The Value of Bad Books

Thanks to Rebecca, here’s a thoughtful article from The Guardian about the value of reading bad books. Self-absorbed books, pretentious books, poorly crafted books – they all combine to help you appreciate the miracle of a great book when you encounter it, according to Stuart Evers.

There are only a finite amount of books you can read in one lifetime, so spending time with one that you know within 50 pages is going to stink like two-day-old roadkill in the sun seems counter-intuitive. It makes far more sense to put it down and pick up something else from the ever-increasing to-read pile. Yet I feel somehow incapable of doing so.

This isn’t because I’m one of those readers who have to finish anything they start, rather that I think that bad books can be almost as instructive as good books. They show you what fiction looks like when it’s malfunctioning, when all its wiring is hanging out.

What I really like about the article, especially as someone who is always asking herself what worked, what didn’t, and why why why, is that the comments take issue with the books that Evers lauded as near perfect experiences of fiction reading. Love that. One woman’s perfect is another woman’s puerile. Same with romance. I’m always so curious about reviews that laud books I couldn’t stand, or vice versa.

 

Comments are Closed

  1. 1
    ev says:

    For me, truly bad novels must want or aspire to be literature, rather than simply product.

    That would include most of the stuff they stick in the literature section and the Oprah Book Club list, IMHO.

    And Twighlight. It’s the only book I have ever heard my daughter say she wanted to throw at a wall.

  2. 2
    P.N. Elrod says:

    I love bad books; I owe my career to them!

    I hurled three in a row across the room and declared “I can do better than THAT!” and got down to serious scribbling, determined to write the kind of book *I* enjoyed reading.

    (Had to pay for the dents in the wall, too.)

    It worked out.

  3. 3
    Lori says:

    I think that, past the point when one has read enough to have developed personal taste, continuing to read a book you know is bad & that you aren’t going to enjoy is a luxury.  I used to sort of enjoy reading to analyze why a book was bad & how in the world it got published.  that was when I had a lot more time to read.  Now that I have very little time to read for pleasure (as opposed to required reading for school) if a book isn’t working it’s gone. 

    Also, this sentence

    Ratner’s Star” was DeLillo’s run-up (an experiment, in largescale, in his trademark jazzy gnomic-vs-quotidian aesthetic)

    pretty much sums up why I no longer read much literary fiction.  I mean really, jazzy gnomic-vs-quotidian aesthetic?  Not how I want to spend my time.

  4. 4
    Silver James says:

    I feel the same away about movies. If the critics love it, I run the other way! Ev, I’m with you on the whole Twilight phenomenon. That whole series just leaves me going WTF?!? I’ve read some bad romances. Enjoyed some of them. But Twilight? Just…NO!

    Interesting article, Sarah and Rebecca. Some real food for thought there. As for me? I’m after true food for thought – homemade cinnamon rolls. Ta, y’all.

  5. 5
    Mistress says:

    Bad books make for amazing reviews and I often find myself purposely reading the truly vile to witness the shenanigans and wtf-ery for myself. I guess it’s all about perspective and being forewarned. But if I’m looking forward to a novel it’s really hard for me to have that zen attitude.

  6. 6
    Mos Stef says:

    Great article, and really good points made. I’m swamped in so many books I know are amazing in my TBR pile (my gorgeous copy of 2666 keeps catching my eye) I still enjoy “bad” books the same as I enjoy hilariously bad/funny low-budget horror films and I’ve adored Mystery Science Theater 3000 since I was in the single digits.

    It also makes me appreciate the great ones, and keeps my reading variety interesting. Super fresh sushi is my favorite food, but sometimes I just want a burger and greasy foods- sometimes the “bad” can be sublime. Or not- but at least it makes the next book you read look a hell of a lot better!

    I also fully agree it helps your writing almost as much as reading the good ones. I rarely throw books at the walls anymore, now I tend to smack my forehead (‘Remember that pain, brain, and never let me write like that!) and try to figure out what made the bad so *bad*.

