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Friday, November 21, 2008

The Good Side of Bad Books

OK, enough of looking at book covers for a day or two. The Guardian's Stuart Evers has written a very, very funny article about "the good side of bad books." It's a hoot, and you should read it now.

But then you should come back here and tell us about the one (or two) novels that made you want to set yourself on fire, punch yourself in the face, or question why you learned to read in the first place.

I'll go first. After being hounded by my sci-fi-inclined friends for years, I read Robert Heinlein's Stranger In A Strange Land. When done, I immediately went out and bought two hamsters and a cage so that something could rip that book apart and pee on it. If there was an editor within 50 miles of that thing, I'll eat my shorts. I'll eat yours too.

I'm not anti-science fiction. I don't read a whole bunch of it, but I don't have a problem with it per se. J.G. Ballard holds a special place on my bookshelves. But this book? Ugh. I wish I remembered more about why I hated it so deeply, but I do trust my memory of discomfort and loathing.

OK. I'm done. Your turn.

41 comments:

Leslie said...

I suggested Money: A Suicide Note, by Martin Amis for my bookclub after reading rave reviews about it. Holy crap, was that book terrible. Not only was the main character one of the most unlikable, repulsive creations I have ever had the misfortune to encounter, but the whole book was depressing and soul deadening. I was the only one in my bookclub to finish it, and I only did that since I felt obligated as the one who suggested it. I wanted to scrub my eyeballs clean after reading it.

Joseph said...

How funny: did you read Evers' article? Amis makes an appearance...

Cabbage Babble said...

1. Red and Black by Stendhal
2. I Just Want My Pants Back by Rosen

Zack said...

Create an unlikable main character. Set him in a universe so confusing and abstract that it makes David Lynch films look as lucid as a Dick and Jane book. Now amp up the violence past eleven, just break the knob off. And that unlikable character, get him to have sex with his own mother. In detail. Oh, and then have him rape his sister. Ta-da, you're Haruki Murakami and you've just written the critically acclaimed Kafka on the Shore. And for that I shall never forgive you.

Mitch said...

Long comment:

Ray Bradbury's Dandelion Wine was a snooze and a retch (as in - it made me).

Christopher Durang has written two of my favorite plays (Beyond Therapy and The Marriage of Bette and Boo), but his other plays almost make me want to throw those two out.

I wonder what separates the good books with literary pretensions from the bad. Say, comparing titles side-by-side:

'Blood Meridian, or, The Evening Redness In The West'

vs.

'By Grand Central Station I Sat Down And Wept.'

They're at least equally pretentious. So the question is 'what's the difference?'; can we just say 'talent'?

Also: is there any empathy for these bad writers, who try so hard but end up being panned and - worse - dismissed?

Jeanie W said...

"I immediately went out and bought two hamsters and a cage so that something could rip that book apart and pee on it."

That's the most hilarious sentence I've read in weeks. And I read a lot. Thanks for the belly laugh.

Mike Cane said...

Quantum by Tom Grace. The worst thing ever "written."

Anonymous said...

"After being hounded by my sci-fi-inclined friends for years, I read Robert Heinlein's Stranger In A Strange Land. When done, I immediately went out and bought two hamsters and a cage so that something could rip that book apart and pee on it. If there was an editor within 50 miles of that thing, I'll eat my shorts. I'll eat yours too."

I... I think I love you.

Joseph said...

Anon 11:59 Blush :-)

Lorelei said...

Thank GOD! I thought it was me hating and hating and hating that book some more. All my dork friends told me it was the story of their lives - I am sad.

Also, I so G.D. HATE the Windup Bird Chronicles, it is not even funny. That makes me the devil, and stupid, but it seems like creative writing 101 sealed in a pickle jar and gone rancid.

Joseph said...

That's two strikes against Murakami! I sped through Kafka on the Shore and don't remember much of it; Wind-Up Bird, though, I like VERY much.

Arcanum-XIII said...

Brett Easton Ellis : Lunar Park.

I have no word to tell what I was thinking after I've at long last finish it.
Guinea Pig starving, a lot, the author, a pit. That's how it should have ended.

