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What makes a bad book bad?
March 16, 2010 9:49 AM   Subscribe

In its latest issue, the American Book Review has taken stock of literature and come up with its Top 40 Bad Books [pdf]. Faced with the unusual Top 40 list (which is not strictly a list and includes, among other things, The Great Gatsby) Alison Flood at the Guardian responds by asking, "What makes a bad book bad?" while at the L.A. Times, Carolyn Kellogg puts forth that the list's only constant is "that the best books that appear on their worst-book list are subject to the most unreasonable critiques."

The introduction to the list [pdf]:
Richard Ford once said that it takes as much effort to produce a bad book as a good book.

And as disheartening as that sounds, what Ford’s assertion might raise, and what most everyone who has attempted the task of a book-length work already knows, is the notion that effort alone does not ensure a book’s success, and that there are probably more ways for a good book to be overlooked than a bad book to never make it into print.

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?

Calling the question of “bad books” to the fore elicited—as might be expected—an overwhelming response. The forty responses below were selected to demonstrate the sheer variety of responses to what at face value seems a simple question. But as with most literary matters, nothing is as simple as it appears—not even the question of what constitutes a bad book.

From Eyal Amiran’s comments on the badness of Bond to Zahi Zalloua’s asking whether the state of bad books is hopeless, you’ll find that there’s a lot to think about when it comes to the question of bad books. Some of the comments you’ll find agreeable; others disagreeable. Regardless, after reading them we think that you’ll at least agree that there is just as much to say about bad books as there is to say about good ones.
posted by ocherdraco (100 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite

 
Ironically, they don't seem to realize that happy families are all alike and every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
posted by DU at 9:55 AM on March 16, 2010 [3 favorites]


Disappointed that no one named Eco's "Foucault's Pendulum," which (I discovered when I recently re-read it) exemplifies one of the most crushing forms of literary badness: The Book That Can Only Be Read Once.
posted by rusty at 9:58 AM on March 16, 2010 [3 favorites]


What makes a bad book bad?

It was written by Nathaniel Hawthorne.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 9:59 AM on March 16, 2010 [18 favorites]


Your favorite bad book sucks.
posted by blucevalo at 9:59 AM on March 16, 2010


What makes a bad book bad?

Comic Sans?
posted by haveanicesummer at 10:03 AM on March 16, 2010 [2 favorites]


Cool! Can we do bad music next?
posted by rocket88 at 10:06 AM on March 16, 2010


Lotsa hate for Cormac McCarthy there.

The selection of Herman Melville's Pierre reminded me of the judgment on it passed by John Updike - a full half of whose oeuvre is also nominated. I don't have the exact quote. But Updike wrote - apropos of it being the follow-up to Moby Dick - that it was unlikely that in the history of American literature a book that good and a book that bad had been written back-to-back.
posted by Joe Beese at 10:13 AM on March 16, 2010


Mark Twain eviscerates James Fenimore Cooper.
posted by No Robots at 10:19 AM on March 16, 2010 [14 favorites]


What makes a bad book bad?

It was written by Nathaniel Hawthorne.


You misspelled James Fenimore Cooper.
posted by kmz at 10:19 AM on March 16, 2010 [4 favorites]


Ha!
posted by kmz at 10:19 AM on March 16, 2010


If we are looking for good/bad pairs, I nominate The Mysterious Benedict Society vs The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Perilous Journey.

(And I now see that not only has LT rated the second, and much worse, book .1 stars better, but also 5x as many people have read it. /burns down western civilization)
posted by DU at 10:20 AM on March 16, 2010


Trolling: 'it's the only way we can stay relevant'

Seriously though, is there an increasing drive to be sensationalist for the hit count or is it just that I'm still annoyed about the Salon article?
posted by litleozy at 10:22 AM on March 16, 2010 [4 favorites]


Ironically, they don't seem to realize that happy families are all alike and every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

Or you didn't read the list. Page 4: "Bad novels, like unhappy families, are bad in their own ways."
posted by Bookhouse at 10:22 AM on March 16, 2010 [2 favorites]


On, non-preview, that sounded more snippy than I meant it.
posted by Bookhouse at 10:24 AM on March 16, 2010


Richard Ford once said that it takes as much effort to produce a bad book as a good book.

Truly awful writing begins and ends with John Grisham. And I think he works as hard as his fictional attorneys.
posted by cjets at 10:24 AM on March 16, 2010 [3 favorites]


They should think themselves lucky they've never read anything by Stephen Donaldson.
posted by Electric Dragon at 10:28 AM on March 16, 2010 [3 favorites]


Also, The Great Gatsby is not a bad book, not by a long way. It's hard to get into, Nick is smug as hell but I'd say intentionally so, so that after his conventionality and bitter niceness the reader is all the more entranced by the flawed Gatsby. Tender is the Night has a better style but the whole structure and effect of the Gatsby is superb and its brilliantly multi-layered.

I haven’t read it for many years, since the only time I used it in a Modern American Fiction class, but I remember it as incredibly smug about its relationship to the traditional realistic novel

F. Scott Fitzgerald was manipulating conventions to create a book that would be “charming.”


'Charming'?

Oh thank God for that, I can completely discount his judgement. Not only is the guy obviously going for the controversy, but he also completely missed how unsettling the book is.
posted by litleozy at 10:28 AM on March 16, 2010 [7 favorites]


....Am I crazy? I went to all three links and nowhere did I see an actual list of books. Reviews of a few, sure, but no list.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:29 AM on March 16, 2010 [2 favorites]


I totally want to read "Dildo Cay."
posted by millipede at 10:37 AM on March 16, 2010 [6 favorites]


ABR features this "top 40" article on its current cover with a prominent image of the cover of The Great Gatsby. You'd think the editors would have recognized that it might be worth backing that up with something more than a poorly-written, five-sentence squib by a critic who admits he hasn't read the book in years.
posted by brain_drain at 10:39 AM on March 16, 2010 [4 favorites]


I have always thought the magical realism of the Old Testament was overdone and much preferred the shorter novella The New Testament.
posted by Postroad at 10:42 AM on March 16, 2010 [9 favorites]


I have great respect for writers who can produce bad books. It takes a certain kind of wilful blindness or blinkered determination to complete a manuscript that whimpers "kill me now" every time the file is opened. Maybe it's arrogance, or desperation, or just steely resolve that sees them through. I wish I knew. Seems like writing your way through several bad books is the only way to get to the good one, but I just can't make myself keep strangling that baby. And that prevents me from knowing what it's like to finish anything, bad or good.

