What’s so good about bad books?

Last week I found myself contemplating the world of Kindle publishing via two very different sources. The first was the astonishing Tumblr Kindle Cover Disasters, which you should all visit as soon as you get home from work, since I guarantee you will laugh out loud at a pitch and volume that makes it clear you’re not getting any work done. (Hats off, Max Wood. Hats off.)

The second was a Slate article by Katy Waldeman titled “Which Bad Novel is Perfect for You?”  Waldeman’s piece focused on the Kindle Scout program, which allows Amazon buyers to vote for their favorite 5,000 word excerpts of unpublished novels. Amazon then considers the top vote-getters for publication.

Waldeman argues that the Kindle Scout program is practically designed to select and publish a specific type of books: namely, bad books. Books that

sail across that fine line between being pleasurable despite their badness and being pleasurable because of their badness. … If a guilty pleasure is an occasional, delicious bag of potato chips, these books are a nacho tower fluorescent with cheap cheese, unappetizing, weirdly compelling, “so bad it’s good.” You don’t feel guilty enjoying it in spite of its flaws. Rather, you feel some mix of superior and delighted as you devour it on account of its flaws.

A.O. Scott’s thoughtful review of the “50 Shades of Grey” movie also grapples with the so-bad-it’s-good genre:

Why do so many women read these novels, even though [most people think] they have no literary value? I’m no expert, but I can venture a guess: for fun. They seem to be the kind of books you can simultaneously have fun with, make fun of, trash and cherish and adapt to the pursuit of your own pleasures.

Scott even argues that the ineptitude of the prose has been crucial to the books’ success:

Reviewers have complained about Ms. James’s pedestrian prose, but the bad writing serves an important purpose. … [It] de-sophisticates certain sexual practices, taking them out of the chateau and the boudoir and other fancy French places and planting them in the soil of Anglo-American banality. If E. L. James were a better writer, her books would be more — to use one of Anastasia’s favorite words — intimidating. And much less useful.

I think Scott and Waldeman offer compelling explanations for why readers might enjoy books that they themselves admit are bad. But it occurred to me as I read both of these pieces that while I do adore the occasional plate of radioactive-orange nachos (Rotel dip is delicious, although legally I’m not sure it’s food), I don’t generally finish books that I think are bad. I read the first couple of paragraphs, cringe at the clunky prose, and put them aside.* The only really bad book I can remember finishing is The Flame and the Flower, and I did so more to satisfy my morbid curiosity (surely it can’t all be this bad?**) than to extract gleeful pleasure from its badness.

To be clear, I’m not saying that it’s wrong to enjoy something you think is bad. It’s just not a frequency I seem to receive on. Guilty pleasures? Yes. So-bad-it’s-good novels? Don’t seem to be for me.

So I turn the discussion over to you. Are there books that you put in the so-bad-it’s-good category? Or do you just find badness a turn-off?


* Confession time: I tried reading 50 Shades of Grey to see what all the fuss was about. I bailed when I found out Anastasia didn’t have an e-mail address. I refuse to read a book about a twenty-first-century college senior who doesn’t have an e-mail address. (Yes, I really am that detail-oriented and petty.)

** For the record: yes, it was all that bad. I almost admire the level of consistency on display in its awfulness.


11 comments on “What’s so good about bad books?

  1. I think I’m closer to you. I want my guilty pleasures to be pleasures — so I don’t want to read a) badly-written books about b) controlling creepy people going out with c) blank slate girls with no personalities and agonizingly stilted internal monologues. Which is why I’ve never been remotely tempted to pick up 50 Shades of Gray. I love a good romance novel, but I want it to be well-written and not, like, atavistic about gender roles. There’s enough of that in the real world! I want my escapist fiction to be a proper escape!

    • Exactly! I’m willing to suspend disbelief for, say, a fluffy historical novel with characters who are a bit too feminist for the time period because that slight incongruity makes the novel more fun for me. OTOH, if a book’s gender relationships are all gross and patriarchal that’s pretty much all I can think about, and it makes me so annoyed that I’ll never have fun reading the book. And I don’t need my guilty pleasures to feature Jhumpa Lahiri-caliber writing, but I don’t want to be distracted by the badness of the prose while I’m trying to kill time on an airplane or unwind after a long work week.

  2. Bri says:

    I agree with you. Can’t seem to drag myself into liking the “so bad it’s good’ kind of novel, although I was tempted by a few of those Kindle Cover Disasters…

    I will say that back in the day when my fanfic consumption levels were teetering at unhealthy levels, I did enjoy the occasional fic that was tantamount to mental masturbation. No sex scenes necessarily, but I did read quite a few with ridiculous romantic wish fulfillment scenarios. And a few Mary Sues, which are the sine qua non of wish fulfillment.

    • I’m picturing “average, everyday” young women who accidentally fall into the Lord of the Rings universe and find that Legolas and Aragorn are suddenly vying for their romantic attentions …

  3. cransell says:

    I think we all have our forgiveable “bad” writing. I like mysteries a lot and I don’t expect the writing to be AMAZING, but I have no interest in 50 Shades because of what I’ve heard about the problematic issues with consent and fucked up relationshipness. So it’s less that it’s poorly written (although there is also a level of REALLY poorly written than I will abandon), and more that I have issues with what the author is espousing. (I am way more fun and read way more fluff that this comment suggests).

    • Yeah, I like to think I would have bailed when I got to the really messed up gender dynamic. But the e-mail address thing did me in before I got to the worst parts.

      • Ha! I once put down a reasonably written fluff book written by a man about a 23-year-old woman in Vermont because when she had to flee home and buy all new clothes, she bought blouses and slacks. How many 23-year-old women do you know who wear blouses and slacks for casual wear?? (Stops to think about what the technical definition of a blouse, and decide for once not to follow that google rabbit hole, and instead go back to work.)

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