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Friday, November 20, 2009

The End of Good Writing: The Damage of Twilight, Harry Potter, and Their Friends

(Disclaimer: I do not hate Twilight--not really--nor do I despise the things I am going to talk about here. I am simply pointing out a potential problem that nobody has solutions for.)

There has been a resurgence of crap in the last few years. I don't mean published crap, but crap in relation to writing in general. And I'm blaming Twilight, Harry Potter, and every other significant, top-selling literary franchise currently flooding the shelves. As the co-owner of an online writing workshop for young writers, I have seen first hand what the surge of sales and admiration of these books has done. The quality of written English, in general, has drastically de-evolved. That's not to say that there aren't good writers, just that the profusion of online writing forums (of all stripes) and the injection of relatively sub par storytelling into the mainstream landscape has created a new environment indubitably friendly to the prospect of universal value. It's a nice thought, but a faulty one.

It is faulty because there is no such thing as universal value that actually places real value on something. The only universal value in writing is the one given to anyone who tries, but that ends, for anyone with the heart to tell someone about reality, where accomplishing the task turns into trying to do something more. The conditions have, I think, been set for this sort of presumed universal value, and for the infusion of poor knockoffs, poor storytelling (plotting, etc.), and other problematic relationships to the very idea of writing.

There are a few things that signal this to me:
  • Text-speak
    It would be fair to say that this existed prior to Twilight and Harry Potter, but I have seen an enormous surge of text-speak as the dominant mode of communication despite its incoherence to most people and its improper placement in spaces particular to writing mentalities. There is also a correlation between Twilight and text-speak that is impossible to deny: often the first thing we see from someone incapable of speaking in normal English is something akin to "I luv twlght," or whatever it is that makes that proper in text-speak.
  • Disregard For Remotely Standard English
    Apparently caps are unnecessary, along with apostrophes, periods, commas, proper ellipses, and a multitude of other illogical exclusions. Sadly, this is also, in my experience, tied to a love for Twilight. We'll be talking about this in a minute.
  • Incoherence
    The idea of writing logical sentences, or sentences that resemble actual sentences, seems to have been lost to a lot of folks. I've always believed that creative writing should be required in order to graduate high school primarily because I know for a fact that many people who write fiction also happen to be better writers in general. That's not to say that they don't have flaws with argument, just that they are able to construct sentences and use commas properly.
  • Flagrant Disregard of Reality
    I think in the last three months I have seen two dozen different versions of the exact same story, all of them also repetitions of Meyers' story, which is a repetition of some other stories, and so on. This wouldn't be a problem if these same people also acknowledged that their teen "romance" involving a vampire who glitters was a direct ripoff of a far more popular book series. But they won't have any of it. They don't understand what a cliche is, or what a recycled plot looks like. They're oblivious because they want to be.
Where am I going with this? All of these problems have been rising dramatically in the last year, due almost entirely to the influx of popular titles into the public of would-be writers. More and more wannabe writers (young and old) are flooding my forum with the expectation that they will be the next Meyer or Rowling, but then they disappear moments later when they realize that a) you can't be on a writing site and not conform to standard written English; and b) sometimes when you suck, you actually suck. A lot of them come in expecting to write in a way that not even an elementary school teacher would accept (not in fiction, but in communicating with others), and then are shocked to find that a site for writers might actually have standards. These folks want to be the next Meyer, and they'll do everything they can to be it short of actually working on their craft; to tell them that they have a lot of work to do is to tell them that they will fail, always (some of them undoubtedly will, even if they try to work on their craft). But, they don't disappear forever; they go to other places where they are not subject to such rules, where they can put out incomprehensible drivel and receive glowing comments instead of anything resembling a critique (there is, after all, absolutely nothing helpful about such things as "OMGZ dis r awzum!!!1!").

And this worries me because it feels like the end of good writing. I get the impression that standards are being relaxed, not in publishing, but in the wider web, and the way the community functions is to provide places for people to get false hope, to dream of things that aren't possible, and to continue to fulfill their fantasies without a dose of reality. Not everyone is cut out to be a writer, of any kind. Some people simply are better suited to other duties, but everyone can try. But the most basic thing we all need as potential writers is a modest ability to use the language we intend to write in and a healthy dose of the reality we all live in. We can't pretend to be writers and conform to a non-standard method of communication that involves complete disregard for even the most basic of English rules--capitalizing letters is not that difficult.

