Top 40 Bad Books - American Book Review

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1 Introduction to Focus: Top 40 Bad Books Richard Ford once said that it takes as much author produce a bad book? Is the badness in appearsnot even the question of what constitutes effort to produce a bad book as a good book. style, in execution? Or is it in theme or outlook? Or a bad book. And as disheartening as that sounds, what is the notion of a bad book even comprehensible From Eyal Amirans comments on the badness Fords assertion might raise, and what most everyone in the age of postmodernism, poststructuralism, and of Bond to Zahi Zallouas asking whether the state who has attempted the task of a book-length work cultural studies? of bad books is hopeless, youll find that theres a lot already knows, is the notion that effort alone does not Calling the question of bad books to the fore to think about when it comes to the question of bad ensure a books success, and that there are probably elicitedas might be expectedan overwhelming books. Some of the comments youll find agreeable; more ways for a good book to be overlooked than a response. The forty responses below were selected others disagreeable. Regardless, after reading them bad book to never make it into print. to demonstrate the sheer variety of responses to we think that youll at least agree that there is just That said, what constitutes a bad book? Is it what at face value seems a simple question. But as as much to say about bad books as there is to say an overrated good book? Can an otherwise good with most literary matters, nothing is as simple as it about good ones. A Spectre Haunts Bad Novels 4 Bad Books side of the first two sides, so that the opposing sides 2) Conformity was then rampant. often find themselves on the same side. 3) People who lie to themselves are unhappy. Eyal Amiran For this reason, Fleming replaced the Soviet 4) People who feel superior to their surround- University of California, Irvine SMERSH with SPECTRE in several of the novels. ings are frustrated. Special Executive for Counterintelligence, Terror- By this, I am as illuminated as I am by a college The problem with bad books is to find, as ism, Revenge, and Extortion is independent and essay decrying drunk driving. Friedrich Nietzsche counsels, worthy enemies. A itself hides behind FIRCO, an agency that locates (And yet my peers, and Vonnegut, and Mar- bad book has to be interesting, or we wouldnt care. French resistance fighters from the war. Because cus.) Strong schmaltz is an option, like The Little Prince SPECTRE stands for the multiplication of sides, it Why is it bad? Because its tricked so many (1943) or Cormac McCarthys The Road (2006) can animate the iterability of Bond while producing into thinking its good. (carry the light, anyone?), but pure genre work is a his correlative individualism and invulnerability. better bad. It can talk back, though no one is doing The series could not continue if the enemy, once the talking. In fact, thats the appeal of genre work. vanquished, were simply the other side. Bond is Ian Flemings novels consist entirely of cli- irreplaceable because he is double, one who only chs, coordinating conjunctions, and appositives. lives twice, who never says never, for whom No renaissance man, commander Bond is nobody, the world is not enough. Cheesy, laughable, and a super zero (a neutral figure, Fleming calls him) iterative: the writer who brought you a fudge recipe who lives to advertise a watchset, as they are in in Chitty-Chitty Bang-Bang (1964) introduces the magazines, to ten past ten. Hes a secret agent who bondsman of global capital. tells anyone his name. Being an agent, he cannot act for himself, and going everywhere, he has no real home and lives in a no-mans land where every side Revolutionary Road has another side, a third side that can be the second Sean Bernard University of La Verne See the legion of admirers of Revolutionary ABR welcomes its new Road (1961): many of my peers, Ben Marcus, Kate associate editors Winslet, Kurt Vonnegut, Time Magazine. I suspect Laura Bush and Joe Biden, as well. Of it Richard Yates told Ploughshares: I meant it more as an indictment of Cris Mazza is the American life in the 1950s. Because dur- Bad Books author of fifteen books, including ten novels, four ing the Fifties there was a general lust R.M. Berry collections of stories, and a for conformity all over this country, by Florida State University collection of personal essays. no means only in the suburbsa kind She is presently director of of blind, desperate clinging to safety and What makes a book bad? It gives me small the Program for Writers at securitya great many Americans were joy to hear the judgment pronounced, even by me, the University of Illinois at deeply disturbed by all that. since the effect is always stifling, regardless intent. Chicago. Underlying it is an insinuation that we know whats Good literature inspires emotion that is trans- lacking, that