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Bad Writing, defined

Take a minute to parse this out: “Bad art is that which does not succeed in cleansing the language of its dead — stinking dead — usages of the past.”

I’m sure that within the right context — a graduate seminar on postmodern fiction, perhaps — that definition, from the poet DA Powell, could find itself bandied about in a lively debate. But to someone who’s been outside the leafy quads for a while — i.e., me — it doesn’ t make much sense. Other definitions of art, writing, and the writer’s life from a new(ish) documentary investigating what exactly makes for “good” and “bad” writing, range from vague, to hilarious, to immediately resonant.

In the 2010 film, Bad Writing, famous writers like Margaret Atwood, Lee Gutkind, and David Sedaris weigh in on their craft, its challenges, and the often thorny, contradictory distinctions we try to make between good writing and bad. If you missed the film in theaters (which you probably did, edged out as it surely was by the year’s stiff competition — Kick Ass, The A-Team, Tron: Legacy), never fear: you can now buy it from indieflix.com.

Meanwhile, I’ ll be watching for a documentary about what makes for good filmmaking, and how the aforementioned films got past the drawing board.

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  • Jeff McMahon February 10, 2011, 10:43 pm

    Nice zinger at the end. Here’s a favorite of mine that may cast some light upon Powell’s suggestion (and perhaps revise it toward sensibility):

    “To idealise: All writing is a war against cliché. Not just the clichés of the pen but the clichés of the mind and the clichés of the heart.” ~ Martin Amis

  • David Alm February 11, 2011, 6:18 am

    Leave it to Martin Amis. And thank you. That’s a much more comprehensible quote than Powell’s. I’m sure that the film features everything from the opaque to the utterly lucid, in terms of definitions of “bad writing.” All I know is that I can’t wait to see it, and wish I’d heard of the film before this week!

  • D. A. Powell February 12, 2011, 7:12 am

    You’re unfortunately taking that quote entirely out of context due to some sloppy editing on the part of the film’s promoters. In the interview, I attribute the afore-mentioned definition to its originator, William Carlos Williams. But the trailer leaves out that crucial tidbit. I can see why the quote would become a source of contention a) if it didn’t have the historical context of coming from one of the great innovators of Modernism, who himself advocated a radical shift in poetics, and b) if it were actually used in the movie. Fortunately, the film-makers themselves didn’t include that quote in the final film. If you’re going to review a movie, you should actually review the film as it is released, not its promotional materials. As they say in the billiard halls: don’t play slops.

  • David Alm February 12, 2011, 8:26 am

    Mr. Powell — Thank you so much for the comment, and for the clarification on the quote I use to lead the post. I’m sorry to hear that the film’s marketers took that snippet out of context and failed to attribute it to its original source — that is not particularly responsible documentarianism, in my view.

    Perhaps I should have made it more clear in my post that I have not seen the film, and only became aware of it recently. I absolutely agree that a film review should be about the film, not its marketing materials. This post about it was by no means intended as a review, but more as a “heads-up” about the film for anyone else who’d missed it closer to its release. In a sense, it’s a post about the film’s trailer.

    In any event, I’ll add that I led with your bit largely because I thought it was the most intriguing of those that I heard in that trailer.

    • D. A. Powell February 12, 2011, 1:24 pm

      It is indeed an intriguing quote, and I think it should inspire some debate. I appreciate you giving me a chance to clarify the actual source of the quote. Naturally, I wish I had been brilliant enough to have said it first, but I was not.

      If you do get to see the film, you’ll also note that most of the footage they use of me has nothing to do with writing. I talk about copulating ducks and a dog named “Crackers.” What kind of person names a dog “Crackers?” You can see how unhelpful I am when it comes to the subject of bad writing…