Anonymous said...

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, by Robert Pirsig

Anonymous said...

Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld

Lisa Dempster said...

I know many people will disagree, but The Secret History by Donna Tartt made me want to poke my own eyes out with a set of chopsticks.

Ian Brian Shimkoviak said...

Bad or good, book design turns me on. The uglier it is, the more inappropriate it is, the more I want to delve into it and see if the cover does it justice. Not everything. But it is like a rummage sale or a garage street sale. I want to see what I can score.

Books covers are a glimpse into the times. especially the old one, before post-modernism. There was so much to look at that actually gave a great view of the era in which it was published in...

and for the record, my "word verification" for this post was "satin".

Becky said...

do you know what makes me mad is that there are terrible books out there like this that get published, but yet there some really great books that the publishers reject and won't even see the light of day. Mary Patrick Kavanaugh's newest book is the perfect example of this.

Nick said...

Luna Park would definitively have made me by 2 hamsters if I had thought of it. Too bad I already used it as toilet paper, a little rough but sooo satisfying. Too bad my sewer doesn't connect directly to Ellis' dinner table.

Tropolist said...

Idiots tend to have a hard time reading Murakami novels. They should just stick to Stephanie Meyer books.

Patrick said...

I got halfway through Wind-Up Bird Chronicle before I poked my eyes out.

However, the worst experience I've ever had reading a book was The Spoils of Poynton by Henry James

annastacia said...

Couldn't resist this opportunity.

BREAKING DAWN by Stephenie Meyer is a book that should be consigned to the recycling heap in my opinion. Take a really good series and then spoil it with a final book that is over 700 pages of behavior and actions that has little to do with the first three books.

Starbuck said...

Chuck Palahniuk makes me want to give up reading and never pick up a book again.

John Rozum said...

"The Historian" - by Elizabeth Kostova. This book changed my policy of finishing every book that I start. Clearly this first draft was rushed to publication in order to cash in on "The DaVinci Code." It could have been a third the length. the antagonist shows up for about three pages and does nothing. To top it all off, the protagonist is completely superfluous to the book. She could have been removed entirely and the book would have been improved and shortened immediately.

More frustrating for me though are books that are well written but as you approach the end you realize that the tiny amount of pages between your right thumb and forefinger can't possibly be enough to wind the story up to a satisfying conclusion. The biggest offenders that come to mind: "The Stand" by Stephen King and "Geek Love" by Katherine Dunn. Terrific books all the way up to finishes that might as well have read "Okay, I'm bored writing this and ready to move on to my next novel. The end."

Steph Mineart said...

I bought Infinite Jest because so many people were talking about it. Then our book club decided we should read some David Foster Wallace, but because Infinite Jest was so long, we all picked up Broom of the System.

Or, as we all now call it, "Broom of the Fucking System." I was the only one who finished it, and I was more pissed at the "ending" than were the folks who quit halfway through.

And now I don't know what to do with Infinite Jest. I used to joke that I didn't want to start it because if it was as bad as BOTFS I'd have to find David Foster Wallace and punch him. Too late.

Grey Thornberry said...

I'll throw in another Heinlein novel as my worst reading experience, The Number of the Beast. My defense mechanisms have mercifully blotted out most of the details, something about an alternate universe hopping car and the spectacularly dull adventures of the tedious characters.
I'll offer as my second worst Tommy Knockers by Stephen King, there's a man badly in need of strong editing.

alan said...

I was coerced, tricked, involved in a shrewdly devised plan that forced me to read "The Da Vinci Code." Now, let me say that I have a place in my heart for things that are "bad." I can enjoy a bad movie based on its own (de)merits. I can sit down with some Stephen King or Clive Barker paperback after I finish some Chekov and feel quite comfortable about the whole thing.

However, Dan Brown spewed out one hellishly trite piece of tripe with "Duh Code," one I had a problem swallowing. In principle, I found the general idea appealing: secret society, espionage in the age chivalry, messianic figure getting to know a lady in the biblical sense... But the end product, ugh. It's like someone took an intricate Da Vinci illustration and then proceeded to color all of the interest out of it. With old Crayolas. Outside the lines. Obscuring it to such an extent that you could not be sure what it had initially been. Making you want to---shocking, I know---BURN A BOOK. Fahreneit 451, yes, I understand now.

