On Reading "Bad" Books

Photo credit: Wiertz Sébastien on Flickr
So there's been this belief going around for some time now that the quality of books—especially popular books—has been decreasing over time. It's this idea that the books people enjoy reading today are somehow lesser than the novels that were popular twenty, fifty, even a hundred years ago. 

And it bothers me. 

It bothers me that people look at Twilight and The Hunger Games and Harry Potter and even Fifty Shades of Grey and say things like, the garbage that people read nowadays, and this book will never stand up to x-classic, and it bothers me that there's this belief that the books people enjoy reading now are somehow worth less than what people used to read. 

I'm not going to try to tell you that Twilight was written with the same literary finesse as Great Expectations or Brave New World—that's obviously not the case—but I truly don't believe that makes it a lesser book, and furthermore, I don't think that makes anyone who read Twilight and loved it a lesser reader for enjoying it. 

Regardless of what you think about these massively popular books, they accomplished something that shouldn't be overlooked—they got people reading. I've heard people say, I don't usually like reading, but I read Twilight (or Hunger Games or Harry Potter) and loved it. I know people who rarely read, who picked up novels that others like to call "garbage" and guess what? Not only did they enjoy it, but they realized reading isn't so bad after all. They realized the right book can actually make the reading experience—*gasp*—enjoyable. 

I picked up the Twilight series in 2010, long after the crazy fandom had already stated and the first two movies had already been released, and I realized as I was reading in public that I felt self-conscious. I was getting looks and I felt the need to defend myself and say, "What? I haven't read the series yet," and people seemed relieved when they found out I wasn't re-reading the series, as if that would be something horrific. And even then, the insinuation that I should be somehow embarrassed about reading the series in public bugged me, because no one should feel that way reading a book.

And now it's happening again, except this time it's with Fifty Shades of Grey. And I'll admit—I was tempted, especially at first, to think, why in the world are people reading that? How did that get popular? But the fact of the matter is, people who don't normally read very often are reading—and enjoying—the series, and even if I won't be picking up the book next time I head to the bookstore, maybe it'll remind people that reading isn't so bad after all. Maybe it'll make people who don't often read pause before they dismiss the idea of picking up another book. 

I'm not saying that you have to enjoy every popular series that is released—or even that you have to read every massively successful book out there—I know I haven't, and I have no plans to do so. All I'm saying is that this idea floating around that so-called "garbage" books are somehow damaging our culture or aren't worth the time spent to read them needs to stop. All I'm saying is that we should celebrate the fact that people are reading, even if we don't necessarily agree with what they're reading.

All I'm saying is a book is a book, and if it gets people reading, that's good enough for me. 
 
What do you think about reading so-called "bad" books? Do you agree with the stigma? Why or why not?

44 comments:

Laura Pauling said...

I totally agree with you. It really bothers me when authors/writers bash books. Jealousy? Snobbery? I'm not quite sure. I left a certain writer's forum because if you admitted you liked Twilight then you'd get egged.

Ava Jae said...

I don't fully understand it either. I suppose with writers it's partially jealousy (especially if they don't like the successful book), but people seem to forget it's not all competition - there's plenty of room for multiple successes in the publishing world, and no need to be cruel to the writer or any of the book's readers.

Adam C said...

I agree with everything you said. The part I find most disrespectful is book burnings. I hate those. They don't understand how disrespectful that is. I wonder how they would feel if someone burned their home down. Probably not very happy. I think people should respect other's opinions. I hear people say something against Twilight everyday. It gets annoying after awhile, and I haven't even read the books!

When you say "bad" books, do you mean ones with controversial topics, or do you mean badly-written? I have a few badly-written books that I don't like. I don't understand how they can read a book that's not written well, but that's just my opinion. At least it might've gotten them reading.

Daphne Gray-Grant said...

I have trouble with the whole "good vs. bad" continuum. It's pretty vague and imprecise so I try to avoid it. It's also pretty easily turned on ourselves (we see ourselves as "bad" writers and that's so destructive.) THAT SAID, I think the risk of reading schlock writing (whether some genre fiction, some magazines and some ad copy) is that we ABSORB the "bad" writing and start to sound like that ourselves. If you don't MIND sounding like the writer you're reading, I think it's OK. But if you'd be embarrassed by writing like that, then stop reading!!