spread-eagle badness restores our faith ferred beyond simple admiration (magic seems in norms. Not that bad books arent legion. Christ!!! neat) into reality (Having read this novel, I must Christina Milletti weep). This emotion can be internal or external. It But after piling on, I always need a bath. E. M. For- ster pronounced Gertrude Stein bad, and it would be is an assistant professor at the can be anything: moral outrage, jaded humor, deep University at Buffalo, SUNY. pleasing to retort that the jokes on him, but who is sorrow, a reassurance that one is not alone, etc. Bet- Her work has appeared in reckless enough to explain why? In truth, no book ter literature inspires emotions we havent admitted has ever made a difference to me that someone whose The Cincinnati Review, Best we possess; it awakens us to the deep complexity judgment I respected didnt find execrable. New American Voices, and withinworks, then, that illuminate the (our) hu- Genre books arent bad. They are the para- The Chicago Review, among others. She is the aithor of The man spirit. digm of good books. If any writing can be justi- Religious and Other Fictions. Revolutionary Road tells me: fied, romances and Westerns and mysteries and 1) 1950s suburban America had limited outlets for the creatively inclined. continued on next page JanuaryFebruary 2010 Page 3

2 continued from previous page pornography can, being like the stain on a napkin, author. The Horowitz staffers tasked with compiling irrelevant or else important in a whole new way. exactly the size of themselves. Hasnt everybody on this stinker simply trolled online campus catalogs Or consider Theodore Dreisers The Genius occasion wished for badder books? Roland Barthes to yield course descriptions using such democracy- (1915). I taught it once, and recalled to the class T.S. famously remarked that he wrote books because he undermining terms as justice, inequality, race, Eliots great judgment of Henry James: a mind so didnt like the books he read. When younger I thought and feminism, then wrote lame descriptions fine that no idea could violate it. Dreiser, we might he must be talking about the books reviewers called characterizing the syllabi as part of a plot to deprive venture, had a mind so crude any idea could violate bad, but later I realized books like that rarely inspire William Gates and Dick Cheney of their hard-earned it. And yet who could not somehow honor his wooden anybody. Is badness, at bottom, more like incompe- profits. Once I got the concept, I briefly held the conceits as well as lumpish sentences? Not H. L. tence or like evil? Ronald Sukenick once confided to flickering hope that I could read it ironicallyas Mencken, who both loved them and loved to lambast me his ambition to write books no one would know in, hey, what a bunch of good classes I wish Id them. Not even my students (though all were relieved how to judge either bad or good. I feel that. been able to take in college. Wrong. The relentless, to move on with the syllabus). I dream of the book so horrendous it denies me narrow-minded prose thoroughly poisoned any hope Of course, off as well as on the syllabus, most peace, tracks me down in my haven, and compels me of snarky thoughtcrime. Even if you were one of the novels are bad. Bad, that is, in the words of the cel- to vomit rejoinders. To think that the author of How twits sympathetic to the political angle of this failed ebrated adage of the science fiction writer Theodore It Is (1964) won the Nobel Prize! Bad writing has its hit job, the concrete brutalism of its formal properties Sturgeon, ninety percent of everything is crud. muse, its geniuses. would crush your spirit in a few pageslike read- Their characters are dull, their themes hack- ing a years worth of your daily horoscopes straight neyed, their narratives derivative. Theyre scarcely through, or a cookbook cover to cover. bad in their own ways. What else to say? The Effort of Bad Writing Off the syllabus: nothing. On the syllabus: Michael Brub plenty. Pennsylvania State University To me, the most interesting examples of bad- ness take place within approved academic discourses. Women in Love (1920) by D. H. Lawrence. As Zora Neale Hurstons Their Eyes Were Watching the great W. Y. Tindall once wrote, God (1937), for one example, is wondrously bad: stylistically precious, lavishly sentimental, ludicrous Gudrun dances, for no reason, before of characterization (poor Janie), incoherent of theme cows. They understand. Even Hermione, (poor Janie, who yet manages to all but literally kill that intellectual, has her moments. In two men). But the great thing about the novel is that voluptuous consummation with violence, none of this matters! she hits Birkin on the head with her Whether from the point of view of feminism or paperweight. He goes off to lie among African American culture, Their Eyes is a damn good the flowers and, on returning to full con- book. How churlish now not so much to disagree as sciousness, approves