I was cheered to see Cormac MacCarthy get name-checked a couple of times, since it confirms my sense that he's the biggest literary wool-puller of his generation. The guy must have written something fan-fucking-tastic to get the ball rolling, but I've yet to read it.

The point about Huckleberry Finn was a good one -- it does unravel at the end, which only serves to highlight how excellently it begins.

I really enjoyed reading this!
posted by BitterOldPunk at 10:47 AM on March 16, 2010 [2 favorites]


Some of those grapes are damn sour.
posted by tula at 10:47 AM on March 16, 2010 [2 favorites]


No Ayn Rand mention? Sorry this list is woefully incomplete without Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged.
posted by inthe80s at 10:51 AM on March 16, 2010 [4 favorites]


I was just a young Beese then, so for all I know I would feel completely different now, but the only book I've ever hated to the point of physically destroying it was Saul Bellow's Herzog.
posted by Joe Beese at 10:53 AM on March 16, 2010


Who's worse: a prostitute or the john? Sometimes a book is exactly what you want it to be and nothing more. I'd hesitate to call Ian Fleming's books "bad" for this reason. (Now, books that are badly written are much easier to spot, like Dan Brown's oeuvre.)

The only books I really dislike are the ones who promise they're something special, but just turn out to be more of the same.
posted by Kevin Street at 10:54 AM on March 16, 2010


What makes a bad book bad?

Having a certain three words in the title;

"The", "Celestine", and "Prophecy".
posted by quin at 10:58 AM on March 16, 2010 [1 favorite]


The writer of this piece obviously has never read Ian Fleming's novels and is treating the literary Bond as if he was the cinematic Bond or, perhaps, an ionic Bond (rimshot).
posted by I-baLL at 11:02 AM on March 16, 2010 [1 favorite]


Whoops. By "the writer of this piece" I meant Eyal Amiran.
posted by I-baLL at 11:04 AM on March 16, 2010


It is SUCH a blow to my self-esteem every time I read that somebody I don't know says a book I love sucks.
posted by kingbenny at 11:04 AM on March 16, 2010 [1 favorite]


I was pretty dubious about this whole effort until I got to the Dildo Cay entry.
That legitimately had me laughing loud enough for my roommate to come ask me what was so funny.
posted by The Esteemed Doctor Bunsen Honeydew at 11:04 AM on March 16, 2010


The point about Huckleberry Finn was a good one -- it does unravel at the end

It breaks my heart every time I read it. I consider it one of my favorite books, and whenever I near the end I think "it can't be as awful as I remember," and then I hit the Return of Tom Sawyer and it all goes to hell. You suck, Tom Sawyer, because you ruin everything; I love you Twain, but WHY did you do it?
posted by sallybrown at 11:05 AM on March 16, 2010 [1 favorite]


Seconding litleozy about the Gatsby review, although I also appreciate how unsettlingly self-eviscerating the review is. It's either a conscious performance, or the reviewer has no idea just how asinine it makes him look.
posted by rusty at 11:05 AM on March 16, 2010


This was interesting, thanks for posting.
posted by otio at 11:07 AM on March 16, 2010


Cormac McCarthy's trilogy was mediocre; The Road isn't spectacular. But by gum Blood Meridian was good enough to make up for them a dozen times over, and the Coen-brothers version of No Country for Old Men remains one of my favorite movies.
posted by sonic meat machine at 11:08 AM on March 16, 2010 [3 favorites]


The Gossip Girl books aren't listed?
posted by anniecat at 11:09 AM on March 16, 2010 [1 favorite]


Page 4: "Bad novels, like unhappy families, are bad in their own ways."

Also, on the penultimate page, "Good books are all alike; every bad book is bad in its own way".

Anyway, it's interesting to see people expand on what makes them consider a book a bad one.

I turned to Tender Is the Night (1934), usually considered a bad book, to give students a Fitzgerald with more aesthetic courage


That's weird. I was under the impression Gatsby was the popular favorite and Tender... the critical favorite.
posted by ersatz at 11:11 AM on March 16, 2010


Yet for many of my students, [The Da Vinci Code] is the book that brought them into the English major. For others, it is the only book they’ve ever enjoyed reading.

Seriously?
posted by gottabefunky at 11:18 AM on March 16, 2010


"Seriously?"

Sure, why not. Everybody's got to start somewhere, and the things we enjoy most are often the ones we experience first, before preconceptions and belief systems can be built. I can totally see someone loving The Da Vinci Code if it's the first novel they ever really paid attention to - or read because they were interested in the story, instead of being forced to read it by someone else.
posted by Kevin Street at 11:27 AM on March 16, 2010


Books are bad when I don’t like them, books are terrible, horrible influences on society when I don’t like them and you do.
posted by edbles at 11:36 AM on March 16, 2010 [1 favorite]


Malcolm Lowry's Under The Volcano, which I distantly remember from when I may or may not have read it while grading undergraduate scribblings when I was their scribblemeister, exists in a petulant relationship to neo-realism and the then current vogue of volcano-dwelling. Neither commentary nor cemetery, this overrated tome (yes, I said it, tome!) broke no new ground and yet often gets placed on hallowed ground much like the grounds of a celebrated necropolis. It sucked.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 11:38 AM on March 16, 2010 [1 favorite]


I'm not generally a deep reader or viewer, if I'm not putting my mind to it. The Da Vinci Code was something of pulp fiction for me: a cheap read that was entertaining. If (young) people are faced with the notion that reading takes work or is only for school, then they might not pay books any mind until other people are talking about it, or there's a movie on the way based on the book. The Da Vinci Code has ridiculous characters, really short chapters, and an outlandish plot. The story doesn't stay put for a series of chapters, so if you were interested in what will happen to Robert Langdon at the end of a chapter, you might have to read two more until you find out. It's a comic book in novel form - keeping you hooked for the next installment by parceling the story out. Is it so surprising that someone would read that and think "I'd like to write that"?
posted by filthy light thief at 11:43 AM on March 16, 2010


[Cormac McCarthy] must have written something fan-fucking-tastic to get the ball rolling, but I've yet to read it.

