Good Bad Books

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Worldcon is now over, and if you were stuck home like me, your internet reading every day was full of posts about panels and discussions and finally the awards, which latter sparked some discussion, including the inevitable backlash of derision for various choices.

As far back as I can remember (the first Worldcon I attended was 1972, a few blocks from my house, directly underneath the LAX runway) fans and readers have enthusiastically praised or trashed the past year’s publications.

I’m always interested in how different the same text varies so widely in perceptions. Everyone has opinions—usually emphatic ones—but so often someone’s great book is on another’s stinker list.

That’s not surprising, and even less surprising is how defensive people can get when their new favorite is excoriated by some lip-curled critic—especially, until fairly recently, if that critic was male. We’re still dealing with gendered perceptions of authority, not only in critics but in writers, but that isn’t this discussion.

I want to talk about bad books that people love.

It’s interesting how people will qualify good reads about which they feel a little bit guilty. “It was readable—pulpy—fun—fluff—beach reading.” I’m not talking about the ones you don’t finish for whatever reason, or that you do finish but forget you’ve read them within a week. I’m talking about the ones that end up dog-eared from rereads on your favorites shelf, that get talked about as guilty pleasures, as escapism—as though the willful escape from the anxiety and tension of modern life is a cause for shame.

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I thought it might be interesting to discuss what makes those “bad” books good.

For a whole lot of readers out there, felicity of style and originality of setting or innovative approaches to plot are secondary to a brisk pace. As far as I can figure, what makes those reads successful is the reinforcement of certain rules, or patterns—often at the cost of perceived truth. I say “certain” because those rules or patterns can vary so widely, as widely as the notion of perceived truth.

The rules, or patterns, set up expectations that must be met. Another word for expectations is predictability, but in this instance the predictability becomes a strength, reinforcing the order that so many of us crave.

Rules and patterns have evolved over the decades. Easy example, in the past, character rules seemed to require that villains’ moral failings not only brought  them down, but often showed in their faces: horrible teeth, zits, small, nasty eyes. Villains could have glittering eyes, but never gleams—unless they were malicious. Heroes never had receding chins, buck teeth, or pimples, and their eyes positively coruscated with glows, sparks, fires, scorches, and the unearthly brilliance of leadership.

Toward contemporary times, the patterns have been shifting. Within the past few years, the stubble-chinned hero who is often indistinguishable from the villain has hacked, smashed, and blown his way into popularity. Some of these heroes torture people pretty much like the villains do, which makes me think that this particular evolving pattern is a conversation our culture is having about violence: we are doing our damnedest to legislate it out of our lives, but we seem to crave it in our stories . . . according to certain rules.

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Other old rules (or patterns, or expectations) still hold. The sleuth will out-think the murderer. The Wise Woman—or wise alien or wise telepathic horse—looks to the very bottom of the troubled hero or heroine’s soul, utters a New Age saying, and their life makes sense. If the hero is a thief, he will have a heart of gold along with his ruffianly followers. In tales for the younger audience, if the heroine is a thief, and she has jewel-colored eyes and a pointed chin, she will  end up on a throne. (And if she’s got copper-colored hair, there’s a pretty good chance she’s got magical mojo as well.)

Why do these patterns work?

I believe that these books invite the reader to identify with the characters, something that the more cerebral critics dismiss with contempt, in spite of hundreds of years of experience with story. A literary novel becomes an intellectual puzzle to be solved, the reader aware of the fourth wall in order to better appreciate all the elements of the fabulation.

Hey, such books (the immediate example to mind is Virginia Woolf) can be exhilarating, too. Who doesn’t feel their mind sharpening on Mrs. Dalloway?  But do we return to Mrs. Dalloway over and over again? Most of us don’t. We’ve got that shelf of favorites that maybe got slagged off by critics as worthless.

Some of which sometimes sneak their way onto classics lists.

I think identifying with, or falling in love with, the characters is the fastest way to make the fourth wall to vanish so that the reader may invest emotionally in the story. And that emotional investment is freighted with implied trust: in this book, we as readers can let ourselves relax at last, because there will be no book equivalent of a piano falling on our head, or a drunken driver taking out our entire family on our way to a wedding. We’ll finish the read feeling right with the world.

E tudor

When Elizabeth Tudor (she who energetically employed the power of myth to support her rule as Gloriana) lay dying, one of her most trusted councilors wrote to another in disapproval that she would not tend to kingdom business, but had her ladies reading to her from the tales of Canterbury.

Nowadays, if someone is seen reading the Canterbury Tales for pleasure, they get automatic points for erudition. From anything I can tell (though I am no medieval scholar) though Chaucer’s work has been copied, recopied, and then reprinted for over half a millennium, it was regarded for most of those early centuries as popular trash.

Each tale is rife with cultural clues to expected rules, and what happens when characters break them. The stories, from rough and ready comic characters cavorting in and out of rude bedrooms to knights on chivalric quests, all supported the perceived order of Chaucer’s world.


What kind of order brings readers to reread? For purposes of discussion, let me throw these ideas out. Easiest to point at are enduring love, and a sense of justice. (Or vengeance.) But I also believe there is the breath-catching surprise of awe, and the elusive but powerful sense of wish-fulfillment, which can be defined as the desire for the ability for a single person to set out to make a difference and achieve it.



Good Bad Books — 30 Comments

  1. I do the obnoxious thing of pretty much deciding anything I like belongs to the category not-bad. (Plenty of stuff that I don’t like also falls into that category, I’ll quickly add.) If I like it, it’s got *something* going for it. … Which is what you’re getting at, I realize, but right now I’m having trouble thinking of something in the “id-tastic” category, as Rachel would call it.