Even worse is the fact that I don't know how to to figure in the influence of popular titles like Twilight or Harry Potter. There is a correlation, but what kind? How do they mix? And do we just let this flooding of sub par occur? Do we address it? How? Is it bad or good? A logical consequence?

There are so many questions to ask, and so many concerns connected with them. But maybe this is an irreconcilable issue. Maybe.

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  1. Anonymous7:18 PM

    You seemed to have read my mind - or at least my current thoughts. Unfortunately everything - including the proper use of a language - is bound to decline. Although, I believe these books are associated with these kinds of people because they are on a similar comprehension level - the material isn't difficult to understand. I don't believe that these books are one of the major causes, however, to such a tragedy. It takes much more than a few terrible books to derail the use and beauty of language, and of responsibility (as you have pointed out on the community).
    Mostly it is the culture as a whole which has led into a decline, and in the availability of what we desire. In my opinion, it seems the American culture has lately spawned the belief that you don't have to work hard to get what you wish to achieve. Or, "working hard" has been reduced to typing a few keys without and spending in hour in front of the computer typing thoughtless babble.
    In any case, I shouldn't go too far into this. ^^; I enjoyed your reading your post. :)

  2. Not sure I entirely agree that the influx of cheap rip-off writing is any sort of indicator on the art-of-writing's decline. It strikes me that there's ALWAYS been this much garbage and bad writing going about, but with the advent of the internet we're all exposed to so much more of it, instead of just to those few folks banging out crap in your hometown alone.

    Also consider that the numbers are higher world population will forever = more crap. If 1 out of every 10 wannabes are ever truly talented writers (juts picking a statistic randomly here), then that means 9 more horrible wannabes popping up for every 10 wannabes added to the world's pop...and only 1 truly talented dude or dudette.

    Finally, insofar as uber-popular franchises contributing to the crap, that has also always been true. High Fantasy is practically born of LOTR (though I realize this wasn't the first, no, but then neither was Twilight the first teen vampire smaltz). High Fantasy only continues to exist because enough writers can manage to write it well enough to keep it alive, but this by no means means there has EVER been a lesser amount of ridiculously, barely coherent high fantasy garbage (EYE OF ARGON, anyone?) Self-published books consist of so much high fantasy based on the Tolkien vein and there's a reason - this is the same never-ending stream of "inspired" rip-off shinola that Twilight and Harry Potter will also inspire. And a few will write things similar and they'll be worthwhile. Most won't.

    Oh, and language - even acceptable written language, changes constantly. But most "wannabes" have, again, always wielded a poor grasp on grammar and coherent use of language. That's really not new, or even growing (save for the usual growth of exposure to the crap and number of people in general). It's unfair to expect folks not to use text-speak (it's a viable new addition to the language), but it's equally as unfair for writers to expect editors or readers to accept a lack of control with "proper" writing, too. It's ALL writing. It's all language, and that's what writing is. And most people have never and will never accept that truth.

  3. Note -- Blogger is making me break up my comments mycause they are too long. I'm sorry about that.

    Part 1:

    While I 100% agree that the written form of our language is being butchered on a daily basis, I think that trying to lay the blame on series like Twilight and Harry Potter is a stretch (if not flat out inaccurate). Are those series to blame for would-be writers writing stories that are complete rip-offs? Absolutely but that is another matter entirely.

    The biggest cause to the current deterioration of the English language in written form is the internet and text messages. About ten years ago I worked in the technical support department at AOL. While at work, we spent a pretty good amount of time in various chat rooms. It was then that I first started to see chat-lingo (a.k.a. lol, roflmao, brb, etc.) and since then things have only gotten worse. Now I’m not completely against chat-lingo, heck I use it when it is appropriate, but I know that there is a time and a place for that and for using proper English. Fast-forward to 2009. I work for another company (still in a call center doing tech support…sadly) that uses chat rooms as a major tool for communication. It is in those chat rooms that I see our language raped on a daily basis. Not only do people not know how to spell (something that I admittedly have problems with) but they are unable to use proper capitalization or punctuation to save their lives. Granted the point of the chat rooms is as a quick communication tool to get questions answered in order to help customers, so I don’t begrudge all of the shortcuts used (I use quite a few myself) but there are times that I literally have to ask someone what he/she just said because what was typed was completely incomprehensible.

    I mention all of this because I know that MANY of the people guilty of these crimes against the written language have never read Twilight or Harry Potter, let alone any book. For the most part these are people who are obsessed with other things (like sports, cars, and some even computers). So based on my experiences, the works of Meyer and Rowling have little to nothing to do with the abuse of written English.