Have you read Suttree or Blood Meridian?
posted by ericost at 11:46 AM on March 16, 2010


Whatever you do, please do not pick up Cormac's "novel in dramatic form" The Sunset Limited. I'm a fan of what I've read by him, but that was honestly one of the worst things ever. Just cringeworthy dialogue from start to finish.
posted by naju at 11:46 AM on March 16, 2010


Disappointed that no one named Eco's "Foucault's Pendulum," which (I discovered when I recently re-read it) exemplifies one of the most crushing forms of literary badness: The Book That Can Only Be Read Once.
posted by rusty at 11:58 AM on March 16 [2 favorites +] [!]

Lies. Filthy Templar lies.
posted by jtron at 11:56 AM on March 16, 2010 [11 favorites]


As clunky and dumb as Dan Brown's technique may be, one does get the sense that he's having a lot of fun telling the story, and that enjoyment can be transferred to the reader. Sometimes that's enough to get a person hooked on the magic and wonder of stories, but I'd hope that they only use it as a starting place and go on from there.
posted by Kevin Street at 11:56 AM on March 16, 2010


Man, I thought I was the only one who hated The Great Gatsby. Glad to know I'm not alone.

Also, that PDF is laid out all wacky and is kind of unreadable. Not ocherdraco's fault, of course - anyone got an actual just run-down list of the books?
posted by grapefruitmoon at 11:57 AM on March 16, 2010


the Coen-brothers version of No Country for Old Men remains one of my favorite movies.

I suppose it's all right if you like movies that just
posted by Mr. Bad Example at 12:03 PM on March 16, 2010 [7 favorites]


Not ocherdraco's fault, of course - anyone got an actual just run-down list of the books?

Motion now seconded.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:04 PM on March 16, 2010


I liked Blood Meridian, but basically the Border Trilogy made me never want to read McCarthy again. But about the worst thing I could say about McCarthy is that he's edged perilously close to self-parody in recent years. Overrated? Maybe. Truly Bad? Not so much.

Obviously, if you're looking at the whole of literature--including the display racks and Wal-Mart, Christian bookshops, porn shops and where ever they keep the Lady Idlewilde's New Wiccan Guide to Macrobiotic Spells and Self-Actualization in the Ancient Mayan Tradition With New Celtic Flavor! in your hometown--there are countless volumes ranging from painfully dull to abysmal to offensive to soul-sucking that certainly didn't make the list.

However, as far as what gets taught, Harriet Beecher Stowe and Theodore Dreiser both independently and with considerable variation and the red-headed stepchild of flair, wrote some of the most godawful prose I have ever had the misfortune of reading. But James Fenimore Cooper? Absolutely the fucking worst. Hilariously awful.
posted by thivaia at 12:08 PM on March 16, 2010


I rarely encounter a book I won't finish. But I came across this AskMe last month, thought, "That sounds like something I might really like," and picked it up from the library. I gave up in the middle of a sentence maybe 100 pages in. Possibly the worst dialog (and characters) I've ever read.
posted by uncleozzy at 12:08 PM on March 16, 2010


More like top 40 bad book reviews.

Actually, some are interesting and thoughtful, but about half of them are just excuses for the reviewer to be smarmy.
posted by Saxon Kane at 12:14 PM on March 16, 2010 [1 favorite]


Everybody's got to start somewhere, and the things we enjoy most are often the ones we experience first, before preconceptions and belief systems can be built. I can totally see someone loving The Da Vinci Code if it's the first novel they ever really paid attention to -

For me, it was the HARDY BOYS. I would've been ten at the time. Then came S.E. Hinton's stuff which served until I just started grabbing stuff out of my parents' paperback pile. GODFATHER, LITTLE BIG MAN, CATCH-22 -- all the movies I was too young to get into.

In a weird way, the only BAD books I was conscious of until at least University were the assigned ones in high school (various "classics" I won't bother naming), which in retrospect were guilty mainly of being 1. required reading, 2. NOT adult (ie: serious in intent but seriously lacking sex and violence).

So what's BAD now?

Anything that's telling me something I already know. Predictable plots, cliched characters, preaching-to-the-converted polemics, show-off style (a major sin of "serious" writers; yes, I know you're f***ing good Mr. DeLillo, now shuddup and tell me a story).
posted by philip-random at 12:24 PM on March 16, 2010


"The", "Celestine", and "Prophecy".

Speaking if misspellings, you also misspelled "The Shack".
posted by generichuman at 12:34 PM on March 16, 2010


Can an otherwise good author produce a "bad" book?

I used to like anything by Paul Auster, then something happened and he started writing books that read like failed Auster parodies. It's hard to believe that the author who wrote, for example, In The Country of Last Things, Moon Palace and Leviathan, also wrote Oracle Night and fucking Travels in the Scriptorium.
posted by The Mouthchew at 12:36 PM on March 16, 2010 [1 favorite]


If badness is related to perceived greatness, then I offer The Great Gatsby (1925) as the worst novel in American literature. I haven’t read it for many years, since the only time I used it in a Modern American Fiction class, but I remember it as incredibly smug about its relationship to the traditional realistic novel.

