What Good Can Come From Bad Books?
I was recently in the midst of inhaling (such was the speed and ease with which it was consumed) Zadie Smith’s On Beauty. I had begun reading it the previous lunchtime and had read more than half by that evening. And I mentioned this to my sister, who was visiting Mexico, as a prelude to listing all the ways in which it was a poorly written book. Five minutes later, after I’d quoted some of the hackneyed phrases and sloppy sentences rendered unclear by sloppier editing, my sister asked, “So why are you still reading it?” I offered a few off-the-cuff justifications for why a writer would benefit from occasionally reading bad books, and that was that. But I continued to consider the question.
There is an obvious objection upfront: what is a “bad book”? We looked at the issue of defining art and the subjectivity of value judgements in last month’s essay. For our purposes here, it’s not important how you personally determine what makes a book good or bad, as long as we are talking about the quality of the writing. Clichés might not bother you, whereas swear words might be the mark of unimaginative writing. If that’s the case, that’s fine. You have criteria by which you assess a writer’s talent and that is all that’s needed for this conversation. And this leads us to an important caveat – when we refer to “bad books” we are not necessarily talking about books you don’t enjoy reading. That’s going to be important later on.
“Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas – only I don’t exactly know what they are!”
(Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass)
The most obvious way in which bad books might benefit us is that each awful thing we identify in them – leaden pacing, flaccid plotting, clichés (which Martin Amis calls “dead words”), and other such subjective crimes against literature – are pointers towards good literature in reverse. If, to simplify the process by which active readers approach books, we read great writing and are taught this is how to do it, then reading bad books teaches us here’s how not to do it. And what bad books bring to this lesson that good books lack as a pedagogic tool is a demonstration of why the things we think of as bad in writing are so. Reading good books can show you, “Here’s what happens when it all goes right.” Bad books, conversely, demonstrate the consequences of things that don’t work. If you are a writer hoping to avoid poor writing, you will not quickly forget the embarrassment, boredom, or existential pain of reading bad books. If you are a reader in search of novels that won’t let you down, knowing what you don’t like is as helpful as knowing what you enjoy.
One of the things literature does is to conduct experiments. Émile Zola, the French writer of J’Accuse ...! fame, believed that novels could do what science did and investigate the world through experimentation. The writer sets up a “what if?” and defines the parameters of the test (who the characters are, their backgrounds and temperaments, the social and geographic setting, and the variables of conflict) and the reader draws conclusions from her observations. Just as in science, failed experiments can be as vital and can tell us as much as successful experiments. They help future researchers/writers to avoid the same dead ends. They point in the direction of paths worth following. And they provide their own data points; reading a good book and determining that using original phrases made this book good does not tell you anything about whether using unoriginal phrases will lead to a bad book. You need to read a book that actually uses clichés to work out what effect they have on whether a book is good or bad.
Toby Litt, writing in the Guardian, claims that “bad writing is almost always a love poem addressed by the self to the self”. The writer Stephen Vizinczey explained the fourth of his ten commandments to writers (“Thou shalt not be vain”) by saying that bad books “get that way because their authors are engaged in trying to justify themselves”. He cites the alcoholic author whose most sympathetically portrayed character is an alcoholic, a situation that is boring for the reader. Litt and Vizinczey might have read a thousand successful books that lampooned their own authors or depicted complex protagonists with as many faults as virtues, but those books would not sufficiently explain why the opposite kind of character doesn’t work. Their warnings against vanity in writers who won’t plumb the depths of their shame, embarrassment, and humility (ie: their humanity) could only have come from reading those failed experiments we call bad books.
“Reading good books ruins you for enjoying bad books.”
