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

Allison Marles apm at alumni.uwaterloo.ca
Tue Jan 18 15:29:43 EST 2005


I found this post highly interesting to read.  In conjunction with the
discussions of Georgette Heyer, it has made me think about reading them.
I have often felt rather furtive or embarassed about reading "romance"
novels.  And I don't really read any others because either I've not
found them well-written, or they have boring characters, or they are Hot
and Steamy, which is not at all to my reading taste.  However, I still
have often felt the need to explain to people that G.H does not write
the sort of trashy-supermarket-corset-bursting type of romance.  Finding
out that so many other people who are clearly quite literate read and
enjoy G.H. has been very refreshing.  I suspect that a lot of Literary
Snobs don't really think books should be enjoyed so much as endured.  

It's probably one of the reasons I read so much young adult fantasy
type stuff ... it's not trying to be depressing to prove how serious
a book it is.  People have mentioned young adult "problem" books, and
that sounds like the same sort of thing to me and doesn't appeal. 
Just sorting out my thoughts on this kind of thing still.  

Allison

On Tue, Jan 18, 2005 at 01:05:39PM -0700, Melissa Proffitt wrote:
> 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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