Learning Writing From Reading “Bad” Books

Recently a young writer posted on Reddit about the advice from Stephen King to augment your writing journey by learning what not to do via reading bad books. Alan Moore also mentions this in his Masterclass videos. While I don’t disagree with this advice, I think it is, perhaps paradoxically, one of the more challenging bits of writing homework one can give.

The Reddit thread gives a great example. A user posted about how their entire literature class hated the Gertrude Stein writing assignment and the resulting class was cancelled due to this. The poster’s implication within the context of the post was that Gertrude Stein was clearly a bad writer you could learn from.

I don’t disagree with this but probably not for the reasons the commenter intended. Stein is a great example of why the guidance to read bad books is really challenging to do right. People’s tastes are so broad and the world of literature is so complex that what you might consider “bad” might actually be just something presented in a different way or with a different cultural context or for a different audience.

When the 1Pulitzer jury selected “No Award” about ten years ago, one of the judges outlined a section of David Foster Wallace prose as clearly indicative of the novel being worthy of the award. I read it and thought it was a purple prose self-indulgent slog. Of course, that was just my opinion and wasn’t really relevant. There are countless people who felt it was poetic, and the flowing river of description being a languid and wonderful immersion in the scene.

So neither of us were actually right. It wasn’t bad. It wasn’t good. It was bad for some people and good for some people. And that is why writing is so challenging.

Henry James wrote a wonderful story called 2“The Figure in the Carpet,” which among other things is a metaphor for the writer’s pursuit of the perfect reader. In the story, there is a secret to the writer’s novel that it turns out only one person has discovered. It was, in short, a work of such genius that only one person could appreciate it. But is a work that the entire world can’t understand and only one person can unlock the highest form of art? Or is it the worst of novels?

So while I don’t dismiss the concept of “bad novels,” and I don’t dismiss the idea of “learning from bad novels,” I do think that the exercise should be approached with caution and serious attention.

1 https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/letter-from-the-pulitzer-fiction-jury-what-really-happened-this-year

2 https://gutenberg.org/ebooks/645

Jaye Albright, My Personal Trans Hero

Back in the nineties, I was the Alternative Music editor for Radio & Records, an industry publication that was inluential with radio music directors and program directors. These were the people who could make or break careers and decided which songs would be hits. My office was in Century City in Los Angeles, a half block from the building made famous in Die Hard as Nakatomi Tower. One of my favorite fellow editors, however, lived in Nashville—Country Radio Hall of Fame member Lon Helton.

Jaye Albright

I talked with a lot of radio consultants, and one that often was mentioned for her influence and insight was Country radio consultant Jaye Albright. I didn’t know Jaye, and, indeed, I’ve never talked to her. However, I had been close enough to the industry to know that just a few years before I joined Radio & Records Jaye Albright wasn’t a consultant. She wasn’t even a she. She was influential country radio program director Jay Albright, who was at the time presenting as a man.

One day I saw her name in a column, and being curious I called Lon Helton to get her story. He was nice enough about it. Just basically said that Jaye wasn’t really ever a man. She was just physically that way, and it was a tragedy and that it had to have been tough for her. I believe at one point he said something like, “Can you imagine how difficult that must be?” I kind of just shrugged and thought that it must have been really difficult for Jaye to be trans in such a conservative format and community as country music.

As time went by, I would be reminded of Jaye every so often, and it struck me that every time I heard of her it was due to some incredibly intelligent or insightful thing she was writing about or some accolade she was receiving or some young music director that she had helped. In short, she wasn’t a stranger at all in country music. She was one of the family, and not just one of the family—a matriarch. She eventually ran country music stations for a large broadcast company and was inducted into the Country Radio Hall of Fame.

That was over 25 years ago, and today I often think of Jaye and how different things were back then. Being publicly trans was practically unheard of in the nineties. So the enormous courage of Jaye staggers me. With basically no public support or common cultural context, she made the decision to be the person she was always meant to be, and as you can see in a front page column in Radio & Records (written by Lon) about her final transition surgery, she was kind and generous in explaining why what she was doing was important to her as a person.

I am sure that Jaye’s battles then were different than the battles we see today, but they had to be just as difficult. I mean, just imagine going to a country concert as a guest in the deep South as a trans woman in 1997. The looks you receive. The whispers. The comments from strangers. I’m sure it’s not that much different today unfortunately, but back then, she was alone.

But she wasn’t really alone.

I think back to Lon’s comment about Jaye—”Can you imagine how difficult that must be?” Lon wasn’t talking about being trans in the country radio community. It didn’t even cross his mind. He was talking about a friend being a woman trapped in a man’s body.

Twenty-five years ago being trans wasn’t considered dangerous, even in the deep south or the conservative country radio community. It was just someone being different. And while that has its own challenges and own dangerous biases and many other hurtful aspects, what it doesn’t have is a lack of sympathy or understanding that, at the end of the day, the pain is one of a person just wanting to be who they truly are.

If country radio back in the days of Garth Brooks and Kix & Dunn can see the person behind the label and the pain they are facing, what the fuck is happening today?

Conan And Friends Podcast Tops 4,000 Downloads

Conan square no text

I don’t mention it very often, but when I began working with a Hollywood producer I started my own production company. That sounds more impressive than it is, trust me. What I basically did was just create a brand name as a name for various things that I would be involved with across multimedia. It’s called In Shambles Productions. One of the things I’m producing is a pulp fiction podcast that tells stories from the early twentieth century. It’s called Conan And Friends, and it just went over 4,000 downloads, which is a wonderful little achievement.

In Shambles is also producing my Thieves Guild podcast and my audiobooks, which I’ll be releasing in 2024. But for now I’m quite happy—4,000 downloads on the company’s debut podcast is a good start!

The Thieves Guild Shenanigans!

I’m very excited to have The Thieves Guild now on sale in all major bookstores in both print and ebook. This is the first book in an ongoing series. Book two, The Burning City, will be available in December, and book three will be available in the first half of next year.

My publisher, Broadsword Books, and I are actually doing something quite cool. Rather than release the audiobook immediately, we are going to release a free full cast audiobook podcast over the next half a year, with the audiobook available next Summer. But no need to wait for the audiobook! Just subscribe to The Thieves Guild podcast and listen to the book just like a serial from the thirties or via a magazine in the 19th century… one cliffhanger chapter at a time! The good news is that you won’t have long to wait for each chapter, as they are released twice a week. In fact, you can listen to them right here: