Bad Books

Recently The American Book Review released an article titled “Top 40 Bad Books,” in which a host of literary critics were invited to identify “bad books.”

Some of the contributors went with the obvious: Bonnie Wheeler (SMU) listed Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code – which seems just a little bit too easy. Marc Bousquet (Santa Clara) listed David Horowitz’s right-wing screed, One Party Classroom, and Liedeke Plate (Radboud Universiteit) Pride and Prejudice and Zombies – and, again, the reader wonders whether it is even worth the ink to identify these works as bad?

Other choices appeared to deliberately court controversy: Christine Granados (Texas A&M) named Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses; Kim Herzinger (U Houston-Victoria) Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; and Tom LeClair (U Cincinnati) called Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby the “worst novel in American literature.” Shocking stuff.

(If you are wondering why there are so many professors from Texas represented on the list – I was too.)

As a scholar whose stock-in-trade are authors and books that have traditionally been deemed “bad” – as most early American women writers and their writings were – and conscious of the fact that literary “goodness” and “badness” are historically contingent categories usually employed to keep marginalized individuals, voices, and opinions on the margins, ABR’s entire project struck me as suspect. Most of the scholars and writers who participated in the experiment were as suspicious as I am – and many of them speak to precisely these issues: several celebrate the “bad book” as a culturally meaningful artifact and a great object of study in the classroom; others call into question whether “good” and “bad” even have any meaning in our pluralistic society. The article is worth reading because it offers such a wide range of responses to the issue of literary “badness.”

Having stated that I think the categories are vexed, the terms virtually meaningless, and the exercise contradictory to the work I do in my classes and writing … I’m plunging in …

Here’s my nomination for a really bad book – a book I couldn’t stand – a book about which I can talk extensively, detailing all the reasons I think it stinks: Geraldine Brooks’ March.

Is this the only bad book I could name? No.

Is this the worst book ever? Not even close.

Is there something about passionately disliking a book, that makes a reader wed to it in a way that is not unlike the relationship a reader develops with a really good book? Absolutely.

So, go ahead: name a bad book. You know you want to.

— Desiree Henderson

5 thoughts on “Bad Books

  1. Christine Ganados’ statement in that article, “I believe that the novel is a blueprint into a writer’s soul,” really resonated with me. I find the notion that we can label writing “good” or “bad” laughable, if not mildly reprehensible. It’s one thing to say an author’s work didn’t quite strike your fancy, it’s another to suggest that writing can fall into some pseudo-objective merit-based classification system.

    That said, there have been plenty of novels hailed by many readers as “beautiful” and “profound” that just irritated the hell out of me– or, perhaps worse, bored me to tears. At the top of my I-just-don’t-get-what-people-see-in-this-book list would have to be Catch 22, by Joseph Heller. It could be my slightly awkward sense of humor, but I don’t think I cracked a smile once the entire time I sludged through the classic Heller satire. I guess I’m a bad reader.

  2. Yeesh… before I even read the comment above mine, I had my “bad book” in mind. Sorry Joseph Heller, but here’s another one for you: my “bad book” nomination is his novel Something Happened.

    I can appreciate this novel for what it’s trying to do–it’s very American Beauty-esque for those of you who have seen it–but I just couldn’t get into it. I don’t even think I finished reading it (incredibly rare for me–I push through painful books sometimes just out of respect), so maybe something really DID happen and I missed it…

  3. I have a well-developed list of books I think are bad 🙂 but I’ll choose We Were the Mulvaneys by Joyce Carol Oates. It seems to fit the criterion of being big and ambitious enough to attack – I mean, I’ve certainly read worse books, but few so bad (and so acclaimed) by such a major writer. I think it’s bad for the same reason that several of Oates’s other books are bad: she seems to sneer at her characters, really not to like them, in fact not to like Americans in particular and human beings in general, and to have contempt for anything that doesn’t fit a certain high-middlebrow cultural prejudice. Misanthropy can often have a deeply humanist cast (Swift, Voltaire, Bierce, Dorothy Parker), but in the case of Oates and some other contemporary writers (John Irving comes to mind), it seems just arid to me. YMMV, of course, which is partly the point.

  4. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.

    Terrible, terrible, terrible….it’s one of these books where nothing is really at stake. it’s about a kid, probably meant to be read by a kid, but unlike other long books kids can relate to (golden compass, lord of the rings etc.) there is very little real drama or suspense. the heroine is a poor kid growing up in brooklyn, she eventually gets a job in manhattan, and everything basically works out. what it lacks in plot it does NOT make up for in character or setting development. she’s a boring kid in a boring turn-of-the-century-brooklyn who is constantly compared to a tree. good lord.

    A River Runs Through It suffers similar problems but is about 75% shorter and was made into a movie with Brad Pitt, so…yeah it’s still terrible.

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