn’t do what writing ought to do and it does do what writing ought not to do – hence it is bad.

And people go on making the ‘It’s not bad it’s difficult’ defense. The ‘No one expects physics or botany or philosophy to be instantly understandable so why do people expect theory and essays on theories written for theoreticians and theoretical analysis to be instantly understandable?’ defense. Which of course rests on the belief that theory is saying something inherently difficult that can’t be expressed in any other way, but one has only to read the examples I gave (the whole thing will do just as well as the samples) to see that that is simply not the case. No need to take my word for it; by all means read the whole thing. What can I tell you – it’s bad.

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