Monday, June 20, 2011

Bad Books

Lately I am on a bad book reading roll. In my younger more vulnerable years I felt obligated to finish every book I started. I made it to my college graduation having put down only one book, Clarissa by Samuel Richardson. In case you’re curious, Clarissa is what they call an epistolary novel, meaning it’s written entirely in letters. From what I can remember, Clarissa is kidnapped? And her morals are compromised? I guess, she’s date-raped? I don’t know. I stopped reading when I got to Clarissa’s letter where this horrifying moment supposedly occurred. This is how boring the book was: I had to be told by my professor what happened. (I ended up writing my final paper about the other 18th century novels on the class list. Strangely, I don’t remember what those books were. All I remember is that I didn’t read the second half of Clarissa. And truth be told, I felt guilty for years about quitting this book. But apparently not guilty enough to go back and finish it.)

Well, I am here to say that I vow never to feel guilty again.

The past few weeks I’ve given up on several bad books. Some I have literally thrown across the room in disgust. I’ve also plowed through a few borderline bad ones out of sheer morbid curiosity, wondering if they could get any better and feeling despair when they didn’t. I should’ve quit on those too. It’s depressing and terrifying to me (as a would-be writer) that there are so many ways a book can go bad. I heard an editor say once that in order for her to want to publish a book, she has to LOVE it. This stands to reason because she will likely read a manuscript at least a half dozen times (or I suppose, more) before the book is out in the stores. If she’s not head over heels nuts about it at the first reading, why bother?

So when I read a few pages into what’s turning into a bad book, my first thought is: Who the heck LOVED this?

I used to be in a book club with a bunch of writers. They were merciless in their criticism, picking apart things in a book that I hadn’t even noticed. They didn’t seem to enjoy many books, which I thought was a shame. I think of myself as a reader first. Every time I pick up a book I want it to be good. I’m looking for reasons to like it. So I can forgive a lot of things.

Take bad writing. I just put a book down that had the writing maturity level of a Scooby Doo episode. Pretend example: “Thanks so much,” she said, thankfully. There were whole paragraphs devoted to meals eaten, lists of descriptive features of an airplane, and cataloguing of the contents of a bedroom closet. In two paragraphs the author used the word “creamy” three times. Okay. Not good. But I can forgive bad writing if the book is a page-turner. Not to go off on a Twilight tangent, but I liked that series because I couldn’t put it down. I’d never knock that writer because she did something that few writers can do, she hooked the reader (well, millions and millions of readers) from the first page. I don’t know how you do this exactly. Believe me, I wish I did.

“Bad” characters. No matter how cool or interesting or original a plot is, if I don’t care about the main character, then I have a hard time reading on. This doesn’t mean the main character has to be good or even 100 percent likable, but she/he has to have some quality that makes me care. Case in point: I recently quit on a book that had dozens of characters thrown into a potentially tense plot, but I had no reason to turn the pages. I didn’t care about any of them (and there were too many) so I didn’t care what happened.

Forced/overly-planned/false premise. I don’t know if I’ve just read too much, but lately I’m seeing retreads of retreads. Knock-offs of knock-offs. For the love of God, why are there so many books with a girl main character torn between two handsome tortured boys? (Okay, I know the answer: Twilight) But I keep reading this love triangle over and over and I have to wonder: is THIS a real issue for most girls? For ANY girls? Sadly, I never faced this dilemma when I was a teen. Maybe I missed out on that very common problem of two gorgeous boys fighting each other over me. Sigh. At least authors can mix this cliché up a little. A boy with two girls? (okay, no girl wants to read about that) A girl with THREE boys? How about just a girl and a boy who’s more than a one-dimensional tortured stalker with pale skin and a chiseled chest?

Here’s another thing I’m seeing a lot: absurdist, over the top, satirical stories in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy/Monty Python category. Usually a group of one- dimensional characters are caught up in some ridiculous situation. For this to work, at the very least the book has to be funny. But I’ve read several of these books lately that just make me roll my eyes.

And a note to publishers: please stop publishing books about vampires and fallen angels. Also, tread carefully around post-apocalyptic novels. I'm despairing enough about the precarious state of our world.

Okay. I’m getting off my soapbox. Here’s my new philosophy of reading: No more suffering through crappy books. There are too many good books out there and my time, damn it, is precious.

(Here are a few of my favorite books just to remind myself that there is lots of good writing out there:
1. Anything by John Green but especially An Abundance of Katherines. Funny and brilliant and real
2. Anything by Laurie Halse Anderson. The last one I read was called Prom. Don’t judge this book by its cover. Rare book that features working class kids and doesn’t pity/judge them.
3. Anything by Sara Zarr. Best: Sweethearts. Makes me wish there was real YA literature when I was a teen and yearned to know I wasn’t alone.

If anyone has another good title/author to share, I would love to hear it. Please!


  1. Tracy Schultz McIntoshJune 20, 2011 at 2:13 PM

    Hey, Jody!
    Loved this blog. I, too, can't stand to quit a book, but have found many that didn't engage me enough.

    Have you read "Nectar Through a Sieve?" Great story about abject poverty and a person's will to live through what that entails.

    Do you like Wendell Berry? I love his Port William novels. They have such an incredible sense of place and the connectedness of people over time.

    I also love Ann Tyler (Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant), Mary Ann Taylor-Hall (Come and Go, Molly Snow), Lee Smith (Fair and Tender Ladies), and Ursula Hegi (Hotel of the Saints).

  2. What I said twice but it didn't register was that I used to be a big fan of Alice Hoffman but lately I'm not crazy about her books. Here goes an anonymous comment

  3. Tracy, thanks for the recommendations. Anne Tyler is one of my favorite writers. I think I've read everything she's written. I reviewed one of Wendell Berry's books when I was doing reviews for Kentucky Monthly. Love him.
    And anonymous (ahem, I mean, Mother, thank YOU for reminding me to try Alice Hoffman again.