of her momentary to intervene with other considerations altogether! triumph over repression. Indeed, I feel so bad right now that Im prepared to Or as Andy Bienen, my grad-school colleague turned admit its me thats bad, not Hurston. I should be screenwriter, more pithily put it, Its like someone picking on somebody who has either a more secure put a gun to Nietzsches head and made him write reputation or none at all. a Harlequin romance. No question, it took a lot of Academic Standards Can we conclude today that there are no more effort to produce a book that bad. Nicholas Brown bad books, only bad readers? Such readers dont University of Illinois at Chicago know how to make even the worst books productive. Making them productive wont make them better. It will just take the whole category of good vs. bad off Most academic books are bad. Nearly all of the seminar table, on which are stacked confident them. I doubt if the situation is particularly worse piles of Their Eyes. than at any other time. But there is something else I view as troubling: good books with bad proof- reading and useless indexes. With a bad book, bad The Bad Staggers On proofreading doesnt matter particularly, and a bad index doesnt matter at all. But what troubles me is John Domini that editors are publishing good books, books that Drake University will be cited for years and decades, as though they will be read once and left on the train. With a new A handful of parody responses occur to me, author, perhaps the time investment isnt worth do- such as a Euclidean proof of why one of my own ing things right, though this indicates a telling lack books is bad. But to play it straight, we should ask, of confidence in the material. But books by estab- why isnt bad in the eye of the beholder? Why lished authorities continue to emerge with distracting should a reader go with anything other than his or numbers of typos and lax fact checkingthis is at her gut? Whats the use of a critic? The challenge is A Failed Hit Job least selfish, since it condemns the rest of us to end- everywhere these days: on reader-centric websites less [sic]sand pointless onomastic indexes. As to Marc Bousquet that index, this is the digital age, I imagine an editor such as Goodreads (which I quite enjoy), and on Santa Clara University too many blogs to count. To see into the truly bad objecting, who needs it? To which I reply: make your takes training; one needs todiscernwhat a books full text available online and searchable (mangle the One-Party Classroom (2009) by David Horow- assumptions are and how it betrays themusually text any way you like, just give me the page number!) itz and Jacob Laksin. Whats worse than the kind and I withdraw the complaint. by falling back on ghost-gestures, some mimicry of right-wing drivel that gives yellow journalism a of the passions long since leached of value. But the bad name? A ghost-authored sequel, padded with crisis of so much contemporary criticism, especially over 150 witless, tendentious summaries of courses A Bad Book in the mainstream review forums, is that the old ges- that Horowitz erroneously imagined would frighten tures are the only ones most of the mighty Brahmins Middle America into hauling the faculty up the Terry Caesar understand. Most reviews these days seem written nearest telephone pole. At least the first book in this San Antonio, Texas by a software program, with inserts selected off an series, The Professors (2006), gave the 101 Most all-too-familiar menu: click, vivid settings, click, Dangerous Academics in America something to Bad novels, like unhappy families, are bad tormented characters. Thus, bad staggers on, brag about in their red-diaper parent-participation in their own ways. Take Herman Melvilles Pierre propped up by dunderheads. Small wonder readers preschools (whilst plotting Trotskyite mayhem from (1852)so extravagantly mannered as to be barely doubt the worth of a review such as this (which I behind piled bookshelves). This book just goes after readable, and yet so exquisitely conceived, so archly couldnt live without). the syllabi, not the scholarship of the faculty, and comic that you can emerge from its pages at last the somnolence it produces is hard to describe. Evi- and think that the whole assemblage is pretty good; dently, they should have credited Google as the third somehow the fact that the book is bad becomes either continued on next page Page 4 American Book Review

