On Reading Bad BooksMarch 28th, 2010 at 22:10
Over at Justine Larbalestier’s blog, she asks the question: What do you think of the frequently mounted defence of Twilight and some other popular YA titles that no matter what you think of the writing style or content it’s intended for teens so that’s okay. Or at least it gets teens reading?
There have been some wonderful, inventive comments, not overly hamstrung by Justine’s insistence that the relative merits of Twilight not be under discussion in the thread (and fair enough too, it’s one of the easiest ways to derail said conversation).
I commented over there with a blog-length comment, mostly about how I don’t like the way the terms ‘bad writing’ and ‘good writing’ get thrown around (it is actually possible for one person to like a book, another to dislike it, and them both to be RIGHT), and particularly the way that they are used in regards to hugely popular works preferred by women readers. I recall overhearing a young teenage boy informing his mother in a bookshop that Harry Potter was ‘entertaining but badly written’ and I was stunned. Who was he to make such a pronouncement? Was it his own opinion, or one he had heard? How can you possibly dismiss a work as badly written if you find it entertaining?
Surely entertaining is one of those things that writing is intended to do?
After reading all the comments that have come in on Justine’s blog I have been formulating a different response to the question. I understand why people are reacting negatively to the suggestion that ‘it’s okay to let teens read bad books because they’re just teenagers, as long as they’re reading it’s good’ but so many of the responses to that are rubbing me up the wrong way.
Because, you know what? It’s none of our business what teenagers are reading.
Obviously many of us – parents, siblings, teachers, librarians, authors – hope that teenagers will read books, that they learn to love reading, and that they discover and learn to love awesome books. We can help to point them in the direction of the stuff we think is crunchy and clever and just plain fun. We can grab copies of The Demon’s Lexicon or Tender Morsels or Pride & Prejudice and put them directly into their hands. Helping other people find books to love is one of the best things we can possibly do.
If the teen in your life wants to read books you consider “bad” then I recommend that you suck it up. The fact is, the teen years are all about experimenting. It’s about taking in as much input as you can until you hit overload and start thinking for yourself. It’s about figuring out who you are as a person. And if reading “bad” books by the megaton is your teen’s drug of choice then HELL YES SUCK IT UP.
Reading is good. Reading anything is good. Trashy romances, the newspaper, the cereal box, whatEVER. The more of anything you read, the better you get at it. The better you get at it, the more you want to do it. And… the better your skills develop so that when you need reading, it’s there. When you find the challenging work you want to try, you know how to go about it.
You can learn a lot from bad books. Because this is the secret that everyone knows and most people have forgotten: Bad books are awesomecakes. They are the best. There is nothing, absolutely nothing, like the experience of reading something that you know you shouldn’t. Whether it’s the four steamy pages of the adult romance novel, the best bits of the illicit textbook on evolution, or one of those witchcraft-inciting teen fantasies.
Then there are the other kinds of bad books. The ones you don’t know are bad because, you know, they’re so brilliant to read and you love them to bits and you reread them, and… hmm. Are we sure we know the meaning of the word ‘bad’ in this instance?
I read a ton of bad books in my younger years. When you don’t have a job or kids, there’s a lot of time to kill. From 10-13 I read teen romances. Jazillions of them. I also read adult crime novels, historicals, all sorts of stuff. But Babysitter’s Club, Sweet Valley High, Sweet Dreams, Cheerleaders, you name it. I absorbed sugary crap in tight jeans like it was going out of fashion.
End result: I have a PhD in Classics. What, these things have nothing to do with each other? No, you’re right. Nothing. Nothing at all. My reading habits of my early teens in no way influenced my later abilities to work on and complete a postgraduate degree. Funny, that. Though I’m pretty sure my fast reading skills did come in handy there at some point.