Please, if you're going to troll you've got to try a lot harder than that.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 12:50 PM on March 16, 2010


Have you read Suttree or Blood Meridian?

No, I'll have to check those out.

I read The Road, which was just horrible. I really could not understand why everyone was so excited about it. The writing wasn't just mannered, it was stilted and bad. I gave him another shot with No Country for Old Men mostly because he gets so much love around here. I liked it alright, but it was just barely-passable genre fiction, not something that rose above the level of it's premise, nor something that could overcome it's many wildly outlandish plot turns. I have to admit that after reading the two of them in quick succession I kind of decided that people who really like Cormac McCarthy are like folks who want to talk about the "philosophy" of The Matrix. That is, it's only their unfamiliarity with the tropes being abused that allows them to be so enthusiastic. If they read a little they might grow out of it. (I admit that this is condescending and unkind, but, my god, those books were both pretty trashy, and written in a kind of tough-guy parody, and yet when they're raised here people seem barely able to contain their love.)
posted by OmieWise at 12:53 PM on March 16, 2010 [4 favorites]


Are we allowed to nominate portions of books? Maybe it was because I was 17 or maybe it was because no one else I knew was reading it at the same time I was but the 96% of Steppenwolf that didn't involve The Magic Theater killed me. That book serves as the point at which I abandoned my policy of always finishing a book I had started to read.
posted by vapidave at 12:54 PM on March 16, 2010


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 (The Da Vinci Code [2003]), or a text by a canonical author (Theodore Dreiser), or one that turns up on course syllabi for reasons that somebody might find dubious (piety, political correctness; Their Eyes Were Watching God [1937])—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 ide- ology 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.
Quoted for greatness. He's a teacher in my department, so I think I'm just going to be demure and say 'my professor could kick your professor's ass.'
posted by Solon and Thanks at 12:56 PM on March 16, 2010 [4 favorites]


For myself, it's always a tossup between Flare (Thomas T Thomas, and Roger Zelazny) and A Mote in God's Eye (Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle). The two books hold the dubious position on my list of 'have never finished.' Each of these authors I love independently, but, ye gods, what terrible alchemy produced a negative from positive numbers.

As for The Gripping Hand, I've never been able to shake the first impression where I misread the title as 'The Griping Hand.' I can still remember an old friend howling 'I WANT GLOOOOOOOVES!'
posted by LD Feral at 12:57 PM on March 16, 2010 [1 favorite]


The writer of this piece obviously has never read Ian Fleming's novels and is treating the literary Bond as if he was the cinematic Bond

Or maybe he's just a snob. In any case, Fleming's Bond novels are solidly "good bad" — genre fiction that delivers plenty of what the audience wants without pretense.

A clear contrast between "good bad" and "bad bad" for me is any Ludlum thriller from the 70s or 80s vs. any of his final few from after he'd had a heart attack and was either being ghost-written or just desperately trying to earn money for his family. Both will consist entirely of formulas, stock characters, and cliches, but in the first case you can't put the book down; in the second, the further you read, the angrier you get at the author for his near-Dan-Brown levels of incoherence and laziness.

As several of the contributors point out, "bad good" is much more interesting.
posted by mubba at 12:58 PM on March 16, 2010


Check out some of the authors of the article. Eyal Amiran is currently "working on two longterm book-length projects: Nonsense and Motivation, on modernist textual theory, and Shadow Government, on psychologies of control in digital media".

Michael Berube is author most recently of 'Marginal Forces / Cultural Centers: Tolson, Pynchon, and the Politics of the Canon'

Nicholas Brown is author of 'Utopian Generations: The Political Horizon of Twentieth-Century Literature'

Sue-im Lee is "currently at work on a book project entitled "Vexing Community in Contemporary U. S. Fiction," which examines imagined communities in fiction through concepts such the family, humanism, posthumanism, universalism, recognition, and legibility"

I mean to say, adding snark to this would just be shooting fish an a barrel. Let's be generous - this was a way to add a few lines to the CV on the cheap and lazy.

What I find funniest is the American Book Review's claim to be 'edited and produced by writers for writers and the general public'.

I can see the editorial meeting now: "Say, let's diss Fitzgerald for our next cover! That'll fetch 'em, or I don't know Manhattan!"
posted by IndigoJones at 12:59 PM on March 16, 2010 [2 favorites]


None of these is even in the same stratosphere of greatness as David Foster Wallace's ruthless and yet completely fair takedown of John Updike and his books in "Certainly the End of Something or Other, One Would Sort of Have to Think," from Consider the Lobster.
posted by sallybrown at 1:12 PM on March 16, 2010 [3 favorites]


I've said it before; I discount any list of this kind that does not include Jonathan Strange and Dr. Morell. 900+ pages of a story that could have been told in less than 300.
I do agree that Revolutionary Road is bad as well.
posted by OHenryPacey at 1:13 PM on March 16, 2010


I was pretty excited a couple of years ago when fan favorite Jonathan Lethem came out with his new one You Don't Love Me Yet. I bought it in hardback!

Boy, what a pile of shit. It's one of those "Wow, I hate everyone in this book" books. I relegated it to the non-Dantean hell-circle of propping up my semi-busted entertainment center. So it's got that going on! Yecch.
posted by Skot at 1:18 PM on March 16, 2010


> I can totally see someone loving The Da Vinci Code if it's the first novel they ever really paid attention to - or read because they were interested in the story, instead of being forced to read it by someone else.

"So, I guess what I'm trying to say is that every time I think of Dan Brown I feel a bit like crying."
posted by you just lost the game at 1:27 PM on March 16, 2010


Mark Twain eviscerates James Fenimore Cooper.

-Twain didn't think much of Horatio Alger either. Bootstraps, my ass!

-Why reviewers don't often say “This sucks”
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 1:28 PM on March 16, 2010


Your favorite bad book sucks rules.
posted by The Card Cheat at 1:28 PM on March 16, 2010


The point about Huckleberry Finn was a good one -- it does unravel at the end, which only serves to highlight how excellently it begins.