3 continued from previous page Very Baad Books would leap to associate the titular islet with the tall Tipping Point of Badness Caribbean cactuses that populate it, rather than, say, David B. Downing with artificial phalluses. All the same, there is already Amy J. Elias Indiana University of Pennsylvania something impressive about a novel whose very dust University of Tennessee jacket can prompt an browser to doubt Lets face it: we all know that when you add the its existence. Badness in the historical novel is particularly extra vowel, baad is the ultimate term of endearment. Yet Dildo Cay is bad in ways that surpass its discomfiting because the novelist makes an implicit All hipster, counter-culture, soul searchers love baad title. The product less of an unsteady hand than contract with the reader for verisimilitude of his- stuff, perhaps ever since Melvin Van Peebless 1971 of a resoundingly tin ear, the novels prose is so torical context, character, or idea, and then the form movie Sweet Sweetbacks Baadasssss Song. Thats categorically graceless as to supersede camp and itself guarantees that she can never fully deliver. because it does the right stuff: it refuses conformity plunge straight into ontological confusion. Herein, By design, historical fictions always embed a thesis to the powers that be; it refuses to take seriously all Id like to suggest, is the triumph of an exquisitely about history, and their badness becomes a matter the high-falutin ideals and pretenses; it gets down bad book such as Dildo Cay: it is so earnestly bad as of tipping point rather than failure. Badness enters with the real folks, whoever they might be. And its to call its own existence into question. In many ways, the nonparodic historical novel when an author a pretty rigorous taxonomy, best used, of course, for of course, the novel parades the typically forgettable overtly uses historically situated people, places, and the contemporary, the latest baad stuff. But you could qualities of other undistinguished midcentury fiction: cultures as mirrors, and denies their difference. It is take it back a bit, using the same criteria and say that, tawdry displays of local color, liberal deployments easy to fool readers who dont know history about for instance, Madame Bovary (1857) is baadso is of racism and misogyny, textbook Oedipal conflicts, how historical a novel is, and literary studies has Charlotte Perkins Gilmans The Yellow Wallpa- and the hypertrophic use of italics. But Dildo Cay made us believe that verisimilitude is a politically per, Kate Chopins The Awakening (1899), D. H. boasts countless passages that far exceed these disingenuous ideal anyway, so one feels retrograde Lawrences Lady Chatterleys Lover (1928), Henry indistinctions: saying that in the historical novel, the tipping point Millers Sexus (1949) and Nexus (1960), Samuel of badness is a failure of dialogue, a moment when Becketts Murphy (1938), Zora Neale Hurston and Father, I want to talk with you! a thesis about history becomes cocksure. But there it Langston Hughess Mule Bone (1930), Amiri Bara- Adrian had been watching his father is. It is the tipping point when an author transcribes kas Dutchman (1964), Thomas Pynchons Gravitys walk the dike unsteadily, and suddenly he only his own desire echoing from the past. Rainbow (1973), Toni Morrisons Beloved (1987), had seen himself at the age of sixty walk- It happens in very good novels by very good and so onyou get the point, theres a lot of baad ing the dike unsteadily, and on top of his novelists. It happens in Toni Morrisons A Mercy stuff there thats really good. restlessness it was too much for him. (2008) when Morrison refuses fully to open her mind But can a book be baad and bad at the same How strong do you think that pickle to seventeenth-century religious life, in The March time given this taxonomy? The answer has to be: is? his father asked, ignoring the tone of (2005) when E. L. Doctorow rewrites historical of course. The book can be hip, cool, revolutionary, Adrians voice. fact to such little purpose that his thesis goes banal. code breaking on many levels, but just plain crappy. It happens in Saturday (2005), an oddly historical If ever the family romance has so forcefully raised Examples will have to work here, and so Im going novel of the present, when Ian McEwan implies that its pickle, I know few other novels so susceptible to nominate for dual honors Bob Dylans 1966 classic a good poem read well can turn the hearts of men to accidental (?) allegory. We all walk the dike baad book, Tarantula. If this isnt baad and bad at the from violence to fraternity, a wishful thesis about unsteadily. same time, I give up. So Im just going to end with terror in our time. These moments of badness are It has become a minor ambition of mine to the first, well, lets call it sentence of the book: moments of authorial ego when dialogism fails. But become a connoisseur, or at least a collector, of they also are slippages that instruct about our own aretha/ crystal jukebox queen of hymn & books as marvelously bad as Dildo Cay. Consider the moment: an authors desires, the readers own face him diffused in drunk transfusion wound Borgesian possibilities of such a library, especially in the glass. would heed sweet soundwave crippled & given that one is spared from inventing its contents. cry salute to oh great particular el dorado The titles, the authors, and the prose are no less fic- reel & ye battered personal god but she tional for being real, historical artifacts. A