(Mary Ann Shaffer)
But I’d like to get to the really dirty secret of this issue and expose the false dichotomy we fall so easily into regarding any art that we love or loathe: books we think are bad are not always books we don’t enjoy. It is entirely possible to like a bad book, knowing what we think of it as a piece of literature. This was what happened with my reading of Zadie Smith’s On Beauty: I was in need of a break from the mental work-out of Infinite Jest, needed to slum it with something that appealed to very basic instincts, to follow a simplistic plot and character progression without charts and calendars of fictitious timelines. I am also currently in a place with limited access to English-language novels, so I made do with On Beauty, which was passed on to me by a neighbour. I quickly began identifying lazy writing, sloppy editing, boringly familiar phrases (when the summer season passes, it does so “abruptly and it slammed the door on the way out”). But I couldn’t stop reading and finished it in a day and a half. It provided me with all of the benefits stated above that come from considering bad books, as well as a rest for my brain without having to abandon reading, and it renewed my enthusiasm for the complexities of what Foster Wallace was doing in his epic novel. But most compelling for me, I could see what Smith was attempting (though failing) to do in her book and so reading became a process of alternative writing, in which I imagined the ways I might do things differently to end up with a better book. I found this incredibly engaging.
There is something that I see happening often: a friend enjoys a film, book, or music that lacks all of the things they would usually praise a piece of art for. When I say I thought it was poorly filmed/written/performed, I get no defence of its qualities but the continued insistence that it was great. This often appears to me to be an unwillingness to say this thing they enjoyed was not of high quality. To just say, “It was not great literature but it was good fun.” As if admitting that it is a bad book will mean they are no longer allowed to enjoy it. This is clearly not true, and it also falls foul of assuming that something is either definitively good or bad rather than falling on a scale. A few things I greatly enjoy at the moment are: Infinite Jest; the music of Silent Planet; the film Arrival (and I hope soon to equally enjoy the short story it is based on); Ariel by Plath; early Stephen Spielberg films; Rick and Morty; the video essays of NerdWriter1 on YouTube. And I enjoy discussing the relative merits of every one of these things, conceding failures and success within each, and feel no need to defend all of them as being great art simply because I like them.
What I’m suggesting is that there are several conversations happening at once, each of which would be better served teased out from the others to delve into them one at a time: discussing a book’s use of cliché or sentimentality, the depth of its characters, and the strength of its themes is one such conversation. Another is whether those things overall make a book “good” or “bad”. And yet another conversation is whether we like that book, be it well or poorly written. These things are not all equivalent.
“TV may become malignantly addictive only once a certain threshold of quantity is habitually passed, but then the same is true of whiskey.”
(David Foster Wallace, E Unibus Pluram)
Foster Wallace was discussing television in his infamous essay, going on to say that it becomes a problem when “the ‘special treat’ of TV begins to substitute for something nourishing and needed”. This is true for literature as well. So, I would like to clarify that I am not arguing in favour of reading good and bad books with a 50/50 ratio, or anything even close to that. I am also not advocating reading every book to the end, struggling through no matter how miserably poor it is. In recent years, I developed my own rule to make sure I give every book I start a fair reading while not wasting too much time when there are so many worthwhile books to be read. I now give bad books to half their length before finally tossing them aside for something more promising. But when I do this, it is not simply because it is a bad book. It is because it is a bad book that I am not enjoying reading.
So, there are a number of benefits that bad books might confer on their readers, and ultimately, the most compelling of these for me is that I want to know not merely that I don’t like a book, I want to know why I don’t like it. Because doing so has increased my appreciation for great writing and the qualities about such books that make them so good. Because occasionally I look closely enough at something I thought I didn’t like only to find that there was no substance to my criticism. When this happens, it leads to one of two things: I discover what was really bothering me about the writing, and my thinking is therefore clearer on the subject, or my opinion of the book as a whole changes, and it passes into the realm of those books I consider “good”. And often, discussing a book I don’t like with others who do like it and can explain why, others who know how to examine good and bad writing, can change my mind about the book.
And in the end, isn’t it vastly more interesting to examine and know your own mind than to baldly assert, “I like this, and I don’t like that”?
• Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass (1871)
• Martin Amis in conversation with Charlie Rose, Charlie Rose (2007)
• Toby Litt, “What makes bad writing bad?” The Guardian (2016)
• Stephen Vizinczey, Truth & Lies in Literature: a writer’s ten commandments (1986)
• Mary Ann Shaffer, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (2008)
• Zadie Smith, On Beauty (2005)
• David Foster Wallace, E Unibus Pluram: television and US fiction (1993)