Why “bad” books succeed

Posted: June 19th, 2009 under the writing life.
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C. S. Lewis discussed part of this, in a couple of essays, but I’m going to extend what he said, a little.

Lewis said bad books succeeded, when they did, because they had some literary virtues.   No book devoid of all literary virtues, he argued, would be read–it would be too painful.  (Unless it’s assigned by one’s teacher, I mutter…)     “Bad” writers have to be doing something right–and usually, it’s telling a story.

In general, people judge a book to be good or bad on other things than purely literary qualities…and buy and read books they think are good, rather than books they think are bad.

Here are my reasons why bad books succeed, based on my own tolerance for less-than-great books.

1) The subject is fascinating to that reader.   I will read poorly written books on a topic that interests me over well-written books on a topic that bores or disgusts me.    I would prefer a well-written book…but if the choice is between a book on horses and a book on housekeeping, I am so there with the horse book.   “Subject” can include setting (there are settings that fascinate me–I will read books set in certain locations just because I like, or want to visit, that locale.)

2) The attitude/slant suits the reader.   This is closely related to the “subject”–but it’s not the same.    People who already have an opinion they’re wedded to will think a book supporting that opinion is a good book (even if it’s badly written) and a book opposing that opinion is a bad book (no matter how well it’s written.)     When the reader’s attitude/opinions match those of the book, the reader will put up with a lot of infodump (in fiction or nonfiction) and be tolerant of sloppy writing.

3) The storytelling aspect–the flow of story–is outstanding.   For most people, the traditional story form grabs and holds attention despite flaws in the writing.   And storytelling is something you can do without developing great skill in language–at least not in written language.  More people have a grasp of what makes a satisfying story than have the skill to tell stories elegantly.

4) On the other side–some readers are extremely sensitive to the elegance of the writing and will tolerate a badly constructed story, a setting riddled with errors of fact, and lacklustre characterization if their desire for word-dazzle is satisfied.   These readers are fewer than you might expect, but they include people who have influence…and are constantly annoyed that their kind of book isn’t a bestseller.

I was looking at one of the books I’d been sent recently (I’m sent lots of books by lots of sources) and wondering how this catastrophic disaster of an excuse for a book ever made it through a publisher…but on second, third, and fourth thought, it’s obvious.

The book appeals to people who like that kind of book.

The topic, the slant, the characters…some readers would be hooked by one or all three.   That it’s slowed down with a boatload of infodump that doesn’t contribute plot-worthy information *or* mood/tone/feel (of setting, of characters)–that it’s clearly a case of the writer expecting reader to slog through all the writer’s research and invention–is beside the point.   That the writing itself (choice of words,  rhythm, tone,  ability to present action in a clear sequence) is three steps down from clunky is beside the point.   That its political position is in free-fall off one end of the spectrum is beside the point.    What matters is that it has readers for whom it’s a good book– its  publisher knows that there are enough readers who want that topic, slant, type of character, and degree of infodump to make publishing that book profitable for them.

I can’t read it–for me, it’s a bad book–but someone else will tell me it’s a good one and I should write more like Nameless Author.   Readers are diverse (what a surprise!) and some like what I consider infodump, while others won’t tolerate as much information as I enjoy.   Readers have various religious and political opinions; they see the world in different ways; they are more or less sensitive to just about anything any writer puts into a book.

So can we even say that a given book is “bad” or “good?”

I think we can say that it meets–or does not meet–certain criteria in every way that a book can be judged.   Whether this results in a “final grade” is a matter for debate.  Lewis, for instance, praised H. Rider Haggard’s ability to create dramatic situations and characters, but said that his clumsy, imprecise use of language made them less effective than they could otherwise have been.   We–readers of the world this is, which includes everyone from the college professor of literature to the youngster who has just been hooked by the first book he or she ever read for fun–can’t even agree on what books are for.    (I vote for “all of the above” on every list I’ve seen.   Entertainment and information and deeper understanding of human nature and social commentary and so on.  Since I can’t find everything I want in just one book, I read a lot of books by a lot of different people.)

1 Comment »

  • Comment by Robert Stroud — April 19, 2013 @ 9:57 pm


    I note this was posted several years ago, but stumbled across your post and enjoyed reading your insights. Thanks.

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