Off Topic on Bad Books (Was RE: dwj-digest (Diana Wynne Jones) V 1 #70)

Melissa Proffitt Melissa at Proffitt.com
Wed Sep 1 19:30:17 EDT 1999


On Wed, 1 Sep 1999 15:08:38 -0400 , McMullin, Elise wrote:

>	It's a rare day when I actually call a book bad instead of just
>declaring it not to my taste.  A lot of perfectly decent books didn't hit
>the target with me, but they were not bad.  I met my match for badness last
>month when  I read the sequel to Silence of the Lambs.  Oh, it was a bad,
>bad, rotten, lousy book that should have been taken off life support if
>anyone had had any sense of compassion or mercy.  Sure, it's just an
>opinion, but I feel I could make a very strong case for its incorrigible
>badness if necessary.  And that's just on the (de)merits of what lies
>between the covers.  If one considers that the author was paid $20 million
>to write this dreck, it only adds to the unspeakable, noxious miasma of
>badness.  In sum, it was bad. Did I mention how bad it was?
>
>None of this negates Melissa's point about it all being a matter of opinion.
>Apparently many people think differently than I, since the book is still on
>top of the best seller lists.  It is still an aesthetic abomination though,
>no matter how it's dressed.

No, no, no.  There are objective reasons for calling a book bad.  Aesthetic
abomination is definitely up there.  :)  And you pointed out that you could
make a case for its general badness--that makes it bad.  There are SO MANY
horrible books that people nevertheless love.  (Let's just not get started
on the piles of dreck that adorn bestseller lists or we'll all end up
heaving into the nearest river, and the municipal water authorities would
come after us.)  Sequels to things--good heavens, has anyone ever tried to
read _Pemberley_, the sequel to _Pride and Prejudice_?  I'm certain there
must have been someone out there who liked it.  But in the first place, the
author didn't come close to matching Austen's style--and in the second
place, what is left to say about Elizabeth and Darcy?!?  There's a Bad Book
if I ever saw one.

Okay, I changed my mind.  Let's take John Grisham, shall we?  This guy has
made so many millions I can't even think about it.  People are buying and
reading his books like crazy.  (At least they are in the US, and if they're
not in other countries, that just says something about other nations' good
taste.)  But the man couldn't write his way out of a wet paper bag even if
you gave him a flamethrower and a box of steak knives.  This doesn't change
the fact that people like his books!  (Unfortunately)  Their opinion may be
that they like his stuff, but it should not, in my opinion, mean that the
book is "good" because it just isn't.  (So if any of you like John Grisham,
you can flame me in private.  Okay, so I liked _The Firm_.  So shoot me.)

It's when you take a book that is at least reasonably well-written, but just
doesn't do anything for you personally, that I think it's wrong to start
throwing words like "bad" and "good" around.  This is probably because I
majored in English and I want to do something for job security, but I figure
a lot of what I learned there is useful for qualitatively saying things
about a book.  (And, as I said in another reply, you can learn this stuff
without getting a diploma in literature.)

I am just leading this little crusade because...I think it's more precise to
make the distinction between books you like and books that are in some
objective sense good.  Two different elements to each book:

Hated it--poorly written (bad)
Hated it--well written (good)
Loved it--poorly written (guilty pleasure)
Loved it--well written (good taste) :)

Okay, have I opined enough for today?  I hope that wasn't a waste of
bandwidth there.  Because thanks to you people and your enchanting and
engaging personalities and posts, my family will be eating packaged Ramen
noodles tonight instead of sweet and sour meatballs with rice.

Melissa Proffitt,
non-cook
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