‘Tis a truth universally acknowledged that wherever books are discussed, snobbery shall be found there as well. The official “gatekeepers” of literary merit love to whine about how taste and sensibility have degraded in these decadent and degenerate days.
Alexander Pope made this kind of argument in the early 18th century (over and over again . . .). Until very recently, Yale University paid Harold Bloom a ridiculous amount of money to ramble on in the same vein. These hackneyed laments all follow the same basic formula: a lot of people like to read things that I don’t deem “great literature” (of course this term is never fully defined), so therefore everyone has bad taste, and the world is literally going to end now.
I’m not saying such people are always wrong – a lifetime spent as a professional editor, critic, or writer will give you a perspective on literature that others don’t have. These and other expert perspectives are valuable, but they become problematic when combined with an elitist attitude. Literary criticism, professional or otherwise, is at its worst when it functions as a velvet rope.
To help counteract this snobbery, which I have been totally guilty of perpetuating, I’ve compiled this list of 7 Awesomely Bad Books. They’re poorly written, often unimaginative, thematically problematic – you name the literary sin, and one of these books will have committed it.
And yet readers LOVE these books. Each one was a bestseller. Each inspired a strong, almost visceral response in their respective reading public. They are each a reminder of what the “gatekeepers” don’t like to admit – that taste is something that is always changing, ever challenged, and never as stable as the snobs (myself included) want to admit.
1. Eragon by Christopher Paolini
Christopher Paolini’s debut novel, the first in his Inheritance series, follows the adventures of a young farm boy named Eragon, who finds a mysterious stone and subsequently finds himself on a quest to – you guessed it! – save the world. It’s not hard to understand why Eragon won a slew of awards and sold millions of copies in the years following its initial release. It has everything a good fantasy series needs: magic, adventure, dragons, elves, and an evil “dark lord” antagonist who wants to conquer the world.
But, as many critics have pointed out, it can read like a laundry list of fantasy tropes. It’s just a bit too formulaic. I loved this book, but there were several times when it felt like I was reading The Lord of the Rings fan fiction (Paolini’s story of the origin of elves is pure Tolkein). “Derivative” and “cliche” are words that often come up in even the kindest reviews of Eragon.
Some aspects of the book are unique, such as Paolini’s language-based magic system, and certain plot lines are quite clever. These aside, I don’t think anyone would claim that original world-building or a unique conceptual foundation are Eagon’s greatest strengths as a novel.
Then again, maybe focusing on the generic aspects of a bestselling novel written by a fifteen year old is to miss the point. The enjoyment we gain from Eragon isn’t what we get from reading The Lord of the Rings, Earthsea, or other examples of more “sophisticated” fantasy – this is comfort food, not a gourmet meal.
2. Pamela by Samuel Richardson
Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded was a bestseller before bestsellers were a thing. First published in 1742, Samuel Richardson’s epistolary novel arrived on England’s cultural scene with all the subtlety of an asteroid.
People went nuts over this book: preachers quoted it from the pulpit as an example of feminine virtue, critics lambasted in in the newspaper as thinly-veiled smut (there are several instances of near-rape), and parodies and unofficial sequels flooded the book markets. There was even Pamela merch, such as fans featuring scenes from the novel so ladies could get their moral instruction and be fashionable at the same time.
Like Twilight in the 21st century, people either hated Pamela or loved it, but either way they had an opinion.
For my doctorate, which focused on the “Long 18th Century” in British literature, I read Pamela several times, and for good reason – it’s one of the most influential novels of the early-modern period. You can detect hints of Pamela in the work of more well known novelists such as Charles Dickens and the Bronte sisters.
I HATED every moment of it. Words cannot express how much I hate this book, or, more appropriately, how much I love to hate it. Nothing gets me fired up so much as telling someone about how much I hate this damn book. It’s awful. It’s moralizing. It’s sexist. It’s way too long – although nothing compared to Richardson’s second novel, the roughly 2,000-page Clarissa, which is also about a virtuous young woman.
The first half of Pamela isn’t as bad as the second half, because there’s actual conflict – fifteen-year-old servant Pamela must fend off her employer, Mister B’s, sexual advances. We moderns might not agree with Richardon’s 18th-century didactic worldview. I, for one, am just gonna go ahead and claim that women who have pre-marital sex shouldn’t have to die. We can, however, agree that Pamela has every right to defend her own body from the rapacious desires of an upper-class male. We can find ourselves invested in her efforts to assert this right in the face of power. You can almost ignore the constant reference to Pamela’s virtue, even though every other character has to comment on as much as humanly possible.
Toward the end of Volume I, Richardson pulls a Cinderella move. Mister B, thwarted in all of his attempts to sully Pamela’s virtue, is now so overcome by said virtue that he decides to marry her. She’s just that virtuous. And she, in turn, is so totally overcome with his totally believable reformation that she accepts his proposal. Because that’s totally believable.
The rest of novel (roughly 250 pages, depending on what version you have) reads like a manual for virtuous domestic bliss. That, and there’s some more about how virtuous Pamela is. It’s about as exciting as it sounds. Except for the utterly infuriating parts, such as when Mister B – who is now totally reformed and virtuous – mentions a list of rules that virtuous wives should follow. Now, you see, the thing about Pamela is that she’s virtuous, so she begs Mister B to recite the rules so that she can write them down in her diary. Volume II is full of such gems.