Naomi Noe said...

I've never really considered these books "garbage" (though I do have my philosophical disagreements with Twilight), because every generation has their own vapid entertainment, it's just that it doesn't usually survive the test of time. Our generation is no better and no worse, really.

But I have to confess to actually not really liking most of the popular books I've read. I didn't like the last three Harry Potter books, and I didn't like the first book of Twilight (I didn't bother reading any more after that), and the other two of the series of The Hunger Games were awful. Even back when Eragon was popular, the first was readable (though extremely derivative), but it became evident that the author was getting *worse* in his writing, not better, as the series went on, so I stopped reading. I think a lot of times the popularity of a book goes with the ease of reading it, more than anything else. The prose has a low learning curve. I would not consider this a bad thing of itself, though it's not really something I want to emulate.

Ava Jae said...

I've heard that argument before about absorbing "bad" writing, but I'm not sure I agree with it. I think you can learn from just about any level of writing, and if you read something that doesn't resonate with you, you can ask why. What is it about the writing that you don't like? How would you change it to make it better? These kind of questions can allow us to learn even from writing we don't particularly enjoy.


Just my thoughts. Thanks for sharing your opinion, Daphne!

Terri Wallace said...

If there is something that makes people read, MORE POWER TO THEM! I don't have to like it. I don't have to read it. I should be adult enough to NOT make snarky comments to an effort to belittle a reader or what they choose to read. If someone thinks they can write something better, they should have a go at it and see how far they get. It is easy to arm-chair-author a book. It is much harder to write one, and harder still to have it become commercially succesful.

Ava Jae said...

Very interesting thoughts. I also lost interest in the Inheritance Series after Eragon, although I suspect that might have been partially because it took so long for me to get my hands on a copy of Eldest that by the time I started reading it, I wasn't as excited about the series as when I'd first started it. The popularity of a book can certainly add a level of excitement to it (many people pick up popular books just to see what all the fuss is about), but I'm not sure I would say that it affects the learning curve of the author. I suppose we'll have to agree to disagree on that point. :)


Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Naomi!

Chris Owings van Soolen said...

I agree. Not only is one's experience while reading extremely subjective, but also what one takes with them after the reading. Every person who reads a book comes away differently. Some learn "well, I don't want to write like that" and others don't see the writing at all, they just experience the story, and love it. And while I may not have enjoyed Eregon, I have several friends and family members who dearly loved it. I respect their opinions just as much as I respect my own, therefore no judging. (Just because I don't like pears doesn't mean I make fun of people who eat them.)

And I will admit that I loved the Twilight books - because they transported me out of the place i was mentally at the time and took me somewhere else with a main character that I could connect with. I had the same experience with "The Princess Diaries" series. I don't even notice the writing; all I see is story.

It is my opinion that those who dislike books - any book - do so because they find nothing to connect with or don't understand it or are bored. That doesn't mean the book isn't successful, or "good." Like any kind of art, Good and Bad are decided by the individual reader. It is never wrong to read something and enjoy it, whether or not the public likes it.

Ava Jae said...

Yes, yes and yes! I agree 100%, Terri. Thank you for sharing.

Ava Jae said...

I like your example with the pears--that's a great analogy--and I also agree with your statement about why people dislike certain books. Reading, writing--art--is completely subjective. What one person thinks is brilliant, another thinks is boring--that's just the way the creative field works. That doesn't mean anyone is wrong, it just means we all see things differently, and that's perfectly ok.


Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Chris!

Yesenia Vargas said...

Hey Ava,


I'm so glad you addressed this! I hear the whole "bad" books, 'I'm looking down on you bc you're reading Twilight/HP/HG" when I'm at college a TON. I'm a Middle School Education major so of course they don't want students to be reading that "trash." I especially hear it about Pretty Little Liars (which I'm actually a fan of). I feel like I can't even admit I like (and love) most of these series in front of my school friends.