Another good case of partial badness is Moby-Dick* — does its greatness really include the several entire chapters paraphrasing technical books on whaling? Like Huckleberry Finn, maybe it entered the canon because it was American at a time when so few good novels were being written in America, and now we overlook its huge flaws. OTOH, I personally enjoyed both more than anything by Dickens, Austen, etc.

[* or, The Whale]
posted by mubba at 1:33 PM on March 16, 2010 [1 favorite]


I can't wait, for the next time someone is trying to tell me something important, to respond with:

How strong do you think that pickle is?*


*Dildlo Cay: The novel so bad it brings its own existence into question.
posted by Skygazer at 1:37 PM on March 16, 2010


@mubba The technical chapter is a feature of a lot of epic XIXc novels. Both Anna Karenina and Les Miserables have very long chapters on farming and the history of the Paris sewers respectively.
posted by Omon Ra at 1:47 PM on March 16, 2010


They don't mention Atlanta Nights? For shame.

Isadore knocked once at the door, and then it at once swung open. The stunning vision inside, an echo of pulchritude in a bright red dress, seemed to take their breath away, it was Penelope Urbain, Bruce Lucent’s longtime and very beautiful girlfriends. Penelope, who had walked in the door of Lucent Software, asking for a job, and a good thing is being that she did, because he had one for her, a position, so to speak, that only a beautiful woman could fulfill, and she filled the role perfectly, as the beautiful girlfriend for those social occasions when he needed to appear on the front page of the newspaper with a beautiful woman on his arm. Everyone looked and thought he was lucky, but it wasn’t just luck it was planning that he fell in love with this beautiful woman and her with him. He gave her his glance and she gave him hers.
posted by Sebmojo at 2:01 PM on March 16, 2010 [1 favorite]


Moby-Dick is freaking brilliant the whole way through and its brilliance has nothing to do with the fact that there were "few good novels being written" at the time. The chapters on whaling are absolutely essential. The whole book is, to some extent, about language's failure to describe something as sublime as the whale, and those chapters are an important part of the novel's meditation on that futility. I recently re-read it, and it only affirmed my love of the novel. The more I read about it, the more I love it, as well. With that said, I understand why some people don't find it to be an appealing read. I said somewhere on the blue before that it is one of those books that, even within the confines of my English department, the Americanists love, leaving everyone else scratching their heads about why we bothered to slog through those chapters on whaling.

And I love Gatsby, too, and unabashedly so. The description of Gatsby's smile is one of my favourite bits of prose I've ever read.
posted by synecdoche at 2:07 PM on March 16, 2010 [4 favorites]


God, I hate book snobbery. These sweeping statements about "the worst/best book in American literature" are just silly and useless — it's just not possible to make that statement definitively. It's too subjective a phrase. So much of the content in the Top 40 Bad Books link is pure obnoxious wankery.

I have musically unsophisticated tastes, and I kind of like it that way. I miss the days when I could pick up a book and just enjoy it for whatever it was. Now I find so much undreadable and hardly every get pure enjoyment from a book. I'd like to hold on to that capacity for simple pleasure in the area of music. And I get really, really pissed off when music snobs look down their noses at me for what I listen to and sniff that it isn't real music and don't I find it crap like their superior selves, to the extent that I've come to the point of fighting very shy of telling anyone what I like. My YouTube account isn't under the Orange Swan pseudonym for that reason.

Though I'm just as impatient with the other end of the spectrum, like a co-worker who insisted that it's a bad idea to categorize fiction as literature and fiction because it intimidates people. Nonsense. We need terms to distinguish the higher calibre of fiction from the lower, and if people are too insecure to pick up a damn novel and skim a few pages to find out if they want to read it because it's categorized as literary, then that's their problem.

And I probably do indulge in too much literary snobbishness myself. I have a book review website and cringe to think what I might find if I read over all its content with an eye to finding sweeping statements about very subjective matters. I do try not to act like some final arbiter of taste, though, and just think of my review's as one reader's opinion, one person bringing a very personal but hopefully interesting and thoughtful perspective to the table. And I try not to denigrate other's taste in fiction. My sister in law, sister, and nieces are all into the Twilight books. They've given me the first two books and I slogged my way through one and avoided giving them my opinion on it. I think it's awful, but I'm not going to ruin their pleasure in it or insult their tastes by saying so.
posted by orange swan at 2:10 PM on March 16, 2010 [2 favorites]


The question really is "what constitutes a bad book?" The article includes forty responses, but here's my attempt at making a tl:dr list from those 40 comments:

