Now playing in Hollywood: ‘Bad Writing’, the movie


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What do George Saunders, Margaret Atwood, Miles Corwin, Nick Flynn, Aimee Bender, D.A. Powell, Lee Gutkind, Steve Almond and David Sedaris have in common? They all agree that Vernon Lott’s poetry is pretty bad.

Don’t worry, Lott asked for it. In his documentary ‘Bad Writing,’ Lott presents these well-known authors with a sample of his poetry in an attempt to suss out what, exactly, makes writing bad. He’d found his early -- and yes, mostly lousy -- poems in a basement, and the older-and-wiser Lott struck out across the country, visiting writers and writing professors asking them what bad writing is, exactly.


Lee Gutkind, an icon in creative nonfiction, tells him gently, ‘there is a sense of embarrassing sincerity about this piece.’ Novelist Margaret Atwood is sweetly merciless. ‘There’s no rule that says you get steadily better,’ she says.

The very independently produced documentary opens at the Sunset 5 in Hollywood on Friday night, where it will show in limited engagement through Thursday. It’s a must-see for any writer who’s ever wondered, ‘Am I any good?’ or even ‘Is my writing bad?’

Some of the places Lott goes in the film will be particularly satisfying for writers and writing students. George Saunders’ writing is superb and dark, but only those who’ve met him realize how gentle and kind he can be to students. Watching the faces of some of the writers as they hear Lott’s bad poetry is pretty funny, but Nick Flynn’s the best: he keeps a neutral expression for a while, then finally breaks into laughter when the poem go from bad to worse.

There is a universality to the professors’ book-lined offices, the tropes they’ve clearly recited to generations of writing students. And there is a familiarity as he moves through the hallowed halls of academia (for me in particular; he speaks to poet Lynn Emmanuel in Pitt’s Cathedral of Learning, a Gothic-style building where I got my MFA). Lott talks to UCLA professor Mark McGurl, author of ‘The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing,’ who provides some history of how America’s strong 20th century literary tradition was of and not of the academy.

But he also slips outside the ivory tower. He attends a reading at the Brooklyn bar Pete’s Candy Store, visits screenwriter Josh Olson at home and attends ‘Mortified’ to hear people read from their adolescent diaries.

As he spins further out, the question of bad writing gets pushed aside for other kinds of questions. What is the place of poetry? How do authors connect with readers? What does the Kindle mean? Is Twitter good for writers? What is this enterprise about, anyway?

And in that sense the film turns away from the embarrassments of bad writing toward the preoccupations of a writer who has a sense he’s doing all right. That the work is maybe good enough to stop asking.

As for bad writing? It may be hard to define, but to paraphrase a Supreme Court justice: like pornography, you know it when you see it.

-- Carolyn Kellogg