As teachers, especially, we should be very open to what students want to read. Yeah, the classics are good (or okay), but most students and teens these days simply don't want to read them. They want to read stuff that's more modern and that they can relate to.


That said, I completely agree with you. Have your opinion. You're entitled to it. But share it respectfully. Don't make others feel bad or like they're less of a person because they like the "bad" books.


And if these people are so sure that these books are bad, have they at least read them before talking poorly about them?


It reminds me of the HP ordeal where a lot of people were saying they were books of the "devil" and what not because they deal with magic when the books actually have a lot of positive and even Christian messages.

Darth Lolita said...

I'm not of the opinion that today's popular books are automatically bad or good books. I really enjoyed Harry Potter, and found just a tiny few problems with Hunger Games--but nevertheless found it an interesting read. My problem with Twilight and Fifty Shades stems more from the fact that--in my opinion--they're not inherently good book. They're just not. I don't like the characters, the prose, the plot, etc. In the past, it bothered me slightly whenever I was talking about Twilight with someone, and another person would say, "Who cares if you think it's a bad book? At least it's making teen girls read!"


Erm...I don't know. That just seemed like the equivalent of, "Who cares if they're going to a terrible school? At LEAST they're going to school!" Which...yeah, I suppose is a small kind of accomplishment, but I can't imagine being joyful about it.


Ultimately, it is people's opinion, and I really don't think there's a sudden wave of bad books. There's always been good and bad in all forms of entertainment, so I was never really baffled by Twilight's success in the same way I wasn't surprised when Transformers: Dark of the Moon made so much money. It made me wince, but as long as I stand by my opinion and other works are being produced and delivered to the public, there's nothing bad about it.


Plus, I kind of like, on the occasion, reading "bad" books. I think I've learned a lot from them. Some people call it "bashing" when a group of writers/readers criticize a popular work, but I joined a community that used to speak thoroughly about the Inheritance saga--all constructive criticism--and I do think I learned about writing there more than I did in any creative writing class.

Ava Jae said...

Hey Yesenia!


I really like what you said about having an opinion, and I agree entirely. There's nothing wrong with liking (or disliking) a popular book/series/whatever--everyone sees things differently and it's only natural that there would be disagreements along the way. That being said, just because you disagree with someone doesn't mean their opinion is worth less than yours. Respect others and they will respect you as well.


I remember the Harry Potter ordeal, and the killer part is that you're right--there are a lot of positive themes and messages throughout the series that were overlooked because of the subject matter the book was dealing with, namely, witchcraft. It's a shame, really.

Ava Jae said...

In the end, you're right--every aspect of the topic comes down to opinion. For me, I see people reading many of those books who don't often read, and while some of those novels don't necessarily resonate with me, if they're enjoying it, who am I to say they're wrong? Just because I don't like it or don't want to read it doesn't mean others can't enjoy it. That's just the way I see it.


As for book bashing, I think there's a fine line between being downright cruel and yes, bashing a book, and constructive criticism. I think as long as the criticism is done respectfully and people learn from it, it can be very useful to discuss critiques for various books. It only becomes damaging when the discussion becomes rude and unnecessarily cruel.


Thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts!

Margaret Alexander said...

You make a fine argument. It's better people read *something* than nothing at all. I don't completely agree with it, but I don't have to. Everyone has their own view. It saddens me that the quality of writing has gone down in some (not all) popular books, so I am on the "bad" boat, but at the same time, it gives other writers a reason to write--to create something that isn't "garbage." Not to mention, "bad" books teach us what NOT to do. Plus we can all afford to be a little less stuck up and look for the good in stories (if not the writing).

Vicki Orians said...

Awesome post. :-)

Chihuahua Zero said...

I linked this post at the writer's forum I hang out at and asked about your stance on Twilight, since that was the subject on hand.


The conclusion made was that the main problem isn't that the writing is bad, it's that the ideas are bad. As in, Twilight shines a positive light on an unhealthy relationship and flawed morals.