  7. 7
    Lara says:

    For me, there’s ‘fun bad’, which I read in-between serious stuff to sort of cleanse my palate, also known as ‘guilty pleasures’. Black Dagger Brotherhood, I’m looking at you. And there’s ‘bad bad’, which I drop back into my return pile as soon as possible muttering “Who thought that was a good idea, sweet merciful Lord?” Twilight, yes, also Talia Gryphon’s “Key” series and a handful of others.

    What on earth does “an experiment, in largescale, in his trademark jazzy gnomic-vs-quotidian aesthetic” even mean? Anyone?

  8. 8
    Lori says:

    What on earth does “an experiment, in largescale, in his trademark jazzy gnomic-vs-quotidian aesthetic” even mean? Anyone?

    I’m fairly sure that this is a comparison between poetic and prosaic, but the comparison is being made in such a pretentious way that it makes my teeth itch.

  9. 9
    Kaetrin says:

    I object to the idea that Nora Roberts should be lumped in the same category as Harold Robbins and Danielle Steele.  Hello?  Clearly this writer thinks that romance can’t be “good”.  Plus, he could have spelled her name right….

    I agree that sometimes reading a bad book can make you appreciate what is really good, but I don’t think I have to read all of a bad book to achieve that result. 

    Some are guilty pleasures but ultimately, if you enjoy the experience as a reader, the book must be “good” mustn’t it?  And Sarah you are quite right – what is one reader’s “bad” is another’s “keeper”.  Well, except for maybe Decadent…. that’s just bad – but worth it just for your review alone!!

  10. 10
    amy lane says:

    When I was a kid (fifteen or so) my stepmom made me take one of the trash novels my dad had snagged from the pile at work out to the burn-barrel.  It was a classic late 70’s fiction porn-fest, complete with a four-guy black-on-white ass-fuck gang-bang with the once-virginal hero—but the only reason I know this is because my stepmom asked me to burn it. 

    I mean, that thing could have gathered dust and ennui on top of the refrigerator for YEARS—in my house, we would have used it to sop up a spill or something—but my mom asked me to burn it and that seemed WRONG—all capital letters, all wide-eyed disbelief, just damned wrong. 

    So as I was standing out by the burn pile, keeping the ash from jumping into the sky and igniting the ground around it, I opened the book and read a random chapter.

    It made my stomach churn. 

    And I watched the damned thing burn to ashes, reasonably certain, even at fifteen, that the scene was seared on the inside of my eyeballs forever.  (Sort of like eel-porn, by-the-by, and thanks a lot for THAT both of you!!!) 

    But I’m a grown-up now, and I write my own menage scenes, and I vow (and have been told that I’ve succeeded) to never, ever write a sex scene that gives a reader that exquisite vomitricious aftertaste.  But I never would have known to make that resolution if I hadn’t read that craptastictrashatorium. 

    And isn’t it funny that a book I never would have read in the first place would make such an impact, just because it ended up catching fire in a rusty burn-barrel.

  11. 11
    amy lane says:

    Oh of all the dumbfuck typos…  regarding my last post?  It was heroINE, not HERO!!!

  12. 12
    Suze says:

    Oh of all the dumbfuck typos… regarding my last post?  It was heroINE, not HERO!!!

    Now, that’s a shame.  I was kind of enjoying (in a sad, sick way) the mental image I was getting from the original description.  A hero getting into that situation would be such a very different story from the heroine.

  13. 13
    Alex says:

    Considering most of my reading for pleasure…well, take a look at my favorite authors list….

    Terry Pratchett
    R.A. Salvatore
    David Eddings
    Douglas Adams

    And I enjoyed the Harry Potter series from when I read the first book in 7th grade to when I read the last book in college. Well, okay, the 5th book was a letdown, considering the wait, but, still, I enjoyed the series and I’ll probably be re-reading them from start to finish in a few years..

  14. 14
    Elizabeth Wadsworth says:

    What on earth does “an experiment, in largescale, in his trademark jazzy gnomic-vs-quotidian aesthetic” even mean? Anyone?

    I immediately thought of gnomes who play in a jazz quartet.  Maybe Terry Pratchett could do something with that.

  15. 15
    Lizzy says:

    @ Mos Stef: Just finished 2666 over the weekend; loved.