I value my Vartue more than anything my Master can give me; and so we talked a full Hour and half about my Vartue.”This is a quote from Henry Fielding’s parody Shamela, first published in 1741.
If you’re interested about the history of the early novel, you pretty much have to read Pamela. Just don’t expect to enjoy the experience.
3. The Twilight series by Stephanie Meyer
Is it cheating to include the Twilight books on this list? Then again, could any list of awesomely bad books call itself so if it didn’t include Meyer’s novels about teenage love and sparkly, brooding vampires? This, surely, is too deep and thorny a philosophical controversy to resolve here, but I raise this line of conjecture in order to highlight the almost metaphysical status that Twilight and its sequels hold as an almost archetypal Awesomely Bad Book.
Let’s start with the basic plot of the four-volume series: young girl moves to Seattle, a somewhat odd (but handsome and brooding!) guy named Edward at her school takes an interest in her (for some reason . . .). It turns out that he’s a vampire who is several hundred years old, and enjoys hanging out at a local high school. That’s not creepy at all. Then there’s a werewolf, because of course there has to be a love triangle. There’s also a vampire baby, because there’s nothing wrong with a 300-year-old vampire seducing and having sex with a high schooler. Finally, in a completely unexpected twist that totally defies all expectations, young Bella becomes a sparkly vampire herself.
It’s just . . . bad. Predictable. Superficial. Corny. Semi-phonographic trash. “Problematic.” There are so many words of disapproval I could throw at these books. There’s a lot of negative things I could say about Meyer’s work and her talents as a writer.
But, then again, I’ve never written a novel that sold millions of copies, inspired a quartet of blockbuster movies, and caused millions of fans to lose their collective shit. Nothing I’ve said or done has rocked the national consciousness like the Team Edward vs. Team Jacob controversy. At no point in my life have I ever created a pop-culture phenomenon with such a devoted fan base that it has its own Wikipedia page.
So maybe I’m just not appreciating Twilight for what it had to offer millions of readers, whatever that may be. Perhaps I can’t look beyond my own prejudice enough to appreciate how Meyer, intentionally or not, tapped into a powerful impulse or desire in our collective consciousness. To be fair, I don’t think you can claim to understand the culture of the early 2000s without understanding Twilight’s role in popular discourse.
But I still think it’s trash.
4. Literally anything by Ayn Rand
Most people who enjoy Ayn Rand’s books read them as teenagers or young adults. They were probably shocked, and then seduced by the characters presented in The Fountainhead or Atlas Shrugged. The hyper-individualist philosophy that Rand’s protagonists espouse seems particularly attractive to young people who find themselves on the threshold of adulthood. How ironic that when the subject of Rand or any of her books comes up, these readers usually say, without a hint of irony, “this should be required reading!”
If you were awed by Rand’s books as a young person, I have a challenge for you: go back and read them again. Unless you’re Paul Ryan, or another version of asshole, I think you will be unpleasantly surprised at how bad these books are.
While I applaud Rand’s efforts to communicate her philosophy of “objectivism” through a creative media, she’s no George Orwell. Objectivism itself is a highly problematic ideology that ignores, well, most of human reality, but perhaps Rand’s intellectual sins can be forgiven, since she was, in many ways, reacting to the oppressive culture of the Soviet Union, in which she grew up.
Ideology aside, her books read like poorly written propaganda, something that becomes painfully apparent when you decide to give them a second go. Rand’s prose is dense, her dialogue unrealistic and bombastic, her characters are unbelievable and one-dimensional, and her treatment of women is cliched (not to mention misogynistic).
Rand has a secure place in the history of right-wing thought, and I doubt that idealistic teenagers will stop reading her work anytime soon, but that doesn’t by any means make up for her poor technique as a writer.
5. Tristram Shandy by Lawrence Sterne
One of the whitest of white men to ever live whitely, Samuel Johnson, had this to say about The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, the second historical novel on this list: “Nothing odd will do long. Tristram Shandy did not last.” Johnson was right to call Lawrence Sterne’s novel “odd,” but he couldn’t have been more wrong about its staying power. A best-seller in its own time, Tristram Shandy is still in print today. Scholars consider the novel a key text in 18th-century literature, and an important precursor to the “postmodern” movement of the 20th century.
Unlike, say, Pamela, the novel doesn’t so much present a clear narrative as it throws together various episodes that are sometimes only tangentially related to the eponymous narrator. Tristram isn’t even actually born until about half-way through the novel. The text is interspersed with blank pages, random diagrams, and other oddities that emphasize the ultimately arbitrary, artificial nature of written works.
It’s also pretty funny, not in a sophisticated “comedy of manners” kind of way, but in crude, obvious-double-entendre, penis joke kind of way (you’ll never look at chestnuts the same way again after reading it).
What makes Tristram Shandy unique is what, ironically, makes it unlikely that readers will either finish the book or read it again if they happen to finish it in the first place. It’s difficult to follow, and it’s fractured, non-linear, absurd structure can pull at the patience of even the most dedicated readers.
