The Purpose of Bad Books

I’ve had several folks respond to the discussion of bad reviews and bad books pretty much as Trudi Canavan did in the comments: “I stop reading. Life is too short for bad books.”

To which I can only respond, well, yes, obviously. One of the great pleasures, for me anyway, of being an adult is finally realising I am under no moral compulsion to finish every book I start. I can put boring books down! I can walk away from bad books without being sullied by reading the whole thing! Oh happy day!

On the other hand—and I know this is not just me—sometimes I really enjoy reading a bad book. It has to be a particular kind of bad. Boring bad, for instance, need not apply. The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand remains one of my favourite books because it is so campily ridiculous. You cannot read the dialogue out loud without dying laughing. No one in the history of the universe has ever talked like that. But the idea that somewhere, somehow, people are talking like that makes me laugh my arse off.

I am also very enamoured of Flowers in the Attic, which I adored when I was a kid, and genuinely thought was the best book ever. As an adult I deeply enjoy its insanely over the top plot, its risible dialogue and its jaw-droppingly improbable descriptions of pretty much everything. These traits hold true for all the V. C. Andrews books. Well, it does for the ones she actually wrote herself. She was a bad writing genius. Reading those books is really fun. It’s even more fun to read them out loud.

I have previously detailed a wonderful train ride with such YA luminaries as Holly Black, Cassandra Clare, Maureen Johnson and Scott Westerfeld in which we took turns reading aloud an excruciatingly bad book. That’s how I know I’m not alone in this sick enjoyment of badness.

It is, of course, more than their campy dreadfulness that makes bad books useful. Without bad books we would not be able to appreciate good books.

You need context to be able to see when something is really well done and when it is a disaster. Part of learning to read is learning to be a discerning reader. Like I said, as a kid I had no idea that Flowers in the Attic was bad. I loved it. I thought it was genius. This is pretty typical of many beginning readers. We love a lot of what we read. We often think what we’re reading is the Best Book We’ve Ever Read. And, you know what, when you’ve only read a few dozen books, that could well be true.

We writers can learn a lot about writing from reading bad writing. When a book is not working for you it is revealing a lot about its construction. It’s much harder to figure out what makes a good book tick because you get so lost in it every time you read it that you stop seeing how the words are chosen and put together. With bad writing all of that is up front and centre there’s no gorgeous phrasing to distract you. Just before you put the next bad book down in disgust ask yourself why. What was it that made the book unreadable? This is a really excellent way to figure out what not to do in your own writing.

I am, of course, talking as if we all agree about what’s good or bad in a book. Would that it were so.

Nah, not really. Where would the fun be in that? Spirited arguments about the goodness or not of Moby Dick are part of the spice of life.1

Are there any other uses of bad writing that I missed?

  1. “Spice of life”?! Cliche alert! Yes, I know, one of many. It’s a blog post! I don’t have to get all fancy. []


  1. Misha on #

    I don’t know. After reading this I thought [title redacted] was one of those ‘bad books’ that I wanted to keep reading while I was reading it. Perhaps my mindset was all wrong at that moment. I had to put it aside though because I cannot read writing that I don’t appreciate while I’m actually trying to write. And that is my question. Should you really read what you consider to be ‘bad writing’ (which is somewhat subjective) while trying to write? Thanks for your thoughts in advance.

  2. Justine on #

    Misha: Good question. First up I deleted the title you mentioned just so there’s no chance of people exploding into a THAT BOOK IS EXCELLENT! ARE YOU INSANE? argument.

    I think it really depends on where you are with your writing. I found that early on in my writing life I was like a sponge. If I was reading Raymond Chandler everything I wrote was like his work. Ditto with Angela Carter. Really, ditto with everyone I read. Good or bad.

    Sometimes when I’m writing I can’t read anything in my genre. Other times I find other YA books really inspiring. It depends on what I’m writing and where I am with it.

    I often find reading bad books inspiring too. In a I CAN DO SO MUCH BETTER way. Or even in a OMG I JUST USED THAT SAME SIMILE IT’S TERRIBLE I MUST DELETE IT NOW way.

    I’ve been writing pretty constantly now for more than 30 years so my style is pretty solid. I don’t get influenced the way I used to. But I certainly was for many years.

    Sorry if this isn’t helpful. I guess what I’m saying is it depends.

  3. Miriam Forster on #

    Agreed! I’ve learned a lot from bad books in the past. Now my favorite use for them is to watch other people make fun of them. Can’t rememeber where I read it, but I read someone’s several-part, very appalled, take on Flowers in the Attic and just about died laughing.

    I wish there was a Mystery Science Theate for books. 🙂

  4. Misha on #

    Thank you so much for your reply and also for the redaction as it was not my intent to offend or cause blowback. This was very helpful. I would agree completely as I see the same tendency when I write and I am a new writer (at the very least I’m glad that I was conscious of what I was doing. That’s a timesaver!). I hope to get to the point where I have fully developed my own voice and can read more freely because my first novel was written after reading many stories that I thought I could write better. I have learned quite a lot from reading unpolished works of fiction both in style, substance and technique. Some of my best moments of contemplation came while trying to understand where another writer (good or bad) was coming from.
    Also, to Miriam. A Mystery Science Theatre for books does exists. It’s called Tumblr. I created a blog for a notoriously horrible NY Times Bestseller just last month. Unfortunately (for that blog), I could not get beyond chapter three.
    Thanks again.

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