Saturday, April 01, 2006

Bad novels

Recently an anonymous reader left me a pair of questions in the comments:

What's the worst book you've ever read?

And do you know of any really bad books by otherwise great writers?

It has been a minor running theme in the comments section, my slightly absurd tendency to praise almost everything I read (often in glowing superlatives) and my reluctance to say anything bad about a book: in fact, it seems that when I do post a fairly negative review of something, I usually get some (what would I call it?) appreciative egging-on in the comments. "More negative reviews!"

So in any case I got the idea from that pair of questions that I might try and write a comical post about books I hate ... but it turned out as I mulled it over to be an unsustainable premise.

I could give you a huge long list of reasons why I couldn't write that post, and it would be something like this (don't worry, I am going to mention a few bad books before the end of the post, I'm not that mild-mannered and scrupulous):

I would rather read a good book than a bad one.

Corollary: If I find myself reading a bad one, I stop.

I used to read a lot of pretty low-quality crime fiction (the kind of thing you get randomly off the new-books shelf at the public library or from the 1960s casualties selling used mass-market paperbacks on the street in New York), but the litblogs (especially Sarah Weinman's) have since saved me from this fate, and the quality of my light reading has now shot up to the point where I rarely read a bad book.

Even a quite well-known author is vulnerable to feeling horrible when their book is slammed. A blog is not a personal conversation between friends, it is a public medium. I have no desire to ruin someone's day purely for the sake of being funny about how much I hated their book. I do sometimes post negatively about very much hyped books, but more in the "buyer beware" mode--I know that nothing I say will affect the person's sales, and I feel (it's related to the fact of being a professor/scholar, I think, sometimes I just get this rather puritanical urge to make my honest opinion on something I feel is overrated part of the public record) that it is worth dissenting from the critical love-fest that newspaper book-review sections seem to indulge in without reason when it comes to certain books.

An obscure bad novel does not deserve to be singled out in a rant; writing a novel is hard, it is the job of agents and editors to help writers make their books as good as possible, and neglect is a more suitable treatment than scorn when all is not well with the final product.

That said, I do occasionally feel moved (as I've suggested above) to dissent from some perceived critical orthodoxy. The books I find notably bad tend to fall under two main categories: failures of ethical orientation; failures of style and more particularly of voice.

By failures of ethical orientation, I am referring to books (oh, we're talking only about novels here, non-fiction books go under a different set of rules) that manipulate the audience in ways I feel are ethically questionable; novels whose narrators have a fundamentally sentimental or coy relationship with the main characters, novels whose whimsy covers up or even misrepresents something important about the psychological and ethical aspects of relations between people. Usually, though, I just avoid books that give me a whiff of this: it is pretty easy to spot them up front.

(An example: I am sure he is really extremely talented, I mean that, I bet I am never going to write a novel that will be read and enjoyed by as many people as his first one was, but it is unlikely that I will ever read a novel by Jonathan Safran Foer. And speaking of a book I have actually read, I will say that I thought this was one of the worst books I have ever read: pretentious, sentimental, generally overrated. The books that I most dislike are ones that seem to proclaim on the face of it "pay attention to me, I am more virtuous than run-of-the-mill fiction, I am about important things and I will touch and move you before you go to back to your ordinary workaday life." Makes my skin crawl.)

By failures of voice, I refer to something both more obvious and more pervasive. I love Martin Amis, several of his books are among my favorites & I've been reading and rereading his fiction with great enjoyment for a long time now, but Night Train was not a good novel: the first-person voice was bizarrely unconvincing, so much so that you wondered whether it was even meant to be naturalistic. Equally I will say that Vernon God Little was not a good novel, but I'm willing to cut a first-time novelist a lot more slack: it was the Booker Prize win (surely motivated in large part by the committee's desire to pick a nice anti-American book?) that made me (a) read the book and (b) feel that it was not unfair to criticize DBC Pierre for a style/first-person voice that for me never came to life--and that certainly didn't conjure up the putative teenage Texan narrator.

There are a number of authors I won't or can't read because I don't like them, but that's very different from saying they're bad. (Richard Ford. Cormac McCarthy. John Updike. Just can't read those guys.) There are hastily written, poorly constructed and generally off-putting crime novels, there are absurd fantasy novels with ridiculous elves (though I have read and loved many novels with elves in them in my time), there are tedious techno-thrillers with far too much hardware and not enough character development, but why bother to read them? Even a pretty weak book usually has something good about it.

The main point: I love novels. Novels are pretty much my favorite thing in the world. You could think of it along the lines of the kind of womanizer who really does love all kinds of women, almost indiscriminately. I am a novelizer, I love all different kinds of novels, and though it may be a bit ridiculous it is certainly more enjoyable than the deadly alternative (we all know the person who somehow can't enjoy anything, who can only carp and criticize even when it comes to really good stuff). I actually found it heartening, then, to see how hard I found it even to think of a list of all the bad novels I've read in my life. Hardly any. Whereas the list of good ones (some of them better or more enjoyable or more significant or whatever than the others, but still all with much good about them & well worth reading) would include thousands rather than simply hundreds. Very heartening.


  1. What do you think about Denis Johnson? A polarizing figure, I've found, somewhat along the lines of your quote of Chabon above.

  2. Only book of DJ's I've read is "Jesus' Son" & (partly since I am a VU FANATIC?) I thought it was beautifully well-written & I liked it a lot. However it is not really so much my kind of thing, I prefer the more officially noir & less literary version of same; I don't seem to remember much about the book, for instance (I expect that was about ten years ago I read it, but I would think I'd usually remember more of such things), & haven't been moved to read more. Then again, I am not a good short-story reader, so perhaps that's part of it? What do you think of Denis Johnson yourself?

  3. Jesus' Son has, I'd submit, ruined the writing careers of more aspiring MFAs over the last ten or so years than any other single book. I was astonished by it when I first read it and actually gave up writing fiction for a while afterwards.

    He's also a novelist and poet. Already Dead is extraordinary; Fiskadoro is highly inventive in the post-apocalyptic genre; The Stars at Noon is very Greene-Didion-Stone; Angels, Resuscitation of a Hanged Man, and The Name of the World are minor, disturbing, and difficult books. I personally enjoy his poetry and the essays collected in Seek, but I can see that they're not to everyone's taste.

  4. To expand a bit on the previous comment, Jesus' Son is the apotheosis of what the type of character described by Chabon wants to create, more often than not.