Tuesday, March 16, 2010

When Good Books Go Bad

The most recent issue of The American Book Review ran a lengthy piece called “The Top 40 Bad Books.” It’s got us thinking about the nature of books and how good books can go back and, of course, how the very concept of “good” and “bad” in this context is entirely in the eye of the beholder.

Our best of the year features tend to be among the most popular pieces we run. A few years ago, we discussed putting together a worst of, as well. In the end we discarded the idea. It was the spirit of the thing, we agreed. Everyone knows that reviewing books is a subjective art. One reviewer’s find of the decade will be thrown against another’s wall. We’ve seen that again and again. And it’s one thing to approach the world with arms akimbo (we like to think we do that pretty much all the time) but it seemed to us that pronouncing on the badness of certain books was a little too easy and self-indulgent. As it turns out, we weren’t the only ones who thought so. Here The Guardian comments on The American Book Review’s piece:
The Great Gatsby is, apparently, "incredibly smug about its relationship to the traditional realistic novel". Women in Love reads "like someone put a gun to Nietzsche's head and made him write a Harlequin romance". Revolutionary Road fares little better: "I am as illuminated as I am by a college essay decrying drunk driving," says its selector, while All the Pretty Horses gets Cormac McCarthy compared to Jackie Collins. He "wraps his characters in half-truths and idealized anecdotes, much like Jackie Collins does, only his are about the Lone Star state, the border, and its cowboy myths," says Christine Granados from Texas A&M University, adding that "McCarthy uses clichés and derivative characters to sell millions of copies".
All of this begs some questions. Not the least of which Carolyn Kellogg poses at Jacket Copy, the L.A. Times book blog:
The American Book Review has taken stock of literature and come up with its Top 40 Bad Books. The list targets some big, popular favorites -- F. Scott Fitzgerald's classic "The Great Gatsby," Richard Yates' "Revolutionary Road," the James Bond novel "Casino Royale" by Ian Fleming and Cormac McCarthy's National Book Award-winning "All the Pretty Horses." Really? If they're the worst, what's the best?
The Guardian’s assessment is a terrific piece of writing and it’s here. Kellogg’s Los Angeles Times Jacket Copy piece is likewise terrific, and it’s here. The American Book Review’s piece is sprawling and, as we said, often self-indulgent but even so, you can find it here.

4 Comments:

Blogger michael said...

I thought the list was pointless. However I would enjoy reading readers responses to the question, "What was the worst "Great" book you have ever read?"

Every reader has suffered through more than one critically acclaimed classic. I am a fan of James Bond, yet I hate the works of Ian Fleming. The worst book I have ever read was "For Your Eyes Only". That book made me sad for all the trees that had to die for such a piece of garbage.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010 at 11:46:00 AM PDT  
Blogger michael said...

Congratulations for the Panik Award. Has Death Was In The Picture been proofread for Kindle?

Tuesday, March 16, 2010 at 8:01:00 PM PDT  
OpenID madmarvelgirl said...

The ABR article is definitely sprawling and self-indulgent, and some of the contributors struck me as wrong wrong wrong. But I'm likewise frustrated by the links and discussions of the article as though it were a 'list,' which it isn't. It's a collection of musings on the nature of what we call 'bad' books, which resists boiling down into pull-quotes, and I found a lot of insight in it.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010 at 6:06:00 AM PDT  
Blogger Linda L. Richards said...

Michael: thanks for the congrats and I'm not even sure what "proofread for Kindle" means. It was proofread for real people! And it was available on Kindle until the recent Macmillan/Amazon debacle. So...

And madmarvelgirl (!) your point is well taken. Calling the ABR piece a list is a bit reductionist. And my first reaction to the piece was actually relief: for years I've thought DH Lawrence's Women in Love was the crappiest piece of classic writing out there. It was kind of nice to discover it wasn't just me!

Wednesday, March 17, 2010 at 6:10:00 PM PDT  

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