Monday, March 22, 2010

What Makes a Bad Book?

“A bad book is as much of a labor to write as a good one, it comes as sincerely from the author's soul.” - Aldous Huxley

In my opinion, a bad book is one that’s impossible to follow, has unbelievable characters, or a plot that never develops. According to
The American Book Review and their Top 40 Bad Books List, there is so much more involved in the selection. The bad book reviews were given by a variety of college professors. I admit some of the reviews were way over my head. I had no clue what they were talking about.

Though I don't necessarily agree with their comments, I've listed a few of my favorite remarks about the authors and books that made theTop 40.

Ian Fleming’s novels consist entirely of clichés, coordinating conjunctions, and appositives. No renaissance man, commander Bond is nobody, a super zero (“a neutral figure,” Fleming calls him) who lives to advertise a watch—set, as they are in magazines, to ten past ten. He’s a “secret agent” who tells anyone his name. Being an agent, he cannot act for himself, and going everywhere, he has no real home and lives in a no-man’s land where every side has another side, a third side that can be the second side of the first two sides, so that the opposing sides often find themselves on the same side. (With Ian Fleming’s great success, I don’t think he’d care that his name appeared on this list.)

Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates - Why is it bad? Because it’s tricked so many into thinking it’s good. (Though depressing, I didn’t think of this as a bad book so I’m one of tricked readers.)

Women in Love by D. H. Lawrence “It’s like someone put a gun to Nietzsche’s head and made him write a Harlequin romance.”

Herman Melville’s Pierre (1852)—so extravagantly mannered as to be barely readable, and yet so exquisitely conceived, so archly comic that you can emerge from its pages at last and think that the whole assemblage is pretty good; somehow the fact that the book is bad becomes either irrelevant or else important in a whole new way. (I don’t know about you, but that makes me want to add this one to my to-read list.)

Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses (1992) comes immediately to mind. I think of it as a romance novel for men, his trilogy included. Like all good romance novel writers, McCarthy uses clichés and derivative characters to sell millions of copies. He gives men a romanticized view of manliness. McCarthy wraps his characters in half-truths and idealized anecdotes, much like Jackie Collins does, only his are about the Lone Star State, the border, and its cowboy myths.

Frankenstein is a book made great by its badness. We cannot do without it.

If badness is related to perceived greatness, then I offer The Great Gatsby (1925) as the worst novel in American literature.

Gustave Flaubert, The Temptation of Saint Anthony (1874)—that’s my pick for a bad book. His friends told him to hide it away, not to publish it, and while it’s tempting to romanticize any negative reception of a great artist, in this case I think they were right. It just isn’t a good book.

But is anything as bad as Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code (2003)? This formulaic knock-off of fascistic conspiracy theories is a trite study for a film script—and no wonder the movie was also bad. I love the chapters that are only a couple of lines long. Again, it is a book whose publishers flooded the preview/review market with thousands of free copies. Yet for many of my students, it is the book that brought them into the English major. For others, it is the only book they’ve ever enjoyed reading. IS it possible that even a Bad Book can do Good? (I admit, I've enjoyed all of Dan Brown's books.)

What constitutes a bad book to you? Do you have a book you think should be on the Top Bad Books list?

Thanks for stopping by.

Tags: Huxley, American Book Review, Top 40 Bad Book List, Ian Fleming, D. H. Lawrence, Frankenstein, Great Gatsby, Dan Brown,


Elizabeth Spann Craig/Riley Adams said...

Interesting post, Jane!

I'm such an impatient reader that I don't stick with bad I can't even remember any!

But I do disagree with some of the Amer. Book Review's list. Especially "Great Gatsby."

Mystery Writing is Murder

Anonymous said...

Good day!
hi there, my name is Tom.

found this website and read some great discussion and feedback so decided to join

i am happy to help others and offer advice where possible :)

Waiting your reply..

L. Diane Wolfe said...

I still say Old Man and the Sea is awful...

So many things can make a book bad, but for me, the highest on the list are unsympatheic characters, cheesy dialogue, and overly-long descriptions.

Joanne said...

Very interesting post. I wonder why then Great Gatsby is such frequently required high school reading. And Frankenstein? I don't think I've ever read it, but I'm still surprised, given its popularity. I can't think of any off hand, but a slow moving plot will do it for me, or one with too many contrivances, showing too much of the author's hand.

Carol Kilgore said...

Let me just say that if I can write a bad book that sells as well as most of these have, I'll take bad any day.

For me a bad book has no voice, or one I don't enjoy. Either not much of a plot or one I can't follow. Or characters I can't identify with.

I no longer keep reading books that don't grab me in some way from the beginning.

Elspeth Antonelli said...

If the book has dull characters and a predictable story line, I'm putting it down. Swiftly. Badly researched history will also try my patience. I read all different types of books, depending on my mood, but bad is just bad.

Karen Walker said...

Jane, I agree with Elizabeth and Carol and Diane. I'll take this kind of "bad" any day.

Marvin D Wilson said...

I hate cliches in books. As an editor I make my clients rewrite every last one of them and come up with something original. I dislike lazy writing ... you know, underdeveloped characters and imagery, long "talking heads" dialog passages where nobody seems to be doing anything during the conversation . boooooooring!

Another issue I have is an author, instead of using some skill with their writing and/or letting me develop mhy own image of what a character looks like, stooping to say that the character looked just like (insert famous person's name here). Gawd, that's cheap and lazy writing.

And I'm like Elizabeth. You've got 5 or 10 pages to convince me you know how to write a good book before it gets tossed across the room never to be opened again.

The Old Silly

Helen Ginger said...

