Crap books and good books (was Re: Best Books of 2004)

Melissa Proffitt Melissa at Proffitt.com
Tue Jan 18 15:05:39 EST 2005


Okay, so I went to my book group last Thursday, and when I came in they were
talking about Kathleen's other group and that they would be reading _The Da
Vinci Code_ for their next meeting.  And a couple of the women REALLY liked
it and I, of course, cannot stand not talking about things.  We were fairly
civil, so nobody died, but what with that and what Roslyn very bravely said,
I have been thinking about a few things for the beginning of the new year.

After I went into gruesome detail about why _The Da Vinci Code_ was my worst
book of the year, Roslyn posted this:

On Mon, 3 Jan 2005 12:59:21 +1100, ROSLYN wrote:

>Er...I really wouldn't say this is the worst book I've read this year, or 
>that is it as bad as people have been saying. I agree with the criticisms 
>made of it, but I enjoyed it just the same--it was good fun (says she, 
>ducking and running!).

And I think it's a brave thing to say that you like something others hate
(and vice versa), so that was good.  But what I was thinking about was what
it means that a book is, in my opinion, "the worst of the year" or even "a
bad book."

See, my opinion as a reader and as a critic is that enjoying a book is
almost always completely separate from whether or not it is a Good book.  We
like books because of who we are, but books are Good based on how well or
poorly they fit certain criteria.  Was the characterization consistent?
Could you picture accurately the people and settings described?  Did the
story progress in a rational manner so you weren't ever confused about who
was talking or what was happening?  And so forth.  Okay, yes, a book that is
really badly written, in "The Eye of Argon" sense, will probably not be
enjoyable.  But when it comes to issues of literary style, a great novel
will not necessarily be a well-loved novel, or even a universally-loved
novel.

When I'm talking about how bad a book is, it has little to do with whether
or not it's enjoyable.  Or whether or not it *should* be enjoyed.  In my
gut, yes, I would prefer that no one ever read that particular book, but I
feel it's irresponsible for me to tell another person who *did* enjoy it
that they shouldn't have.  To do so descends to the level of literary
condescension, and I find that appalling.

The thing is, I don't know how best to separate the two.  I could easily
give a list of Great Books that I detest, starting with _Wuthering Heights_,
and point out that it works both ways--Bad books can be loved, Good books
can be hated.  But it still comes down to the fact that words like "good"
and "bad" have both an objective and a subjective sense.  That apple is good
because it has no blemishes or worm-holes.  That apple is good because it's
so very delicious.  That apple is good because it's unblemished, but bad
because I hate apples.  And so forth.

Of course Ros enjoyed _The Da Vinci Code_.  It's a very good thriller, and
the inclusion of a conspiracy theory that has been well-documented makes it
seem more like real life.  I saw a show based on _Holy Blood, Holy Grail_
that went all over Brittany and France and showed castles and how they were
arranged in a pattern that you could see from the air--it was all very
interesting.  The ideas are interesting.  Yes, it's still a truly crappy
book in one sense, but not in any way that would *ensure* that no reader
could enjoy it, such as unintelligible prose or poorly attributed dialogue.

But this, of course, leads to yet another problem with criticism--sounding
condescending and arrogant about how you, the educated and discerning
reader, were put off by something in a book that of course the *layperson*
or *average reader* wouldn't notice.  In bald terms, it's true: reading as a
critic is different than not, and you learn to value certain aspects of
reading and writing differently.  But I think that because we see change as
growth, as progression, that anyone who is skilled at something faces the
possibility of seeming morally superior to others.  As in, I am a better
person than you because I can do this one thing better than you.  I don't
know whether that's more often a projection on the part of the skilled
person, or an inferiority complex on the part of the unskilled person, but
it crops up in the weirdest places.

(True story: In my church we have a women's organization called the Relief
Society, in which we gather together monthly for lessons and classes.  Often
these classes are craft classes for making crafty things like seasonal
ornaments or trendy art projects.  I was talking to a friend recently who
said that in her congregation, the Relief Society had banned all such
mini-classes, because they were afraid that the women would feel bad that
they weren't as talented as the teachers.  Then she said this even extended
to classes like book reviews or talent presentations.  So much for learning
to grow and develop our gifts.)

The idea of having "good taste" in literature is something I started to
question in college, when it turned out that to some people, "good
literature" exclusively meant contemporary books about ordinary people
living lives that to me seemed horribly depressing.  Or stuff written by
people who were long dead.  "Good taste" meant taking the idea of concrete,
quantifiable literary qualities and narrowly selecting which of those
qualities really mattered--and then expecting everyone else to agree.  In
that same book group, we were talking about the incestuousness of certain
groups of literary fiction writers, how they all talk about one another's
works as though there is no fiction produced outside their circle, and one
of the women pointed out that the same thing does happen among SF writers.
Which is true.  But it occurred to me later that no matter how insulated the
SF community gets, you NEVER hear about them talking about their own fiction
as though it's the pinnacle of creation, the only true and living fiction
ever created, of which all else is a pale shadow.  (And yes, that useful
metaphor comes from an SF writer.)

I still haven't finished working through this thought, so I don't know where
I'm going with all of this.  It just seems to me that reading preferences
ought always to be inviolable, up until the point that you start insisting
that what you like is by definition Good (i.e. of intrinsic quality and that
others should like it too).  I know darn well that the Stardoc novels are
terrible emotional manipulation and not at all quality literature.  I think
they're fun.  I know that I should appreciate Robertson Davies more, and I
think he's a fantastic writer, but I just don't enjoy his books.   And I
admit that I am mystified that more people aren't bothered by _The Da Vinci
Code_ in the way I am, mainly because it's frustrating to see that kind of
gap between myself and others.  But it's not like I can't see why it's
appealing.

Anyway, after the first of the year I finally read _The Bourne Identity_ and
it restored my faith in thriller writers.  :)  And poor Marie really got
shafted in her character's translation to the big screen.

Melissa Proffitt
(done pontificating, for now)

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