1. Bond novels (all?) by Ian Fleming
2. Revolutionary Road (1961) by Richard Yates
3. "Ronald Sukenick once confided to me his ambition to write books no one would know how to judge either bad or good. I feel that.... To think that the author of How It Is (1964) won the Nobel Prize! Bad writing has its muse, its geniuses."
4. Women in Love (1920) by D. H. Lawrence.
5. One-Party Classroom (2009) by David Horowitz and Jacob Laksin
6. Most academic books
7. Pierre (1852) by Herman Melville / The Genius (1915) by Theodore Dreiser / Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) by Zora Neale Hurston / no more bad books, only bad readers
8. It's "a crisis of so much contemporary criticism," because of the limited scope of understanding from the Brahmins.
9. Tarantula (1966) by Bob Dylan (both "baad" meaning hipster good and "bad" meaning bad)
10. Dildo Cay (1940) by Nelson Hayes
11. Badness in the historical novel: A Mercy (2008) by Toni Morrison / The March (2005) by E. L. Doctorow / Saturday (2005), by Ian McEwan
12. Works that are "more about the writer than the writing"
13. Question: why aren't bad books aren’t a prominent part of our school and college literature curriculum?
14. Bad books: written by arrogant people (example: All the Pretty Horses (1992) by Cormac McCarthy)
15. Misunderstood genius (Notice (2004)) simplified for mass consumption: The Second Suspect (1998) by Heather Lewis
16. Not just the bad books that have been published (as the really bad are unpublished works), but bad books which have been seriously acclaimed as good books, even great ones (examples: Across the River and Into the Trees (1950), Grimus (1975), The End of the Affair (1951), half of John Updike, the bad William Wordsworth, the bad Percy Bysshe Shelley. And now, big danger: Pamela (1740), the poems of James Joyce, Frankenstein (1818), and "the greatest bad book in the English language" - Poetic Gems by William McGonagall
17. Sag Harbor (2009) by Colson Whitehead (for being more autobio than semibio)
18. Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) by Harriet Beecher Stowe - “a good bad book,” said George Orwell
19. Let the Great World Spin (2009) by Colum McCann
20. "If badness is related to perceived greatness, then I offer The Great Gatsby (1925) as the worst novel in American literature."
21. "One breed of a bad book is a disappointing novel from an author for whom you harbor expectations.... books that appear too quickly upon the heels of the last one, books that never had a chance at acquiring their own language and drama."
22. "In almost every class, I teach a bad book, an awful, poorly written, sometimes sexist, racist, reactionary book.
I do this for a few reasons. ...."
23. "Good or bad writing isn’t found in sentence structure or word choice." It's more about the disconnected author who can't engage the reader (my summary). Examples: sections from No Country For Old Men (2005) by Cormac McCarthy
24. 'When we are invited to reflect on “bad books,” I take it that what is really meant is “books that somebody
misguidedly thinks are good”; otherwise, why bother?' This leads to the comment that you aren't as good as I am, because I find fault in what you claim is good (my summary) "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."
25. "Bad books in my field, classics and comparative
literature, come in two primary varieties." Dull books with endless tables and charts, often published by vanity presses; and works from well-regarded folks who bluff their way to critical regard, only to be brought back to earth by serious critical review (my summary)
26. "To my mind, the worst books bask ignorantly in a sort of stultifying self-centeredness hard to fathom, by me at least. Exercises in navel-gazing and simplistically formulaic, their horizon is exceedingly narrow. They do not care and are not curious."
27. "I decide a book is bad if I get angrier and angrier as I read it. That happens rarely.... Wai Chee Dimock’s Through Other Continents: American Literature across Deep Time (2006) is my choice."
28. An American Tragedy (1925) by Theodore Dreiser - "A great book than goes down hill at the end."
29. The various poetry books collected in Frederick Seidel’s blockbuster Poems 1959–2009 (2009) - "how cleverly condescending"
30. "Worthwhile literary works force the reader’s active participation and inspire him or her to engage in the hard work of hermeneutic dialogue. Bad books do not do this.... Formulaic detective fiction and pornography are examples."
31. "[B]ooks can own their own badness. And they can be bad in three ways: 1) the things they try to do—their goals—can be bad; 2) their goals can be good but their efforts to achieve those goals can be bad; 3) both their goals and their efforts to achieve them can be bad.
...
I submit that the most interesting badness in books is partial badness. It’s easy to dismiss the thoroughly
bad, but the mixture of the bad and the good is compelling. If Mark Twain had nailed the ending to Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), would the novel be so widely discussed?"
32. "With time as perhaps our scarcest good, isn’t a bad book one we might define as “not worthwhile,” that is, as too unimportant, uninteresting, or unrewarding to justify spending time, money, or effort on it? ... But I am haunted by the question: what if those books I have deemed unworthy of my time aren’t really bad?"
33. "One mark of a great writer must be the willingness
to write a bad book." Greatest bad book of this sort: Temptation of Saint Anthony (1874) by Gustave Flaubert
34. "You can’t judge a book by its cover; vigilant readers know that the back, spine, margins, typography, paratexts, paper, binding, printing, illustrations, and yes, sometimes even the content, should be taken into account." (My summary: the details can outweigh the lack of literary quality in the book)
35. "The intrinsic badness of books is a baffling idea....
In the face of such conundrums, I construed a “bad” book as a harmful one. The Malleus Maleficarum (The Witches’ Hammer) (1487) by Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger"
36. "I acknowledge one kind of truly bad book: the Novel that Doesn’t Know (NDK). The NDK is a work of realistic fiction that makes foolish mistakes in its representation of the material world." (In other words: basic fact-checking failures) Examples of books on the verge of being NDK: Chasing Shakespeares (2003), Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood (1996), and The Sun Also Rises (1926).
37. And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks (1945) Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs; not published until last year, it raised the question: "Is it ever good to publish a serious writer’s post-juvenilia?"
38. A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous Fourteenth Century (1978) by Barbara Tuchman - bad of it's own accord, plus "its publisher flooded the preview/review market with so many free copies that the book was bound to get lots of coverage in those pre-web days" / The Da Vinci Code (2003) by Dan Brown, same tactic was used
39. Bad books don't take risks, but bad readers don't demand more. Whose fault is it, the book or the reader? (my summary)

.... and I missed the 40th somewhere in there, or the title was a typo.
posted by filthy light thief at 2:11 PM on March 16, 2010 [10 favorites]


And to anyone looking for strsight-up snobbery, the reviews are mostly lacking in that department. Most comments are about the kinds of bad, or how it's all subjective.
posted by filthy light thief at 2:21 PM on March 16, 2010 [1 favorite]


Also: to anyone who is thinking of putting together a list of this sort, please number the individual responses. I know you don't want people complaining about their apparent ranking, but it would be easier for the reader to keep their place.
posted by filthy light thief at 2:26 PM on March 16, 2010


If we are looking for good/bad pairs, I nominate The Mysterious Benedict Society vs The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Perilous Journey.

DU, reading the first book to my kids, I thought it was astonishingly good for its genre. I agree that Perilous Journey was not as good, but still enjoyed it quite a bit. I love Stewart's little bits of characterization (like the realization that having a perfect memory would make Sticky boring -- that's straight out of Borges!). Why were you so disappointed with it?