This book is awesomely bad, because it tries to be awesomely bad, and that effort is truly impressive. Sterne’s novel is a fascinating example of experimental form: in an age when “realism” was becoming the dominant form for novels, Tristram Shandy embraced the surreal, the fractured, and the ironic.
6. Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James
Despite being one of most widely read and commercially successful genres of all time, romance novels receive a bad rap. These are the kind of books that book snobs, or “literary” types, love to look down on, even if they’ve never read a romance novel in their life. They tend to overlook the fact that people who read romance novels often take a great deal of satisfaction from these books. Readers form bonds with these stories of sex, desire, and love that the proponents of “great” literature like to trash.
A romance reader will re-read their favorite book for the sheer pleasure of it several times. A college professor probably won’t do the same with Hamlet or Bleak House unless they have to prepare for a lecture.
Just ask Janice Radway, a scholar who conducted an ethnographic study of the romance novel in the 80s. The result of her research, the book Reading the Romance, presents a fascinating exploration of who reads romance novels, how they read them, and what these otherwise shat-upon books have to offer those who read them. Just because a book is a “romance novel” doesn’t mean it’s a “bad” book, that it’s poorly written, or a waste of time to read.
And then there’s Fifty Shades of Grey.
I did enjoy reading this book – it was a guilty pleasure par excellence. But, dear lord, it’s cringeworthy. It’s as if E.L. James sat down at her keyboard and said, “Hm? How do I write the cringiest narrative possible? One that’s so crammed with cringe that no one, and I mean no one will be able to stop reading it? Oh! And there has to be tons of BDSM!”
Fifty Shades follows a young college grad, Anastasia Steele (named after bestselling romance author Danielle Steele) as she develops a sexual/romantic relationship with the impossibly handsome, ridiculously rich, and 100% believable Christian Grey. Like Edward from Twilight, Christian takes an immediate liking to Anastasia because . . . well, just because. I guess she’s just not like other girls. Christian then invites Anastasia to begin a dominant-sub sexual relationship with him because this is apparently the only way this impossible sexy, rich, seductive man can connect with women.
Christian’s behavior becomes creepier as the novel moves forward. His dominance radiates outward from the bedroom (or dungeon) to other areas of Anastasia’s life. At one point he even buys a publishing company because Anastasia wants to work there. But Christian is sexy, and rich, so I guess we’re just supposed to go along with it. Also, he’s kinda tortured in a mysterious, sexy way. Have I mentioned how incredibly sexy Christian is?
Despite all of the very problematic material and mediocre writing style, Fifty Shades of Grey earns its status as awesomely bad, because you just can’t put it down. Just ask the millions of individuals who bought copies of Fifty Shades and then went back to buy the sequels. It’s so bad it’s good, but not in a conscious way, like Tristram Shandy, or in a “derivative but comforting way” like Eragon. It doesn’t play on youthful idealism like Ayn Rand, or youthful hormones like Twilight (Christian’s background does include pedophilia, but with a human perpetrator rather than a centuries-old vampire).
Instead, Fifty Shades is like a beautiful train wreck – a mess, to be sure, but one you just can’t look away from.
7. The DaVinci Code by Dan Brown
Let’s make a little wager. Walk into the nearest thrift store, go over to the books section, and look at the shelves. I bet you $20 that Dan Brown’s bestselling novel The DaVinci Code is sitting there. Then, go to the next nearest thrift store: I’ll bet another $20 that The DaVinci Code is there as well. This book is a perennial fixture of second-hand stores, because it’s really only worth reading once.
The DaVinci Code perfectly exemplifies what people in the publishing biz call “narrative urgency,” that quality in a book that keeps you turning pages. It begins with a murder in the Louvre and then follows “symbolist” Robert Langdon as he embarks on an Indiana-Jones-esque adventure, which could uncover one of the biggest secrets in Western history. There are ancient codexes containing secret messages, wide-spread conspiracies, and secret societies – how could you not be entertained? Full of twists, turns, and surprises, the novel will keep you guessing until the very end.
Ironically, what makes The DaVinci Code a page-turner is what will keep you from picking it back up – there’s really no substance to the book beyond “we gotta figure out this next clue!” factor. Once you know how things turn out, the novel loses most of its power over the reader. After that, it’s time to donate this book to your local thrift store.
Given the religious nature of the book’s central mystery, the book made quite a stink in the early 2000s. Concerned Christians protested, as concerned Christians will. Free speech advocates pushed back, as free speech advocate will. Granted, I don’t think anyone who was protesting the book on religious ground, or defending it in the name of free speech, had actually read the thing. If they had, they’d probably realize that it didn’t merit much of a response in the first place. Historians and other scholars have lambasted the novel for its loose and easy attitude toward actual historical fact. As for The DaVinci Code’s literary merits, critics gave mixed, at best lukewarm reviews. One of the more notable negative reviews came from Stephen Fry, who pronounced the novel “arse gravy of the worst kind.”
If you haven’t read The DaVinci Code, then I would suggest reading it. Once. Then you can donate it to the Salvation Army.