  4. Part 2 --

    On the matter of regurgitated plots, etc., I had a writing teacher once that said not to worry about it. He said that even if you were borrowing heavily from another source, your own point of view, personality, and experiences would make your story unique (or at least not exactly like what has influenced you). One thing to understand though, he was not at all a “literary” professor. He was a guy who had been a cop and now writes action/adventure novels and teaches on the side. He brought to the classes his experience in the publishing world and dismissed a lot of the snobbery of the “literary” world. He tried to focus on the skills that would actually help students get published. I thoroughly enjoyed the classes and learned a lot.

    I have to admit that in my own writing, I have drawn heavily from the things that I enjoy reading and watching. Because of that I know that my vampire manuscript (which you can read the first four chapters of here) has a Buffy the Vampire Slayer feel to it and that the epic fantasy that I’ve been working on has a Shannara with Jedi feel to it. Is this a bad thing? I don’t think so, as long as I write a story that is well thought out, put together, and executed, then who cares if it has similarities to other works of fiction. Heck, most, if not all, hero tales share the same set of characteristics. So does that mean that Harry Potter is a rip-off of Superman, Heracles, or Jesus just because their stories share many of the same plot elements and characteristics? No. These elements are part of our collective subconscious and find their way into our myths, folktales, scriptures, and literature. (Note – If you can’t already tell, I’m a big fan of the work of Joseph Campbell.)

    More than anything else though, the Twilight and Harry Potter series have gotten kids into reading and that is a great thing. I spend a lot of time at our local library and there are always kids there checking out and reading books. My kids have read more in their eight and nine years respectfully than I did in my first 25 years. When I was young we didn’t have things like Harry Potter or Twilight to draw us into the glories of reading. We had cartoons, TV shows, and movies and books just never seemed to rank in comparison. One thing that I thoroughly regret is the fact that it wasn’t until I was in my mid-20s when I started to read for fun. Since then I nearly always have at least one book going and my performance in school had greatly increased (not that I am any closer to a BA but that is anther matter). I love to read and make sure that my kids see me reading and encourage them to read as well (also the schools are doing a MUCH better job in the reading department than mine did when I was young). This is why I think for all of the bad, imitations that they are bound to spawn, series like Twilight and Harry Potter are great things and do far more good than harm.

  5. Kelsey: I should have said that I don't think they are primary causes, but part of a problem. That's not to say that I don't think they should exist, just that I think their huge success and the way the Internet has become a bastion for people to get hugged even for producing garbage has created a problem. Your second paragraph says a lot of what I tried to convey, only better. Thank you.

    Dave: I didn't mean just cheap rip-off writing, but poor writing in general. Cheap rip-offs are certainly a part of that.

    I agree that there is always been this much garbage, but the Internet and, particularly, Twilight have created conditions that make this crap acceptable rather than push it out of the way so the good can come through.

    And I agree with you that direct rip-offs have always existed, but not to the extent that I have seen. I've seen numerous people come to my writing forum telling the exact same story as Meyers, but with different character names. There have been basic plot rip offs, but not to the extent that seems so common now. Everyone wants to be Meyers, despite what reality dictates to be possible.

    And, yes, language is always changing, but not changing THAT much, :P. We still use commas and periods. But I disagree that we can't expect people to not use text-speak. We can in certain places. We do not accept text-speak in school, nor do writing forums (at least, they shouldn't). Text-speak on the phone doesn't bother me. It's built fr that and developed specifically because of cell-phones.

    I'm going to cut mine up as well, because trying to comment on all you've written is making it difficult...

  6. Dave: Yes, I should have made it more clear that I didn't mean they were primarily responsible for the influx of bad writing, just contributors to it.

    Also, I used Twilight and Harry Potter as examples, but I didn't mean to limit myself to them. Dan Brown and a dozen other authors could fit on that list.

    And I am definitely not getting on the cases of Twilight or Harry Potter or any other franchise with the intention of trying to devalue them as literary or cultural icons. They absolutely have a positive influence on young people by getting them to read. I would never deny that and even say to people who hate Twilight with a passion that it doesn't matter if it's good, because it's making people want to read, and that's more important than the book itself.

    And again, just to clarify, when I say rip-offs, I mean almost exact replicas, with very little differences.

    And that's all I've got to say :P

  7. Actually, S.M.D., yes, language does change that much, constantly. That's why we have text-speak - because it HAS changed that much. Sure, it was born of computers and gadgets but there's no denying how swiftly it's pouring out into linguistics on all levels. This isn't a devolution, as it didn't exist before. It's an evolution, no matter how much it disappoints.