  16. 16
    Wryhag says:

    I’m always aghast, too, when real stinkers are lauded.  Excellence isn’t “just a matter of personal taste.”  There are such things as standards for good writing, just as there are for good building construction or clothing design.  But crappy books are an instructional resource for writers.  As amy lane suggested, they help us learn through negative example.

  17. 17
    Elizabeth Wadsworth says:

    I’m always aghast, too, when real stinkers are lauded.  Excellence isn’t “just a matter of personal taste.”

    I think this is an ongoing problem with criticism—film as well as literary:  “I don’t understand what this writer/filmmaker was trying to do at all, so it must be really really deep and meaningful.  I’d better give it a glowing review so I don’t look like a fool and a Philistine.”  A lot of incomprehensible, pretentious crap ends up being praised to the skies and winning major awards this way.

  18. 18
    karmelrio says:

    From the blogger, Stuart Evers: 

    The sentence annoyed me so much I had to finish the bloody thing to see if she could top its pretention. She tried, but failed.

    Mr. Evers certainly succeeded, with THIS gem: 

    DeLillo’s run-up (an experiment, in largescale, in his trademark jazzy gnomic-vs-quotidian aesthetic)

    (Rolling eyes)  Pot, meet kettle.  Let us know when you’re done jerking off, m’kay?  When you’re done, you might consider correcting the misspelling of Nora (no ‘h’) Roberts’ name in your blog.

  19. 19
    robinb says:

    I think it’s worth pointing out here that not all bad books are properly bad. I’m not talking about Jefferey Archer or Harold Robbins, Danielle Steel or Norah Roberts. Their books have a specific function, a specific readership and for the most part they deliver what their readers want and expect. For me, truly bad novels must want or aspire to be literature, rather than simply product.

    This paragraph ruined it for me.  What, pray tell, would their “specific function” be and how does it differ from the function of “literature”?

  20. 20
    Cora says:

    What on earth does “an experiment, in largescale, in his trademark jazzy gnomic-vs-quotidian aesthetic” even mean? Anyone?

    I immediately thought of gnomes who play in a jazz quartet.  Maybe Terry Pratchett could do something with that.

    I’d love to see jazz-playing gnomes, though I suspect the actual novel is not nearly as fun as that.

    My creative writing teacher at university actually banned the word “quotidian” from his classroom, after it was introduced by a female student with capital L literary ambitions and everybody took it up in their writing, some seriously, others (like me) to mock her.

    I think it should be banned from literary criticism, too.

    Oh of all the dumbfuck typos… regarding my last post?  It was heroINE, not HERO!!!

    Now, that’s a shame.  I was kind of enjoying (in a sad, sick way) the mental image I was getting from the original description.  A hero getting into that situation would be such a very different story from the heroine.

    Actually, I was a bit disappointed that hero was a typo, too, because I somehow enjoyed the idea of crappy interracial gay menage porn existing in the 1970s.

    I agree with the article BTW (except for the part about Nora Roberts, though Harold Robbins is pretty bad) that bad books can teach you a lot.

  21. 21
    Ziggy says:

    I agree with the points made above. I read a LOT, including some really awful stuff. Bad books have their own special pleasures, but as someone who’s been working (like Brian from Family Guy) on their novel for years and years, it’s also really instructive to see what works and what doesn’t; what makes you close a book in disgust versus what keeps you reading even when you know you’re reading crap. I think some very fine literary writers could possibly do with some pointers there!

    I’ve only ever read 2 books that I wanted to hurl against the wall. One was a dumb family saga with themes that hit you over the head with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer – to make matters worse the characters were meant to come from the same part of the world as me, but it was insultingly badly researched. The other was an unreadably boring erotic “murder mystery” with no murders that I could see, and scene upon scene of thinly sketched characters copulating emotionlessly in 2s, 3s and beyond (hehe: mass51).

    Interesting how tastes differ though… I loved the Magus when I read it at 13. Probably because it was rude…

  22. 22
    Erica says:

    This reminded me of one of my favorite online essays, “In Defense of Rubbish” by Peter Dickinson, which is mostly geared toward children’s lit, but takes a very generous attitude toward “rubbish” books.

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