Species of Sorryness cannot she the leader of whom when ye Such books are not to be confused, however, follow, she cannot she has no back she with ephemera, whose material existence may once Dagoberto Gilb cannot have been transitory, but which have instead been University of Houston-Victoria preserved against the ravages of time. Rather, the If you love that, you know youre baad, no matter that the book itself is bad. status of a bad book like Dildo Cay represents something akin to an eclipse: these are books whose Like bad girlfriends (and boyfriends, too), there material form raises the same doubts, the same ques- are so many categories of bad books that itd be grue- tions about their existence, as their outlandish titles. some and pathetic to categorize the various species Dildo Cay of that sorryness. Setting aside the intrinsically My gradually increasingly library of such bad books Jonathan P. Eburne aggravating that the very coquetish author is actually now boasts titles such as Mary Wood-Allens What stupid, or the editor who chose the manuscript is too Pennsylvania State University a Young Woman Ought to Know (1898), Frances dumb or lame or dazzled, or that the system which Neumans The Hard-Boiled Virgin (1926), Virginia perpetuates both of them is as flawed as a university Theyre not flamingoes, Adrian thought; there Elliotts post-Prohibition Quiet Drinking (1933), and paying for a Glenn Beck lecture series, and omitting wouldnt be flamingoes on Dildo Cay in September. Isaac Cronins The International Squid Cookbook the writers who are really salespeople, as are their It is through this keen eye for regional detail that we (1981). Whats next? To quote the novels closing duped or complicit publishers hyping their so pretty encounter the opening lines of Nelson Hayess 1940 line: Keep your jib fullour course is for Dildo product as though. Wait a minute, that may be what novel, Dildo Cay, a very real book whose title is so Cay. I think is a major bad book or line of them even. outlandish as to have provoked an incredulous review As admirable as any delusion which fuels (as well as a single star rating) on The grandeur, this kind of writingmore about the writer review, entitled Elaborate hoax, reads: than the writingnot only fulfills that mirror, mirror Im sorry to report that this book does not on the wall writer, but, like political demagoguery, actually exist. Whats next? A bogus pumps mass appeal in (talking only literature here) listing for Goodnight Mooninite to shill skewed and depressing ways. the Cartoon Network? It is unfortunate that some people seem to think that Amazon is some sort of A Taste for Quarantine amusement park, like a literary Astroland, here for nothing more than their moronic Gerald Graff brand of hedonism. University of Illinois at Chicago The book does, in fact, exist. Yet Dildo Caya It has always seemed strange to me that bad salt-plantation melodrama set on a fictionalized books arent a prominent part of our school and island in the Turks and Caicoswarrants skepti- college literature curriculum. How do we expect cism nonetheless. For starters, one questions the presumption that even the most sober war-era reader continued on next page JanuaryFebruary 2010 Page 5

4 continued from previous page students to learn to tell the difference between good Suspect too. What would they be like? They would, I believe, and bad books unless we assign some bad ones for be bad. Really bad. comparison? Dont you need badness in order to Carol Guess But of course what we are talking about here, know goodness? Western Washington University I think, are the bad books that have been published. I can only conclude that those who have de- Better yet, we are talking about the bad books that termined the literature curriculum have been more Heather Lewiss second novel, Notice (2004), haveat one time or anotherbeen thought by a interested in protecting the good or great books from is a work of genius. Underrated, rarely discussed, significant number of people to be good. These buck- contaminationthat is, in feeling virtuous about the book belongs with contemporary classics. It is ets of peanut butterDonald Barthelmes phrase for their own tastesthan they are in helping students perhaps the most disturbing book Ive ever read, and bad bookssit sadly on the shelves of every used understand what they read. There is also the view, among the most compelling. It illuminates the state bookstore in the world, hundreds and hundreds of of female, specifically lesbian, subjectivity under bad books, wretched books, books once produced though, that reading good books is itself sufficient contemporary American regimes by deconstructing by gleeful publishers and bought by hopeful readers, no reason to read bad ones for comparison, especially genres that have failed to capture womens experi- books which await new company from the buckets since some students might think some of the bad ences: pulp, noir, mystery, romance. It subverts of peanut