    It's fair to use text-speak as much as it's fair to use any colloquial speech or style, none of which was born of literature, but of social interaction, no matter the venue - regional, ethnic, economic, or, in these modern times, cyber.

    However I'm 100% behind you in the fact that, like all colloquial usage, the writer has to offer a satisfactory reason to use text-speak: the characters, narration, and/or overall style of the work has to sensibly allow for this and the usage must be consistent or follow some sort of consistent logic/pattern.

    What I've personally seen most amateurs do is haphazardly swing between proper and poor grammar, colloquialisms and pseudo-writerly style, with not one speck of rhyme or reason. But that's not the same as text-speak being the improper or defiling element. As in most things, it's more the lack of professional control over the writer's own stylings.

  8. Dave: Language changes among subgroups, but it doesn't actually change. Text-speak is not at all an acceptable form of communication; not by a long shot. Nobody is being hired for sending resumes in text speak. It doesn't happen because that is not the acceptable type of communication. At best, all that we can say is that subgroups change language, but only for themselves, not for the dominant communicative body. And it's totally de-evolution. It's a bastardization of the language and the fact that people are attempting to merge text messaging language with the every day is disturbing.

    May text-speak burn in hell :P.

  9. According to linguistic definitions, a language change always begins as part of a subculture, and it either remains this way and fades, or it is adopted, in part or in whole, by the majority. Due to technology's prevalence, we actually do use text-speak to communicate, constantly, and in (nearly) all areas of our culture. It is not a part of the accepted norm in all things yet, no, but that's the way it becomes accepted - by insinuating itself there and allowing for adaptation of the rules over time. Acceptance doesn't occur simultaneously across all fields, certainly not with all people. That's not an argument against the fact that text-speak, like any language change, has a right to vie for a proper place in language.

    That said, using an aspect of language in writing still requires the proper usage - you can't use military lingo unless some sort of conceit allows for it. You can't use use an accent or regional speech unless you, again, invent a REASON for it. All language abides by rules: formal or informal, subcultural jargon, academic style, ritual speech, etc. It CAN all be used at anytime...but you better have a reason for it! :)

  10. Dave: The likelihood that it will become anything more than a feature of a subculture is next to nil. I fail students who use text speak...and every professor I know does, including the new ones. At best, it can hope to be a subcultural form of communication and nothing more.

    And I sure as hell don't use it. Call me an elitist bastard, but I refuse to bastardize the English language or drop myself to communicating in monkey language just for the prospect of quick messaging...

    Oh, and I'm hereby boycotting any book that has text speak in it, even if there's a good reason. I'm taking the high road and defending language from those who want to destroy it!

    Yes, I've lost my mind...

  11. Anonymous12:58 PM

    Though I did not read much of this argument, one thing that I would like to say is that novels were not always seen as the high art that they are seen today. They originally were seen as a relatively low form of art and a sure sign that society itself was degenerating. Poetry, not prose, was high art. Prose, particularly novels, was something upper class women read in their spare time.

    Taking a look at Victorian novels--most of those novels are actually regarded as crap by critics. Merely mindless entertainment. Pulp. They were poorly written, unrealistic, and illogical, but they served their purpose of entertaining. Basically "Dime Novels," "Penny Dreadfuls." "Varney the Vampire" is the only specific example I can think of, because the majority of 19th century writing isn't studied--just the few "good" ones: Bronte, Dickens, George Eliot, etc. This trend is nothing new and not even a trend, because bad, but marketable books have been on the books, way before Harry Potter, Eragon, or Twilight was published. And they were likewise popular.


  12. Croc: It's curious how the past is repeating itself, only, perhaps, with a little more truth. There's a lot of concern now whether the novel has lost its importance. I don't think it has, but the arguments are interesting, to say the lease.

  13. An explanation:
    Cicada's Maxim Of Past Creative Experience: The current generation believes the creative output of the previous ones were higher quality than its own, for the reason that the current generation only experiences the higher quality material.

    The proof:
    We, the current generation, experience nearly ever piece of literature or music created in the current generation, wether it is Twilight or John Krakauer, Lady Gaga or Yo-Yo Ma. However, we are not exposed to the god-awful expressions created in the mid-Twentieth Century. Going back even further, Mozart, Bach, Shakespeare and Marlowe are frozen in our collective conscious forever, thanks to their brilliance. But of their admittedly mediocre contemporaries? Not a peep.

