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.
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.
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.
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.