butter now sprightly lining the shelves at ones are good and vice-versa, or might catch on to these genres, yet never falls prey to the directives of Barnes & Noble and Borders. the fact that which books are good or bad is often political correctness. But what we are really talking about are bad alarmingly debatable. books which have been seriously acclaimed as good Notice was published posthumously. Its narra- The best thing Ive ever read on the question tive voice was so unique that no press would touch books, even great ones. Or, at least, bad books written of literary value, by the way, is a chapter entitled it until Lewis committed suicide at forty. Her suicide by writers who have been acclaimed as good, even Evaluation in Making Sense of Literature (1977) allowed the books publication; now she was dead, great. With this we enter into a more joyous world, by the late John Reichert. This book deserves greater and sufficiently chastened for examining experiences a world of laughter and tears. Across the River and prominence. that mainstream culture attempts to suppress. Into the Trees (1950), Grimus (1975), The End of the Before she killed herself, Lewis wrote one more Affair (1951), half of John Updike, the bad William novel, The Second Suspect (1998). This book was Wordsworth, the bad Percy Bysshe Shelley. And Romance for Men published and reviewed during her lifetime. It was now, big danger: Pamela (1740), the poems of James Christine Granados bought, and it was read. Joyce, Frankenstein (1818). Texas A&M University The Second Suspect is a terrible book. But its I am in trouble now, so I will get out of it. not just a bad book; its so much more. Its a bad Frankenstein is a book made great by its badness. I believe that the novel is a blueprint into a book riffing off the authors masterpiece. The Second We cannot do without it. Nor can we do without writers soul. Anyone who has ever attempted to Suspect is a rewriting of Notice, but minus everything one more book, the greatest bad book in the English write one knows how much of the author is embedded that makes Notice literary. The Second Suspect takes language. It is not great in the way that Frankenstein into its sentences and structure. When I read what I plot, characters, and themes from Notice and reduces is great, of course. It is great because it cannot but consider to be a bad book, I notice that it is usually them to formulaic drivel. deeply entertain us with its earnest vigor, its invin- written by an arrogant person. The Second Suspect is the work of an author cible belief in its own genius, its merciless craft, its Cormac McCarthys All the Pretty Horses who understood that her masterpiece had been cen- transcendent obliviousness. I give you this, if you (1992) comes immediately to mind. I think of it as a sored, tossed aside, misunderstood. So she sat down have not already heard: Poetic Gems by William romance novel for men, his trilogy included. Like all and rewrote it. She made it bad, deliberately bad. And McGonagall, poet and tragedian. the public loved it. good romance novel writers, McCarthy uses clichs and derivative characters to sell millions of copies. Failed Expectations He gives men a romanticized view Walter R. Jacobs of manliness. Mc- University of Minnesota Carthy wraps his characters in half- I liked [Sag Harbor], but did not love it or truths and ideal- really like it as I do [Colson Whiteheads] ized anecdotes, other books (especially The Intuitionist). much like Jackie I cant put my finger on exactly why. Per- Collins does, only haps its that the other books have either his are about the a slightly unreal aspect (e.g., Elevator Lone Star State, Inspectors intuiting elevator functioning), the border, and its or are larger than life (the subject of John cowboy myths. Henry Days). Whatever the reason, its His strong, silent, still worth a read, but I dont think that this and very Ameri- is the best work of Colson Whitehead. can John Grady The above is my July 2009 review of Colson White- Cole is a main character that can only come from Buckets of Peanut Butter heads coming-of-age novel Sag Harbor (2009) on reading Louis LAmour pulp fiction and watching the social networking site Goodreads. The Bad John Wayne and Clint Eastwood Westerns. Kim Herzinger Books project is helping me complete my thoughts. McCarthy, originally from Tennessee by way University of Houston-Victoria Sag Harbor is bad because it fails to live up to high of Rhode Island, adds his superiority complex into expectations (The Intuitionist [2000] is on my Top 10 the tale when he has Cole and his two companions We dont know the really bad books. The really favorite books list). Id now add that its bad because traverse the border into the wilds of Mexico where bad books, most of them, were never published. its hyphenated: many reviews (on Goodreads and Theyre out there, though, hundreds of thousands of elsewhere) note that Sag Harbor is semi-autobio- adventure awaits. Cole beds the