"Twilight has mostly bad decisions [on the characters' parts] but good consequences," as one person said.


Whatever Twilight's "bad ideas" notably hurt readers (as in, lead them to make bad decisions based what the characters did), I'm not sure. But it's an interesting question: Is it better to let someone read a harmful book than have them not read at all? To what degree of harmful?

Ava Jae said...

I like to think that we can learn from anything we read--as you said, even the so-called "bad" books can teach us things we don't like in writing/plot/etc. so we can avoid it in our own work. I'm not sure I agree that the quality of writing has decreased...but that bit is a matter of opinion that could be debated forever. :)


Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Margaret!

Ava Jae said...

Thank you, Vicki! :)

Ava Jae said...

Firstly, thank you for linking to my post! As always, it's appreciated. :)


That's a really interesting point about the "bad ideas" in Twilight. Like you, I'm not sure that they hurt readers or that reading the book is harmful, but it's definitely an interesting discussion. I'll have to think about that one.

Brandie Buckwine said...

Many books we now hail as classics were considered trash when first published. Not to say Twilight will ever be a classic, just adding perspective.

Rachel Frost said...

I can respect the fact that a lot of people like books like Twilight, but I have a hard time reading them. When I come across a "bad" book, where I don't like the content or writing style, I can't finish it even for the "experience" it gives. I'm picky.

When a series is popular, I think the quality pretty much always goes down naturally. When someone writes their first book, they pick and revise and edit until they've got something as good as it can be. But because that one is popular, the next book gets pushed through even though it hasn't had the same level of attention. Which is probably why I hated Katniss in Catching Fire, and laughed myself silly at the horrible writing in Eclipse.

But here's the thing--Just because I don't like the book doesn't mean others shouldn't. And I can say all the mean things I want about the work, but I don't think readers should poke fun at the writers themselves. That's where the fun of critiquing a work turns into bullying, and I won't stand for it.

Ava Jae said...

Very true! Thanks for that, Brandie!

Angela Ackerman said...

I'm with you...if it gets people reading, that is a good thing all the way. :)

Ava Jae said...

I completely understand being picky about what you read--as I said, just because a book is popular doesn't mean you have to enjoy it (or even read it at all).


I don't know that I would say it's only natural that the quality of a book in a series decreases--sure, the first book gets loads of attention, especially if the author isn't already published before writing it, but the other books get the same kind of attention from beta readers and editors and copyeditors and the author's agent (assuming the author has an agent), as well as others. It may not take as long to edit said book, but it still gets plenty of attention.


However, I do agree with you that readers shouldn't make fun of the author--there is nothing constructive about putting people down and there's absolutely no reason to do so.


Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Rachel!

Ava Jae said...

Absolutely! Thank you, Angela!

Leslie S. Rose said...

Puts teacher hat on...Harry Potter, Twilight, and the Hunger Games all hooked reluctant readers as well as bookworms. I say BRAVO.

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Ava Jae said...

Agreed! Thanks, Leslie!

Emily said...

I guess you can look at it from a writer's perspective, too. I've read a lot of YA lately for research, and while I hate some of them, I still read them. I mean, they got PUBLISHED, didn't they? Which is better than I've done.

Harry Potter is the same. It may not be the best-written book in the world, but it's my favourite series. I've grown up with it and it really is quite remarkable. I'm on the edge of the Hunger Games fandom, but completely out of Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey - they just don't interest me.

I think that it's good people are reading...well, anything. We have so much technology today that the value of reading is going down the pipe. Maybe that's why the writing has got "worse" - because there's so much more to do. But I think it's also got more realistic - not as in magic schools or vampires, but with character portrayals. There's a lot that can be learnt from today's writing, and a lot from classics...which is why I read both.

Ava Jae said...

I'm not sure I'd say the value of reading itself is decreasing, but I would say that the perceived value of reading (that is, how people view reading) may be taking a hit. However, with the age of e-readers and e-books on the rise, more people seem to be opening up to reading again, which is encouraging.