From 13-17 I read fantasy novels. Zajillions of them. They were thicker than the Sweet Valley Highs, but somehow they got read pretty damn fast. Some of them were awesome, some were terrible. Some I thought were awesome and I now know were terrible. I picked up plenty of other books along the way – crime, and huge Roman epics, and some literary classics, and so on. But mostly I read sword and sorcery.
End result: I wrote a novel. And another. And another. I got sick of the cliches of fantasy and started spotting them in my own writing. I got better at writing. I was published by the time I was twenty.
I’m pretty sure that I took no harm at all from any book that I read in my teens, regardless of whether they were good or bad by anyone’s standards. My reading was no one’s business but my own. My mother rolled her eyes at some of my choices, but never particularly pushed anything on me. When I left home at 18, I left behind bookcases groaning with fantasy novels (never give a clothing allowance to a teen who cares more about books than clothes unless you have ample storage space). She started reading them. She rolled her eyes about my superhero comics. Years later she was borrowing them to see how they drew musculature (she’s a sculptor). My Dad passed me crime author after crime author. Some were awesome (that is to say, I liked reading them), some were awful (that is to say, I couldn’t get past the first chapter). Once I hit adulthood, I started recommending authors to him. He gave me Spenser and VI Warshawski but, dude, I gave him Stephanie Plum.
I wouldn’t take back my history of reading (not to mention re-reading because wow, apparently we had So Much Time To Kill) bad books, not for a second. I have a huge, powerful understanding of how the fantasy genre works because of how much I have read. My friends and I, who enabled each other something shocking, look back and can laugh about loving David Eddings even as we are still proud of ourselves for loving the Mistress of the Empire series, or Tam Lin. We read Laurell K and Tamora Pierce before either of them were remotely famous. But one of my most powerful memories of high school is the long wait for the final volume of the Mallorean… oh boy. We were there. We bought the t-shirt.
I can only think of a handful of books from my teens which really made me think “you are wasting my time.” Time was cheap back then, so a book had to work hard to waste it. The first few that come to mind are The Warden by Anthony Trollope and The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene. Grade 12 English had a lot to answer for… But there were a few self-inflicted, too. Book 3 of the Wheel of Time. Jane Eyre. Oh, Jane Eyre was my nemesis. I never could like her, no matter how hard I tried.
I think as adults, time is so valuable that we get scared teens might waste it on anything that is less than nourishing. But mistakes in reading are worth making. They help us create our own road map. Sometimes we have to just grit our teeth and let them read fucking Twilight, because you know what? Maybe it isn’t a bad book. Maybe it’s an awesome book. The people pushing the book on teenagers sure don’t think it’s a bad book. It isn’t a grand conspiracy to waste their time or turn them into a Mormon (okay, probably) or force them to conform to tired old gender stereotypes. Lots of people love the book, and there’s no reason to panic about that. Many of those people will, in the future, look back and go, “WHAT WAS I THINKING?” which is a valid experience, not one anyone should deny them.
Also, many of them will go through their lives continuing to think that Twilight (or Harry Potter, or whatever) is the best book ever. No matter how much a more widely-read reader might wince about that, or wish they had better taste, it doesn’t actually hurt us if they think that. Not even a little bit.
Teen books should absolutely be critiqued, by adults and children alike. But critiquing doesn’t just mean saying a book is bad, and why. Sometimes it’s about defending it.
Teens deserve great books, this is true. But they also deserve to decide for themselves whether a book is great or not. More importantly, they get to decide whether they love it. If they love it, then it’s not a bad book, even if it has been written in crayon or printed without the use of the letter e or even (and this is the biggie) if it sparkles.
So I guess I am in the ‘it doesn’t matter how bad the book is, just be glad they’re reading’ camp after all. I’ll go one better. I support the re-reading of bad books. Maybe after the twelfth time reading the sparkly vampire epic, they’ll be ready to move on to the Holly Black of which you speak. Maybe they won’t. But I’m pretty sure that if that’s what they want to do, we should just get the hell out of their reading light.