Felina of Mc- them, in drawers, in a box in the garage, in publishing graphical; the semi should have been deleted! Carthys imagination (only in this tale her name house dumpsters worldwide. Some of them, perhaps, As a privileged African American with experiences is Alejandra, and she is rich) and holds his own in are buried deep in the dumpsters of vanity press similar to those of the main character, a memoir a Mexico that is seen through his colonizing lens, publishing houses. Perhaps there are books so unre- would have really activated serious personal reflec- meaning a foreign country filled with black and claimably bad that even the money the author was tion. Instead, in many places I found myself stuck on white (mostly black). The natives are either violent willing to put out for publication just wasnt enough. questions like Did that happen to the real Colson? and corrupt or gentle and honest. Cole gets the best Perhaps, once, even a vanity press house turned in and This passage is definitely fake, instead of Im of these natives in the end, teaching them a thing or shame, refunded the money, and bandied the words reminded of the time when I or I should have two about his truth and diplomacy, and heads back its just not for us around the room. Perhaps. been. So, in sum, Sag Harbor is a bad book home to the good U.S. of A. Perhaps the people who are writing us emails because it fails to fully open multiple new worlds Is it any wonder that such a book was written from Nigeria, telling us we are heirs to 2.35 million for me, as do Whiteheads other efforts. by a man who said in an interview last year, I ended dollars if we would only allow them to deposit it in up in the Southwest because I knew that nobody had our accounts (enter your routing number and account ever written about it? number, please)perhaps they are writing books, continued on next page Page 6 American Book Review

5 continued from previous page Heartbreaking Judith Kitchen Pacific Lutheran University I love almost everything Colum McCann has written, so I was surprised at my frustration with Let the Great World Spin (2009). How do I not love thee? Let me count the ways: 1) It does not live up to McCanns own standardsdoes not have the inherent em- pathy of Everything in This Country Must (2001) or the inventive vitality of Dancer (2003). 2) Its romanticized two-dimensional, cutout Setting a Bad Example characters (troubled priest, cheerful pros- titute, wealthy matron, ineffectual judge, Steven G. Kellman single black mother) strut and fret their hour University of Texas at San Antonio on an unconvincing stage. 3) Its plot is overtly manipulated; its Any weeks bestseller list offers a bounty of almanac detailspull rings on Coke cans, bad books. Though hardly as bad as some, the best- dimes in the jukebox, A-line dressesseem selling novel of the nineteenth century earned the meant to provide what W. S. Gilbert and Walking Hypothesis opprobrium it once attracted. In 1949, when Harriet Arthur Sullivan called merely corrobora- Beecher Stowes literary tour of what her subtitle tive detail. One should not want to play Sue-Im Lee calls Life Among the Lowly was out of print, James gotcha with a novel, but instead willingly Temple University Baldwin encountered scant argument for writing: enter its spinning world. Uncle Toms Cabin is a very bad novel, having, in 4) Its message remains obscure. Eight One breed of a bad book is a disappointing years after 9/11, its impossible to read the its self-righteous, virtuous sentimentality, much in novel from an author for whom you harbor ex- opening imagethe common with Little Women. However, sentimental- pectations. Previous encounters with this authors figure of a man mod- ity has since been sentimentalized as a strategy for eled on Philippe Petit novels have pleased you immensely, and you look validating womens voices, and Stowe and Louisa walking a tightrope forward to another opportunity. This opportunity May Alcott have both been canonized. A Jury of between the unfin- comes surprisingly early and frequently, since this Her Peers (2009), Elaine Showalters new history ished Twin Tow- author publishes a novel every few years. But by of American womens literature, pronounces Uncle erswithout think- the third novel, you experience growing indigna- Toms Cabin (1852) an American masterpiece ing surely this stunt/ tion at the familiarity of it all. Only the names have and its author a great writer, a daring and forceful spectacle will com- been changed to play out the central drama that this architect of narrative, a gifted painter of character, ment indirectly on author finds so compellingsame things seem to be and a sophisticated manager of symbolism, irony, post-9/11 America. cause for concern, same tensions seem to afflict the and allegory. In his lavishly annotated edition of McCann claims to characters, and same language floats out to manifest Uncle Toms Cabin (2006), Henry Louis Gates, Jr. be more interested in thosewalking