  14. Regarding this comment thread:
    Rule seventeen of "The Elements of Style" by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White:

    Omit needless words.

  15. I consider both Twilight and Harry Potter gateway series', and I think that may be a contributing factor. Many Twilight and Harry Potter fans are new readers. (This is especially true of younger fans, though I'm sure there are many older people who're in the same boat). They've plodded through the odd school-assigned book, but they've only recently discovered reading for pleasure.

    In my experience, the best writers are also voracious readers. They've read so much that they've absorbed written grammar and syntax by osmosis. They may not be able to outline the rules, but they've seen them in play so often that they have little trouble following them.

    New readers don't have this foundation. They construct their sentences based on what they are familiar with--namely, spoken grammar and textspeak, neither of which necessarily follows the same rules as written grammar.

    I should hope that their writing would improve once they've read more, or once they've realized that no one on the internet will take them seriously if they can't construct proper sentences, but as you pointed out, this is a relatively new phenomenon. It's still too early to tell if these new readers' written expression will evolve as they read more and learn the tricks of the trade--or, for that matter, if they'll even try to improve their communication skills. Perhaps the community is large enough that they'll all develop the ability to understand one another and won't feel the need to improve.

  16. Memory: The problem for me is that even if we try to help them, a lot of them are completely unwilling. There are communities built specifically for people who cannot construct a coherent sentence. Most of us who try to write start off sucking something awful. That's just reality, but the Internet makes sucking even more than awful okay, and there's little need for there to be any change or adjustment, and then you toss in some self-publishing and you end up with a lot of folks who need a healthy dose of reality, but who can't get it because they live in a magic bubble. And then more people follow them, and so on, and the cycle runs over and over and over. I'm starting to think it's the Internet's fault...

  17. Cicada: Good point.

  18. I agree with everything said about Twilight, mostly due to the fact when I read it it felt like a bad fan fiction already. However, how has Harry Potter contributed to the furthered use of chatspeak, bad grammar, or anything of the sort? Those books were original, well written, grammatically correct and I feel that reading them while I was growing up helped me make reading into a hobby. Why dump on the series that got (some) kids back into reading in the first place?

  19. "I agree with everything said about Twilight, mostly due to the fact when I read it it felt like a bad fan fiction already. However, how has Harry Potter contributed to the furthered use of chatspeak, bad grammar, or anything of the sort? Those books were original, well written, grammatically correct and I feel that reading them while I was growing up helped me make reading into a hobby. Why dump on the series that got (some) kids back into reading in the first place?"

    First: they weren't original. Everything in Harry Potter has been done before.

    Second: Because despite all the good it has done, it has also produced, along with other big hits of the time, a generation of young folks who think they are something that they actually aren't. While HP was written fairly well, that doesn't mean that people who mimic Rowling or who take her work as inspiration are willing or competent enough to learn the craft.

    This isn't about reading. It's about writing. I applaud HP and Twilight for getting people to read and love it.

    Hopefully that all makes sense.

  20. Anonymous4:20 PM

    Dave, I definitely agree with you about the text-message business being part of the decline of language, as well as the idea of language changing constantly. My father, a linguist, always complains about how this or that word or tongue is changing -- we've gotten into countless debates regarding this over time.

    Good writing? Bad writing? Oh yeah, I can think of various names I'd add to this list: Dean Koontz drives me nuts, for instance, with the overly simplistic writing style -- and yet, he's popular enough that when I tell people I write Sf and fantasy I get "Oh, so you're like Dean Koontz," or "Oh, like Steven King." King doesn't quite send me as around the bend, but he has his moments. At least he uses more vocabulary!

    Is this good or bad for the English language? I dunno. I know that they both sell big, and have staying power. So I know that their work, like "Harry Potter" and "Twilight" stuff, will be around for awhile, and will influence more young writers.

    The fact is, though, all fads dissipate. The writing industry works kind of like the Big Bang in some ways: it expands to catch some new concept, and then it contracts and lets that concept do its thing till a new one forces its way in. I'm reminded of the craze that happened when "The Da Vinci Code" came out: I hated it, personally, but knew many who loved it, and my father at the time was convinced I should hitch my little writing wagon to the train. So, he got all the books that were written by wannabes -- one or two of them I remember as better than the original book!

    My point? This too shall pass.

  21. hyberbard: But what do you think will come next? Apparently some publishers think it will be minotaurs, but I can't see that gaining much traction. So, what follows wizards and sparkling vampires?