And to top it off, MILLIONS of copies sold. MILLIONS. I lost faith in humanity that year.

alan said...

addendum: Going by Evers' ruling that a truly bad book must be attempting a degree of literary achievement beyond mass market fodder, I'll change my answer to "Moon Palace" by Paul Auster. It is difficult for me to admit, because I love the man and consider all of his books to be sacred and nothing short of genius (especially "Oracle Night"). "Moon Palace" just bored me. It was all the more arduous a process to get through it knowing what Paul A. is capable of achieving. Such a literary bummer...

GBG said...

"Him, Her, Him Again, The End of Him" by Patricia Marx is hailed as a great comedy. The more I read, the more it seemed trying so hard its elbows were red from ribbing me. I ceased caring about any of the characters, and why I finished it, I don't know.

Anonymous said...

To add to annastacia's comment, throw in the first two Twilight books. Honestly, how many pages can be devoted to "I'm too dangerous for you." "No, you're not: I love you!" conversations?? Eugh...don't know what everyone sees in the series...

Anonymous said...

RE: Stranger in a Strange Land, which version did you read? The original, which won the Hugo in 1962, had been cut down to 160,000 words from its original 220,000. The uncut version was released by Heinlein's wife after his death. My understanding is that the unedited version highlights the importance of having a good editor. ;)

Anonymous said...

Ugly-ass cover, too. I'm not even sure if hamsters would touch that thing.

Anonymous said...

Canadian high schoolers are (or were, at least), required to read 'Who Has Seen the Wind," by W.O. Mitchell. I can distinctly remember chucking that book across the room out of sheer, mind-numbing boredom and hatred. Oh, the HATE. The prairies, the Depression, the cold, the wheat and on and on. This book is universally detested by an entire generation - though it is, so say the critics, a masterpiece of the Canadian experience. It's no wonder you all think we're dull. Who has seen the wind? NO ONE. And the public school system owes me big for all that emotional trauma. Gah.

DRL said...

For me, it was Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier. I was dating a girl long-distance and we decided to read the same book together. And so we chose this. We finished, got on the telephone, and both said, "I didn't like it."

On the sentence level, it's gorgeous. The man can write, but page after page, they just never added up to anything for me. What a waste.

Dan K said...

During a period when I was reading a lot of Russian lit, and loving Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, et. al., I made the mistake of reading Dr. Zhivago. What a load of obvious, poorly written treacle! And it won a Nobel Prize!

I also hated The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende.

Go Ahead, Eat 'Em! said...

Okay, time to eat your shorts. The originally-published version was edited down by sixty thousand words in accordance with editorial demands.

Not liking it is fine, but it was certainly edited.

Joseph said...

Fair enough. I'll take mine with cranberry sauce tomorrow :-)

Hoosier Paul said...

Any of the Harry Potter books ... shudder ... enough said.

jw said...

The Castle in the Forest was one of the biggest let-downs of my reading life.

The Devil? Cool.

Hitler? Cool.

Incest? Cool.

The sum? Some seriously dull crap that should never have made it out of the closet. Way to tarnish your reputation, douchebag.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, guys, but the worst novel ever is McAllister Ransom's "Fuzzy Mules, Pink Slippers Vol. 1: Came a Clown."
http://blogs.pitch.com/plog/2009/01/studies_in_crap_ods_with_fuzzy.php

Anonymous said...

World War Z, by Max Brooks. How anyone could write that many characters who all use exactly the same voice is beyond me. Finished it only out of habit.

Anonymous said...

I don't think I would have pointed to Heinlein as an example of good science fiction. I would have started you off with Foundation by Isaac Asimov. As for bad books, my nomination is Halo Effect by M.J. Rose. I only made it through 4 chapters, and only went that far so I could confirm that the cliche she was flaying would actually play out to its hackneyed end. This book appeared to come straight from some guide to creative writing class.