Sunday, March 14, 2010

Discussion: Top 40 Bad Books

If you haven't had a chance to read this American Book Review article, Top 40 Bad Books, yet, head over and take a read and then come back and we'll discuss.  (FYI - It's a 10 page PDF.)  It starts by asking what exactly is a bad book --
That said, what constitutes a bad book? Is it an overrated “good” book? Can an otherwise good author produce a “bad” book? Is the badness in style, in execution? Or is it in theme or outlook? Or is the notion of a “bad” book even comprehensible in the age of postmodernism, poststructuralism, and cultural studies?
All set?  Okay ...

So this didn't turn out really to be "a list" but instead the thoughts of forty academics on the subject of bad books.  What do you think about the books that received mention?  Jacket Copy says "Really? If they're the worst, what's the best?"  It's true that some "classics" get mentioned -- The Little Prince, Women in Love, Their Eyes Were Watching God, The End of the Affair -- but I think most books can be argued as "bad" for some reason or another.

So, another question?  Are there any books that are unequivocally, unarguably "good" books?  I think Gerald Graff puts forward an interesting question as well --
It has always seemed strange to me that bad books aren’t a prominent part of our school and college literature curriculum. How do we expect students to learn to tell the difference between good and bad books unless we assign some bad ones for comparison? Don’t you need badness in order to know goodness?

I can only conclude that those who have determined the literature curriculum have been more interested in protecting the good or great books from contamination—that is, in feeling virtuous about their own tastes—than they are in helping students understand what they read.
I think my own definition of "bad" books definitely includes this category, as described by Sue-Im Lee --
One breed of a bad book is a disappointing novel from an author for whom you harbor expectations. Previous encounters with this author’s novels have pleased you immensely, and you look forward to another opportunity.  This opportunity comes surprisingly early and frequently, since this author publishes a novel every few years. But by the third novel, you experience growing indignation at the familiarity of it all.
Or does it all just boil down to Liedeke Plate's idea that the addition of zombies to classics is what makes a book truly bad?

I think that Zahi Zalloua's thoughts were the perfect end to this article --
Bad books deliver on their promise. They lend themselves too easily to pedagogical use; they are saturated with purpose, conforming all too well to their readers’ expectations. They don’t take a risk; they don’t interrupt the numbing flow of knowledge and commentary. They are devoured (read once) and then discarded by an insatiable reading public. Is the state of bad books hopeless? Can they be “rescued”? Can they be reminded of their so-called literariness? Maybe. Maybe a bad book is in fact merely a mirror that reflects a bad reader—a reader who asks uncreative questions of a work. Or maybe bad books are really at their worst when they’re paired with such bad readers.
Lost in thought,


  1. I got to page three and stopped, because I couldn't stop rolling my eyes. All of those academics sounded So Damn Pretentious I just couldn't take it! lol

    I'm uncomfortable with the notion of good and bad books. I much prefer successful/unsuccessful, which seems to show the inherent subjectivity of trying to 'rank' works of art. You know? Plus, judging a book by a standard the author wasn't trying to reach seems silly...for me, an unsuccessful novel is one in which I can see what the author's attempting to do, and it's just not working.

    That being said, I must agree with Plate re: adding monsteres to classics.

  2. I had quite a few issues with this article. One of my favourite things about reading a book is researching it - the author, the time and situation under which it was published. Many of the books they cite *started* something - in their own way, they were new to that time period, that genre, etc. It's unfair to judge a book without considering this.

    It's very cocky of anyone to deem a book as "bad" and expect a population to accept this verdict. Many books that I love are truly hated, and many books that I hate are truly loved. What makes a good book is the connection that it creates between the characters, the content, the themes and the reader.

    As an aside, it has become way too popular for people to take things in literature that have been around for a long time and to start discounting them and berating them. History is bound to repeat itself. Literature is our way to never forget.

  3. Eva - I'll definitely admit to skimming through some of the entries!

    I agree that successful/unsuccessful are better designations -- both commercially (do people want to buy and read it?) and as a work of art (does it achieve what it set out to do and do people remember it?).

    Ranking books (or films) always bothers me. Why can't we have an unnumbered top 100 list?

    Lena - True. Just because something isn't the pinnacle of its genre doesn't mean it didn't contribute to the improvement or advancement of that genre.

    And I would agree that good and bad might only be applicable at the individual reader level. Because of all of the factors that went into making me "me" and all of the different ones that made you "you", we will never enjoy and find value in ALL of the same books. That's the nature of humanity and books do a good job of representing the gamut of human experience. I might find a book sappy and cheesy and yet someone else has lived that exact situation and they find the book relevant to their worldview. Sappy happens!

    (I did a lot of agreeing here ... at least it means I'm connecting with like-minded readers in this community!)

    And Lena, I might start another discussion on your aside. I agree that you can't apply modern standards to literature without losing the intrinsic value of that piece of art within its own historical context. I would love to see more thoughts on how readers approach books that are "controversial" or "backwards" according to modern standards but wouldn't have even garnered discussion in their own time.

  4. I appreciated what Brian McHale wrote: "But if I call a book "bad" when something is at stake—when, by some criteria, it ought to qualify as good; when it’s a bestseller ....or a text by a canonical author....or one that turns up on course syllabi for reasons that somebody might find dubious....—then what I’m really saying isn’t that the book is bad but that its readers are bad; or, more to the point, that they’re not as good as I am. Their taste is bad, where mine (of course) is refined; their education is inadequate, compared to mine; they’re susceptible to being distracted by commerce or ideology or piety or the prestige of big names, whereas I’m immune to all that, etc., etc. This seems, well, invidious; anyway, I don’t think I really want to go there. Let a thousand flowers bloom. Let readers read as they please, and what they please."

    While I do think there are bad books (and would say so in any review I wrote) those books are bad to me, even though they are often enjoyed by others. The Da Vinci Code is a great example. I never could figure out why it was so wildly popular after reading it. But if it's popularity lead people to read more than they might have before, then perhaps it's not so bad after all and I'm the one with the problem. After all, we all filter what comes in through our own experiences.

    Great topic!

  5. Lori - Exactly. If a book is readable to anyone, then how can it be called "bad"? It brought someone to another world that they enjoyed. Saying that their reading is inferior to yours does imply a conceit that isn't fair to others.

    Keeping this on the individual label level, I guess that even saying a book is "good" or "bad" for me isn't necessarily right but I should instead say that a book is a "good fit" or a "bad fit" for me.

  6. I'll have to check this out when I have more time ... but I agree with the "disappointing book by an author who previously pleased you."