  2. The indicators of villainy/heroism have changed in our lifetime. In the Lord Peter books, Peter and Harriet smoke cigarettes — totally verboten for the protagonists now. (OTOH they had sex, which was kind of risky in the day but de rigeur today in everything except picture books for the pre-reader.) A common trait for heroes or heroines these days is slimness. Also loving animals and children. You can bet that the child abuser or the kicker of puppies is the villain. And think about PC. All heroes and heroines are relentlessly PC, even if it is a novel set in ancient Rome.

    • And relentlessly postmodern. And the villains all think according to the paradigm of the time.

      Also (pedants r us) here is the missing “u” for de rigueur.

  3. I just finished reading the Canterbury Tales for the first time (in translation). I also just watched the movie Forgetting Sarah Marshall. And then I started thinking about how easy it would be to turn the latter into fan fiction that would fit readily into the former. Honestly, while sexual mores have changed somewhat, the plot of the movie is just the sort of bawdy sniggering sex comedy that the Canterbury Tales is full of.

  4. ” … Chaucer’s work has been copied, recopied, and then reprinted for over half a millennium, it was regarded for most of those early centuries as popular trash.”

    Chaucer, among other things for which he’s given credit in critical – academic circles, leading back to his own time, was formation of the English language as it was then and now is spoken. Moreover, just for starters, Chaucer’s patrons, royal and noble in rank, would have guarded against the trash designation.

    Victorians did think his tales were too risque for ladies and girls, of course.

  5. “the desire for the ability for a single person to set out to make a difference and achieve it.”

    Yes. That. And the accompanying sense of significance: everything in the protagonist’s life has meaning—because she’s the protagonist. You hit the nail on the head with the word “order.” Our brains are wired to create meaning, and our lives don’t generally have enough of it. Stories fill that need, no matter how many adverbs, cliches and predictable tropes they use.

    And, as your example of Chaucer indicates, literature with the merit of style and originality will last long enough to become a “classic”—if it also has a good story.

  6. Sherwood, I think you’ve got it right. In a world that can be chaotic, we crave order, and in a world where we feel quite unremarkable, we love to read (or watch) heroes who stand above the crowd. (Although, I’m more drawn to the “average person does good” kind of fiction. The more “super” the heroes get, the less interesting I find them.)

    I was just having a discussion over in Susanna Sturgis’s excellent Write Through It blog, where she asked why people love murder mysteries, given that the author often writes pretty much the same book over and over. I think it’s because of the immense satisfaction to see order brought out of disorder, right triumphing over the terrible wrong of murder, in a safe setting.


    • I agree. (I have a wimpy relationship with mysteries. If they are too serious, I want to just skip to the end to see the resolution. If they are funny, or full of character stuff, I like them all the way through. But I don’t like puzzle solving, or grim forensics.)

      • Do you know Donna Andrews’s mysteries. Her Meg Langslow series in particular can be quite funny. My favorites are Murder with Peacocks (first in the series), The Revenge of the Wrought-Iron Flamingos, Crouching Buzzard, Leaping Loon, and We’ll Always Have Parrots. …Parrots is set at a media-con and really nails it.

        Her Turing Hopper series features a sentient AI as the detective; they’re not as humorous, but the first one at least is worth reading.

  7. You got me to thinking in a slightly different direction. I think the presence of that “fourth wall” is what puts me off in a lot of so-called literary fiction. I don’t want to be made aware that I’m separate from the story; I want to be pulled inside it, to live in that world for awhile. That’s true for me no matter what the genre and regardless of whether the book is comfort reading or something more challenging and disturbing.

    For example, I recall becoming very emotionally invested in Toni Morrison’s Beloved, which is why I would find it very hard to read it again, and in Doris Lessing’s The Four-Gated City, which I have read many times. For that matter, I was completely caught up with Yossarian in Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 (which I’ve also read many times, most recently to help me get over Sept. 11), despite the satirical tone of the book. Most recently, I recall feeling the same way about James McBride’s Song Yet Sung. All those books are probably considered literary. And I was completely involved with the characters in Gwyneth Jones’s five-book Bold as Love series, which is SF with a certain amount of fantasy. I read those books over and over, wanting to live in that world even though it is a near future dystopia that is not far off the current problems we face today.

    But the fourth wall kept me from appreciating Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life even though it is fantasy published as literary and quite well done. I suspect I also notice it in a lot of what I consider bad SF — stories that neglect the characters because the author is more interested in playing with the science and tech.

    And, btw, I think I got emotionally involved in Mrs. Dalloway the last time I read it.

    I think all fiction should strive to engage readers emotionally, even if it will break their heart.

    • I’ve talked to many who got involved emotionally with Woolf–and even have heard academics talk disparagingly about that, claiming that was not her intent, that she was in a way a descendant of Flaubert, who trenchantly despised readers who identified with his “puppets” in Madame Bovary. Nabokov is interesting about this, maintaining that the intelligent reader MUST remain aware of the fourth wall, in order to better observe the craft and the puzzle. But I believe that is one way to read, not the way.

      • This discussion has deepened my understanding of my own tastes and opinions. I seem to have a fundamental disagreement with Nabokov, whom I haven’t re-read now that I think about it. (Certainly it would difficult to become emotionally entangled with any of the characters in Lolita.) For me, the dividing line between books I like and ones I don’t is not genre, but rather distance. If I want distance from what I’m reading, I’ll read nonfiction.

        • I feel the same, and yet Nabokov and others who feel as he does make a passionate case for their view. Really, reading his Lectures on Literature is worthwhile for so many reasons, even if one disagrees. It would have been so much fun to meet the man and argue literature with him!