Eco's "Foucault's Pendulum"

This is the only book I've read where I thought the author was purposely boring the reader as a literary device, both as a commentary on the nature of the conspiracy theories and also because when that thing on the bus finally happens, it was like a gun going off next to my head. "WHAT?! Something...happened?!
posted by straight at 2:29 PM on March 16, 2010


[Cormac McCarthy] must have written something fan-fucking-tastic to get the ball rolling, but I've yet to read it.

Have you read Suttree or Blood Meridian?
posted by ericost at 11:46 AM on March 16 [+] [!]


Seconding this -- Suttree especially is an absolute masterpiece, but I think both books are utterly amazing. And I say that as someone who loathed All The Pretty Horses even more than the reviewer in the link, and for the same reasons -- I finished the novel angrily wanting those hours of my life back. Had I not already read the two novels ericost mentions, I might never have read anything by McCarthy again.
posted by newmoistness at 2:32 PM on March 16, 2010


In any case, Fleming's Bond novels are solidly "good bad" —

I've read all the Fleming Bond stuff, most of it twice and not so long ago. The one sequence that sticks with me is near the beginning of MOONRAKER where, on a favour to one of his higher-ups, Bond infiltrates a high-stakes poker game at a Gentleman's Club in order to figure out how a certain "gentleman" (Mr. Moonraker) is cheating, and expose him.

Bond's ruse for slipping beneath Moonraker's radar is to pretend he's sloppily drunk. This involves quaffing a handful of dexedrine and proceeding to drink a pile of martinis in Moonraker's presence. The entire sequence is suspenseful, funny and economically delivered. Nothing even slightly "bad" about it.
posted by philip-random at 3:02 PM on March 16, 2010 [1 favorite]


The whole book is, to some extent, about language's failure to describe something as sublime as the whale

While this may be true, it induces in me the same sort of reaction the guy had when Lisa told him he had to listen to the notes that weren't being played.
posted by Bookhouse at 3:03 PM on March 16, 2010


Interesting how many of these start out well, then fizzle. (I know how hard it is to find the perfect ending for a play or a novel.) Huckleberry Finn has been criticized a lot in this regard. I would say the same thing about Babbitt, a novel that seems to have lost its champions among the Canon Creators recently. Foucault's Pendulum? Wouldn't know. I put it down for good halfway through.
posted by kozad at 3:16 PM on March 16, 2010


1. Looking at the complaints in the list, there seems to be a lot of "I didn't get the experience I wanted out of this book, therefore it's a bad book," which while a perfectly cromulent method of criticism, really is more about the critic than it is about the book;

2. One thing I realized (relatively) early on which saved me a lot of heartbreak later is that my favorite creative people would inevitably a) create something I hate and/or b) create on a regular basis things I would hate more than the things I love. Because, you know, it's hard to hit it out of the ball park every single time for every single person who considers themselves a fan. Once I accepted that fact, it became easier for me not to hate that creative person for That Book/Album/Movie/Whatever They Did That I Hate;

3. Richard Ford is correct it takes just as much effort to write something bad as it does to write something good; what is also true is that very often the difference between something memorably good and something memorably bad is really very small, especially when the writer is one whose style features distinctive artifice -- what sounds jarringly fresh in one book can be overwrought and stale in another, and which is which isn't just a matter of what the writer is doing, but also how the reader approaches both works (or even in what order).

Very often writers don't know if what they're writing this time is better or worse than what they wrote last time -- they just do what they do and in the middle of the creative exercise, it all looks good enough (or at least no worse than what came before). This is why writers are so often twitchy; often they don't know if what they've written works until it's observed by someone else, who tells them one way or another. What they hope for is that in the end a) there are more people who say it's good than say it's bad, and failing that b) it sells so well that they can laugh at everyone who hated the book from their yacht.
posted by jscalzi at 3:24 PM on March 16, 2010 [2 favorites]


Dildo Cay sounds like an answer to the question, "So how'd those pickles turn out?"

So is it just a coincidence that right after Michael Bérubé spreads the hate for Women In Love, Marc Bousquet despises One-Party Classroom? Don't Bérubé and Horowitz have a thing?

And Nicholas Brown, really? Nearly all academic books suck? Does that include Utopian Generations: The Political Horizon of Twentieth-Century Literature? Good luck on getting your next book published. I won't forget your name.
posted by Toekneesan at 4:02 PM on March 16, 2010


And Nicholas Brown, really? Nearly all academic books suck?

It almost sounds like he thinks they suck on technicalities (bad indexes, distracting numbers of typos and lax fact checking), but I could be wrong.

The entire [Moonraker] sequence is suspenseful, funny and economically delivered. Nothing even slightly "bad" about it.

While I like the jab "He’s a “secret agent” who tells anyone his name," I think the focus on the transparency of the books is misguided. I side with R.M. Berry, who said "Genre books aren’t bad. They are the paradigm of good books." You don't go into a spy novel with expectations for something groundbreaking, just like you don't watch the Bond movies hoping to see something really novel in movies (except new spy gadgetry). Again, it all comes down to what sort of "bad" you see (or expect to find).
posted by filthy light thief at 4:58 PM on March 16, 2010


Once in the early 1990s when I first moved to Amsterdam I saw a guy on the Vondelpark doing yoga tricks for money. I thought I was seriously into hatha yoga at the time and remarked to another busker that this so-called yogi was debasing himself, to which he replied:

Never knock another man's hustle.
posted by digitalprimate at 5:09 PM on March 16, 2010 [3 favorites]


Frankenstein was on the list? Wow, colour me surprised. I thought the book was very successful at what it was trying to do - and a good more besides. I really didn't like Moby Dick, but can appreciate it for the same reasons.