If these books are so bad, why are they best-sellers? Does that mean readers are stupid? It would appear these reviewers' judgment of what is bad doesn't match with a whole lot of readers' judgment.

I figure if I don't like a book, I won't finish it. And I'll make my own decisions about books I read.

Straight From Hel

Morgan Mandel said...

I wish I were included in that bunch because I'd be rich by now.

Morgan Mandel

Christina Rodriguez said...

I'm glad to see that "The Da Vinci Code" was on the list, though I'd say the preceding book, "Angels and Demons," was even worse. Pee-yew!

DazyDayWriter said...

I actually wrote a poem once about a bad book; here are my closing lines from a poem called Twisted Silly: nonsensical passages of intricate design, slippery definitions of key words and concepts flying through chapters, all twelve, like a kite on a string – all fluttery and twisted, as if lost in the breeze. But, mostly, a "bad book" is extremely difficult to keep reading. I always want to put it aside for another day. Thanks for posing the question, Jane!

Jane Kennedy Sutton said...

Elizabeth, I read “Great Gatsby” years ago, but I remember liking it, too.

Welcome, Tom. I'm glad you stopped by. You’re welcome to offer advice anytime you have some pertaining to the post.

Diane, I don’t remember reading “The Old Man in the Sea,” so I’ll take your word for it. I also agree with everything on your list that makes a bad book.

I think that’s an excellent question, Joanne. I was also surprised that those two were on the list.

Carol, I agree whole heartedly with you sentiment!

Elspeth, with all the research you have to do for your books and games, I bet you can spot badly researched history quite easily.

Karen, I agree, making the list would be a pretty good kind of “bad.”

Marvin, I try not to use clichés but I know they slip in every once in a while. I’ll think about you each time I edit one out!)

Another good question, Helen. I think most readers, like myself, are reading to be entertained. These reviewers were obviously looking for prose perfection.

Morgan, so now our dreams can include the New York Times Best Seller List OR the Top 40 Bad Books List!)

Christina, I think lots of people agree with you. I enjoyed both these books because the settings were places I have lived or visited. I had fun thinking, “Oh, I know where that is,” or “Oh, I remember when I went there,” and so on.

DazyDayWriter, I think I’ve read that bad book you were talking about!) I’d like to read the rest of your poem sometime.

Journaling Woman said...

Jane, I don't last long in "bad books". But, I remember years ago when I read Jane Eyre that I thought I would die and almost gave up. I didn't feel the characters spoke to me. Then one day the lights came on and the characters were real and I cared. It is one of my favorite books.

Anonymous said...

I can't add anything to the list, but there's a great piece in NPR about "Twilight" (which I haven't read) here:

This was a fun entry. Glad I stopped by.

John A. Allen said...

I would list almost every book my high school AP English class forced me to read as a bad book, but then again, I wasn't ready for the challenges of "Cry, the Beloved Country" and "A Separate Peace."

I've started rereading some of them, and have found that while I can get into some of them, a few of them are still on that list for me.

I think everyone has different tastes. Academic types love the type of book that I hate. I'll never forget a college class I took - had to digest some novels and give a thoughtful analysis.

First time around, I really dug in, trying to understand the "symbolism" and the meaning behind the words.

Made a B-, I think.

Second time around, threw a bunch of jargon and crap on the page, couldn't understand half of it myself, made (I kid you not...) an A.

Sometimes, the "good" novels are good because the "experts" can't figure them out. It's a BS game at that point.

And then again, some of the books I frankly most enjoy are good books, books that make me want to turn the page.

So, I divide my time reading literary books, more so that I can stay current, and mass market books, because I enjoy them.

But a bad book, to me, is one that I just can't finish. It's happened once or twice.

John A. Allen said...

But then again, I wrote a book called "Fried Green Zombies"... so that'll tell you what I know about bad books...

Paul C said...

I agree with many of your observations. The Great Gatsby, however, is a classic. I like the characterization, the gorgeous, well constructed settings, the symbolism. What a dreamy window to another time.

Anonymous said...

I need something significant within the first 25 pages or so. I read Your Heart Belongs To Me from one of my favorite authors Dean Koontz. Nothing interesting or exciting happened the first 100 pages. I managed to finishe the book, but honestly the last 50 pages or so was all that was worht reading.

Stephen Tremp

Tribute Books said...

Women in Love by D. H. Lawrence “It’s like someone put a gun to Nietzsche’s head and made him write a Harlequin romance.”

If badness is related to perceived greatness, then I offer The Great Gatsby (1925) as the worst novel in American literature.


dirtywhitecandy said...

I must defend Ian Fleming. I recently read Dr No (his earliest novels are his best) and could not tear myself away. His voice has such panache that he carries you along on pure charisma and makes you believe almost anything - surely the very hallmark of a good book. Goldfinger too. The premise is genius; it's about a greedy man who doesn't like to lose. Bond himself is interesting; a complex man full of self-loathing and on the brink of total meltdown.

But then much of Fleming's appeal for me rests on his style, and that is something you either love or loathe. Personally I can't get on with Russell Hoban or Martin Amis because of their styles, but many people love them.

I totally agree, though, about The Da Vinci Code, and would happily wade in to sling more mud. Only there isn't enough mud in the world...

Great post!

Enid Wilson said...

It's interesting, Jane. I quite like Frankenstein. I guess every one has his/her opinion.

Really Angelic

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Galen Kindley--Author said...

Gee, I kinda liked the James Bond books...of course, that was before I got smart and literate...HA!

Best, Galen.

KarenG said...

I'm glad the list only included huge sellers. Wouldn't it be awful to see one's debut novel on this list? That said, I really liked both Old Man and the Sea AND The Great Gatsby! But there's a couple modern blockbuster novels that I think are awful, none of which made this list.

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