I also think you're right about realistic character portrayals. I've read more than one recently published book that I tore through and afterwards, the thing that stuck with me most was how real everything felt--from the writing to the characters. In the end, I think you can learn something from just about any book you read, whether you enjoy it or not. Especially for writers, reading is an essential part of our education.


Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Emily!

paperprosciutto said...

Oh wow. This post was just waiting to be written.
I have to say, I'm extremely guilty of thinking this way about the Twilight series. But doesn't this show how culture is changing literature? After all, people buy what they want to read. Right now, there is a huge market for those who like to fantasize about zombie survival scenarios and the like. Zombie themed marathons are getting popular too. And don't get me started on the vampires.


The audience of today is different from the one that Hemingway wrote for is what I'm saying.


I think that these books are written to appeal to as much people as possible, and by god were they successful. And if we don't like them, there are other books to buy.

Ava Jae said...

I think you're probably right that many of the trends do reflect our changing society--and with it, the tastes of the collective audience. Our world today is entirely different from the world that surrounded writers who produced Brave New World and Light in August and Moby Dick and our media (literature included) certainly reflects that.


In the end, regardless of whether a popular book appeals to us or not, you're absolutely right that there's always another book to buy.

Nick said...

To me personally a 'good' book is a book you can keep rereading.

Nick said...

I just wanted to add, the thing I especially don't like about books these days is that they stretch them into series's. You don't see long standing classics as series's. Lord of the Rings was a trilogy but that's because Tolkien wrote them all at once. There's an obvious reason why the quality goes down with these popular series's. Out of all the books, like HP and HG I usually only like the 1st one because that's the one which was the most soulful. After that, the publishers rushes the authors to write the books each year until the series is over. They don't really get the time to really think because of all those deadlines. The second book in those series's might be good but it all does keep going down.

Ava Jae said...

Great example!

Ava Jae said...

I'm going to have to disagree with you on that one. I've seen many readers say the same (it's a perfectly valid matter of opinion), but I've found that I personally love a good series. My favorite of the Harry Potter series is The Order of the Phoenix, which is the fifth book in the series. I enjoyed The Hunger Games the most out of the trilogy, but I still thoroughly enjoyed Catching Fire and Mockingjay so much so that I re-read the entire trilogy, and some of my favorite moments from the series are in the second two novels. In Beth Revis' Across the Universe series, I actually enjoyed the second book (A Million Suns) more than I did the first (although I thought they were both fantastic reads).

So while it is true that authors (usually) have less time to complete later novels in a series, those same novels get a lot of attention from the publishing staff, and I'm of the opinion that sequels can often be just as good if not better than the first book.

Amy Petty said...

What if they just don't like the book and jealousy doesn't enter into it? Should an author not have the right to speak freely about their honest opinion? You're right, there's no competition to be had--that a person reads X book doesn't mean they're not going to read yours.

Ava Jae said...

I think there's a difference between book bashing and sharing an honest (negative) opinion--which you are of course entitled to share. There's a way to respectfully share a not-so-glowing review without being cruel and bashing the book, the author or anyone who enjoyed said book, which is what I believe Laura meant.

Morten A said...

I wouldn't call the books that are popular these days bad. However some of them, like "Twilight" and "The House of Night" series, have obvious flaws despite stellar writing in other areas. This is what I believe people are getting at when they call bestsellers "bad".

Ava Jae said...

I won't argue that the quality of the writing itself definitely varies book per book--that much is obvious. And I don't mind people critiquing books for that reason (or any other writing-related reason, for that matter). The difference is just when people take that a step farther and use it as a reflection on the readers themselves, or how x-book is damaging our culture because people enjoy it, or anything along those lines.

Rebekah Monteith said...

I have to admit I am sort of biased on this because I truly believe that Fifty Shades of Grey and Twilight suuuuuuuuuuuucks, but not all modern stories are bad. Definitely not The Hunger Games and Harry Potter.

Ava Jae said...

Everyone is entitled to their opinion, my point was mostly that I don't think people should be penalized or looked down on for reading books that others classify as poorly written. If someone enjoys a book largely seen as "bad", then hey, more power to them, IMO.

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