Much better than writing about bad books is writing about _interesting failures_. Interesting failures should really be a genre unto themselves. They can be an established writer going too far, a new writer pushing things, a writer inadvertently stumbling onto a cultural touchstone. I would love to read a list of interesting failures. Hmmmm, I might write one myself...
posted by smoke at 6:12 PM on March 16, 2010 [2 favorites]


Affirmed: writers sometimes write great books.
Affirmed: writers sometimes write bad books.
Note: sometimes the same writer.
posted by ovvl at 7:04 PM on March 16, 2010


I was kinda down with filthy light thief's list until we got closer to the end.

The Malleus Maleficarum is not a "bad book" in the sense of it being something written with some kind of creative end in mind, which it is not. It is instead a rather odd and disturbing historical primary source compilation of anecdotes written by various motivated disturbed and insane people, who happened to be in positions of power.
posted by ovvl at 7:22 PM on March 16, 2010


The Great Gatsby is an "important" book as a destroyer of the American dream - that is, the dream that in America anyone can get ahead and be "Great", if you work hard enough at it (spoiler: Gatsby works heard to get ahead and is murdered unfairly by a wealthy man who gets off scott free, end of story). The myth of work=success is still alive today, and so the novel remains an important anti-middle-class novel favored by liberal educators to challenge their bourgeois students with. You know, maybe you'll work hard and do everything right, and things just won't work out so well for you in the end. It's a subversive novel, iconoclastic (although ironically now an icon itself), and has its prose moments. I personally find it boring as hell, except in cases like this post where it can be used an excuse to bash on the middle class, a favorite pastime of us all, which is why its so popular. It's about the only way to write entertainingly about the middle-class, to bash on them/us. Many novels have since copied Gatsby with this anti-success theme but it was one of the earliest to do it in the modernist style and so it remains "important".
posted by stbalbach at 7:53 PM on March 16, 2010 [1 favorite]


A Distant Mirror, as a book of fact and history, is truly a "bad book" - A favorite whipping boy (girl?) of medieval scholars. The rest of them seem more subjective and open to interpretation.
posted by stbalbach at 7:56 PM on March 16, 2010


You suck, Tom Sawyer, because you ruin everything; I love you Twain, but WHY did you do it?

Twain was such a brilliant but lazy writer. Some years ago I read The Comedy of the Extraordinary Twins. It was originally meant about be about conjoined twins, but he changed his mind about that. But he didn't make all the changes in the manuscript that change required, so it was full of strange things like one of the twins saying, "And then during the later part of our childhood we were exhibited throughout Europe," and you're like, "What? Twins were so unusual in the 19th Century that they could be exhibited?"

And of course Life on the Mississippi is wonderful but blatantly padded with material he'd written for other books, like a long section from (IIRC) Huck and Jim going down the river on the raft.
posted by not that girl at 8:03 PM on March 16, 2010


I can totally see someone loving The Da Vinci Code if it's the first novel they ever really paid attention to - or read because they were interested in the story, instead of being forced to read it by someone else.

I once had a student recommend a fantasy novel that completely blew his mind. So I read it. It was a tired, completely unoriginal re-tread of tropes and characters going back to Tolkein but filtered through dozens of increasingly mediocre novels, like a bunch of borderline-illiterate people had first been asked to re-write Lord of the Rings from memory, and then to re-write that story from memory, and so on and so on.

But if you've never encountered those tired old tropes before, how would you know? Hopefully he went on to keep reading fantasy and eventually got to Tolkien (or something even better, the flaws of Tolkien being many) and thought, "Wow, how did I ever think that was a great book?"
posted by not that girl at 8:07 PM on March 16, 2010


Forty responses and not a John Ringo in the lot? I'm dubious.
posted by epj at 8:12 PM on March 16, 2010


I discount any list of this kind that does not include Jonathan Strange and Dr. Morell. 900+ pages of a story that could have been told in less than 300.

Until you reminded me, I didn't think I had an example of rusty's Book That Can Only Be Read Once. I thought Strange & Norrell dragged for a long time but then paid off, as some novels do, and I enjoyed it. But I tried to amuse myself by re-reading it and just couldn't make myself do it.
posted by not that girl at 8:13 PM on March 16, 2010


Richard Ford is correct it takes just as much effort to write something bad as it does to write something good

Me to my friend Julie, in a bookstore: Sometimes I get so disgusted by how many bad books get published. But you know there's a very meaningful way in which every single author in this store is a much better writer than I am.

Julie: They actually wrote the book?

Me: That's it exactly.
posted by not that girl at 8:17 PM on March 16, 2010 [1 favorite]


I personally find [Gatsby] boring as hell

I always did too. Even went back 30 years later and read it again, in case I was too young earlier, but I still hated it. Now I see my problem, though, thanks to stbalbach — I've never believed in the "myth of work=success" (or, as the Nazis put it, "Arbeit macht frei") at all. There are much better ways to spend life than at work, I always thought; to this day I remain a) ridiculously poor but b) not at the office. With plenty of time to lie around reading much better books than TGG.
posted by LeLiLo at 12:19 AM on March 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


I've said it before; I discount any list of this kind that does not include Jonathan Strange and Dr. Morell.
posted by OHenryPacey


Seems you were reading very closely, too.
posted by haveanicesummer at 7:32 AM on March 17, 2010


LD Feral: "For myself, it's always a tossup between Flare (Thomas T Thomas, and Roger Zelazny) and A Mote in God's Eye (Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle). The two books hold the dubious position on my list of 'have never finished.' Each of these authors I love independently, but, ye gods, what terrible alchemy produced a negative from positive numbers."

Really? What independent works by Pournelle and Thomas did you love? I think it's pretty safe to say that Zelazny and Niven are known for some very strong solo work as well, but the other half of those collaborations, less so.
posted by Chrysostom at 12:28 PM on March 18, 2010


Michael Bérubé, as a side note, blogs on his own site and at Crooked Timber. He's often pretty interesting.
posted by Chrysostom at 12:34 PM on March 18, 2010


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