More on bad books

Bad books

I’ve never read Stephanie Meyer and have nothing against her and her work. But I still find this funny because I’m a horrible person.

I’ve finally finished Trudi Canavan’s Priestess of the White. It didn’t get any better. And whilst I could ramble on about its flaws and failings, let me ask another question: why did I follow it all the way to the end? It was hardly short – 688 pages; over 19 hours in its audio version – and yet I stuck through it. Why? And, more generally, why do ‘bad’ books become hits? I’m particularly thinking of Dan Brown and EL James here: critically reviled and yet astonishingly successful.

‘Life is too short to waste your time with bad books’, says Michael Kruger. Joyce agrees: ‘Life is too short to read a bad book’, he says. Piffle and poppycock, says I. There’s nothing wrong with reading a book that someone has labelled ‘bad’ – even for reading a book you yourself know to be bad. Here’s a few reasons I might stick with a non-critically-lauded anti-masterpiece:

  • Bad books can be easy reads

Bad books often use simple language. Not only that but every sentiment will be rammed home myriad times. Every subtext will be explained. This means you don’t have to worry about missing a key fact or ‘clue’ because the significance will be hammered home. You know what’s important. You never get lost.

All this makes a ‘bad’ book easy, undemanding company: sometimes you want simplicity, especially if you’ve a busy, complicated, life, or if you only get to read in short snatches and are frequently interrupted. Bad books (of the Dan Brown variety) do not make heavy demands on you, and sometimes it’s nice to be told what matters.

  • A bad book can have excellent elements

You can fall in love with characters. You can be gripped by plot or seek out sizzling sex scenes. You might be desperate to see what happens. A ‘bad’ book can still seize you by the neck and refuse to let go despite flaws so large they can be seen from space.

This is the Philip K. Dick defence: the writing’s bad but the ideas are so strong that it’s worth the effort. At some point you might decide that the book’s not bad after all. But you can’t honestly say that, by the basic ‘readability’ test, it’s not pretty damn poor.

I promise never to write the phrase ‘sizzling sex scenes’ ever again. Urgh. I feel dirty.

  • Bad books help you learn

Why is a book bad? If overuse of a word sticks in your craw then you’ll know not to make that error yourself. If a deus ex leaps out at you you’ll make sure you appropriately foreshadow in your own work. A writer cannot live on badness alone but bad books can be invaluable adjutants in the long march to brilliance.

  • Morbid curiosity

Part of the appeal of EL James and Dan Brown is that they’re supposed to be bad. Who doesn’t like the odd ‘scoffee break’ in their lives? See also: all women’s mags ever*. I suspect that, in reality, it’s really difficult to hit that sweet spot between compelling and crap that these two have hit. And that’s why they’re rich and you’re not.

*My personal favourite: Take A Break’s psychic special – ‘Help – my bowel is haunted!’**

**No, really.

  • A bad book is better than no book

This is clearly self-evident.

  • Stubbornness

This is my sin. I just can’t bear to give up on a book once I’ve committed to it. If I’ve made a decision to read past a certain point then I want to see it home. No, I don’t know what that point is. And yes, unless you’re a reviewer or beta-reader or have some similar excuse, this is stupid.

  *        *        *

Anyone got any recommendations for can’t-miss bad books? What makes you stick with a book even though part of you wants to hurl it at the nearest wall? Are some sins just too much to bear? Comments, as always. welcome.

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(Don’t go back to) Badsville

Priestess of the White

So: bad books. Welcome back to my occasional series on my amazement – nay, bewilderment – that so many trad-published books fail even the most cursory quality checks. Today we’re looking at Priestess of the White by Trudi Canavan.

First, let’s get this out of the way up front: a bad book is not the same as a bad author. A long time ago I read her ‘Black Magician’ trilogy and really enjoyed it. Granted, it was a decade or so past and maybe I’ve become more sophisticated since. Maybe. But I don’t think I’d have lodged her in my brain as an author I enjoy if it hadn’t been good.

I’ve said more about the difference between bad authors and bad writing in my post on Mike Shevdon’s The Road to Bedlam. Check it out if you’re so inclined.

So what’s wrong with PotW? Well, let’s start with…

• More exposition that you can shake a stick at
• Dialogue so stiff you could use it as a stick to shake
• Characters… well, I don’t want to criticise too much too soon; I’ve not got that far through it. But the characters haven’t set me alight to far. Similarly I’ve not got deep enough into the plot to comment on that
• A lack of tension
• A plot remarkably slow in its arrival

A note on exposition: if you ever start a line of dialogue with ‘As you know…’ you’re in trouble. If you’re interrupting action to give us information you’re in trouble – especially if the reader (me) can see that this information can be simply woven in to the story through dialogue and dramatisation.

Let’s follow that with a confession. I’ve used a variation of the ‘as you know’ in Night Shift. I think (hope) you can get away with it if you phrase it as a question: ‘you know that we’re powered by an oil lake..?’ I’ll let you decide if that works or if I’m just a massive hypocrite.

As for dialogue, PotW’s main sin is the ‘call and response’:
“Shall we do this?”
“I don’t like that.”
“What do you think we should do?”
“I think this is a good idea.”
“But that leads to this.”
“Yes. But that is preferable to the other.”
I hope I don’t need to say that this isn’t a quote. I’m listening to an audio version and extracting chapter and verse isn’t worth the effort. But this is how it feels. No subtext. No interest.

People don’t speak like this. People interrupt each other, they dissemble, they say one thing but mean another. I’ve tried to get away from this in my writing by having lots of sentence fragments; people tailing off (using ellipses) and cutting other others (using dashes).

The danger of this technique is that, by omitting sentence endings, the meaning is sometimes lost. I went too far when I first tried this – it was a conscious decision after being criticised for my own stilted dialogue – and now I’m trying to find a middle line.

Poor dialogue kills tension. It replaces drama with melodrama. We’ve just met the presumably major villain in PotW but it feels more like I’m in a pantomime than a serious, world-threatening conflict.

As you’ve probably guessed, I’m quite enjoying Princess of the White. I can’t recommend it; there are a lot of great novels out there and this isn’t one of them. But, like watching a horror movie or a slow-motion car crash, finding all the errors is providing me with a certain amount of entertainment.

I don’t set out to hunt bad writing. I love stories. I want to be transported. I don’t want to carve them to pieces to make myself seem big and clever in comparison, but neither does that make me oblivious. Like The Road to Bedlam and – for different reasons – The ‘First Law’ series, Princess of the White is appearing here for all the wrong reasons.