Celebrating Really Bad Books
This is a guest post from Zachary Littrell. Zach comes from Maryland, but greets people with “Howdy!” An educator and writer, he’s happy to talk with anybody about books and mathematics. And as someone who keeps a hammock in his living room, he’s an expert at hearing people say, “Oh cool, is that a hammock in your living room?” Follow him on Twitter @AnAnteaterMaybe.
One of my favorite TV shows of all time is Mystery Science Theater 3000. The basic premise is one that has excited viewers and fans for decades: a group of friends make fun of campy, trashy, and bad movies. It tickles my heart that this still really resonates with a lot of others today, intentionally watching head-scratching bad films like Manos: The Hands of Fate, The Room, or Birdemic and tearing them apart, and genuinely falling in love with their earnest imperfections.
Why don’t we do that with books?
Why don’t we have friends knocking on our doors and saying, “Oh my gosh, I read this awful book and you have to read it.” When we read a really bad book, most of our instincts is to growl and just warn people off and tell them they won’t enjoy it. Well darn it, that oughta change! Life can become so much richer if we embrace the trash in literature with gusto!
First, let’s face facts: there’s only so many good books. In fact, I reckon the fraction of good books over books published is infinitesimal. Everyone and their dog has dreams of being a writer, but not everyone and their dog is J.K. Rowling, Stephen King, or Dr. Seuss. So there’s a lot of trash out there. And it’d be a shame to waste a huge section of literature, especially when you can probably get your hands on some schlocky books for real cheap.
Let’s take, for example, a book I read a few years ago that I had an absolute ball reading: The Captain’s Woman by Mark Logan. Originally titled Tricolour, it’s a historical fiction novel set during the French Revolution…and apparently got retitled to appeal to an audience looking for something a little sexier (“his desires [knew] no taboos”…ohhhh boy! Strap in, folks).
And it’s wonderfully bad. Main character Nick Minnett has infinite money, zero real characterization, and keeps getting into (unintentionally) wacky shenanigans. He’s given the serious task of getting Marie Antoinette out of Paris, and we all know how that turns out, so the book painfully drags out the doomed rescue operation (as though it might just work) and dicks around about it, pardon my French. And of course, meanwhile, Nick keeps tripping and falling into PG-13 rated sex scenes.
It’s a painful book, no doubt. But there’s something fun in how earnestly the author tries to make bland, overly lucky Nick seem like a sexy 18th century hero, when the sad sack keeps bungling up everything meaningful he does. He screws up in the first chapter and get his best friend killed on an illegal smuggling operation! Why is he smuggling! Nick is already rich and well-established! He just likes to smuggle because he’s bored I guess, shrug! Shame his friend who died had just married a bashful, young redhead about Nick’s age. Hmm. And this is long before Nick helps a group of French aristocrats try to retake France…hmm…Nick, Nick, Nick…
But it was such a bad book, I’ve probably talked to friends about it as much as, if not more than, books I actually liked! We study in school and college the processes of good authors, but what about bad authors (or good authors just having an off-book)? Mark Logan uses plot devices like a jackhammer, characters as fawning exposition dump trucks, and real historical figures to somehow make his book seem hoity-toity—there’s a list of characters in the front of book with asterisks next to a character’s name if they were real, which made me laugh and think of sports records where asterisks mean the athlete got caught cheating. But it’s trash, glorious trash, and I sing its song for the world to hear!
Just to be clear: I like reading good books more than bad books, certainly. But let’s not get so self-serious that we can’t enjoy books that catastrophically misfire in interesting ways. They’re great for learning how not to write. They’re great to share with friends and grow closer together and shake your heads at gaping plot sinkholes. But they’re also an opportunity to genuinely reward an author who…however misguided…had the courage and can-do attitude to actually write a book.
What are some bad books you’ve read that you secretly adore?