the this fictional world. offers absolution for its racist attitudes. tightrope on the ground, but by juxtapos- The thing is, you shared the compulsion for Yet it is hard not to cringe when told that Tom ing Petits deliberate risk taking with lives the first two or three novels. By the third novel, you had the soft, impressible nature of his kindly race, lost in Vietnam, he belabors a flimsy point. were aware that your perfunctory appreciation was The book knows neither the New York City ever yearning toward the simple and childlike or largely based on good faith. So when you encounter of 1974 nor the underlying nature of our that: the disappointing novel, the authors credit is not national grief: our loss of innocence. The negro, it must be remembered, is an 5) And then, theres the poetry! The book only depleted, there is a lien placed against it. The exotic of the most gorgeous and superb crackles like a literary scavenger hunt as Mc- novel feels like a walking hypothesis. In fact, from countries of the world, and he has, deep in Cann drops line after increasingly annoying this vantage point, all this authors novels are walking his heart, a passion for all that is splendid, quoted line. Despite reviews that hail the hypothesis. You try to be charitable about the predict- rich, and fanciful; a passion which, rudely novel as a heartbreaking symphony, my ability of human thinking, a human condition, but indulged by an untrained taste, draws on heart only breaks because it falls apart; the you cant exonerate an author whose hypothesis has them the ridicule of the colder and more center cannot hold. become tiresome through repetitiveness. These are correct white race. the bad books I encounter in contemporary fiction, books that appear too quickly upon the heels of the George Orwell called Uncle Toms Cabin a good last one, books that never had a chance at acquiring bad book. It did good by targeting the peculiar in- their own language and drama. stitution that reduced human beings to chattel. But, Gatsby substituting sanctimony for empathy and polemic for Tom LeClair poetry, it set a bad example for literary art. Teaching Bad Books The University of Cincinnati Sophia A. McClennen If badness is related to perceived greatness, then Pennsylvania State University I offer The Great Gatsby (1925) as the worst novel in American literature. I havent read it for many years, In almost every class, I teach a bad book, since the only time I used it in a Modern American an awful, poorly written, sometimes sexist, racist, Fiction class, but I remember it as incredibly smug reactionary book. about its relationship to the traditional realistic novel. I do this for a few reasons. First of all, I do it While Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, William to see if my students notice. I taught a selection of Faulkner, and others were taking chances, F. Scott stories by Isabel Allende in a course on Latin Ameri- Fitzgerald was manipulating conventions to create can women writers while teaching in Peru. The day a book that would be charming. One could blame I walked in to teach the students were all mumbling Nick the narrator, but I think Fitzgerald is respon- under the breath, casting semi-hostile looks at me. sible. I turned to Tender Is the Night (1934), usually They had hated it. Thought it was really bad. Thought considered a bad book, to give students a Fitzgerald she couldnt write, thought her stories were sexist and with more aesthetic courage and, for all that novels sentimentality, more profundity about money and marriage. continued on next page JanuaryFebruary 2010 Page 7

6 continued from previous page derivative of masters like Gabriel Garca Mrquez. As he fingered the rarest of codices, peer- God [1937])then what Im really saying isnt that But they assumed that I had to like it or I wouldnt ing at the faded inks and delicate, veined the book is bad but that its readers are bad; or, more have put it on the syllabus. When they found out I parchments, his expression changed. He to the point, that theyre not as good as I am. Their hated it too, we had a great time in class trashing it moistened his lips. Serif noted that his taste is bad, where mine (of course) is refined; their critically and learning a lot in the process. pupils were dilated, like a lovers. education is inadequate, compared to mine; theyre So now you know that other reason I like to susceptible to being distracted by commerce or ide- The reader who can be pulled into this world or teach bad books. I like to trash them. I like to teach ology or piety or the prestige of big names, whereas moved by such a direct attempt to call forth an emo- my students that they can trash bad books. Too much Im immune to all that, etc., etc. This seems, well, tion is not me. reverence for the literary can float around graduate invidious; anyway, I dont think I really want to go Much more interesting are the writers who programs in literature. We feel besieged as our pro- there. Let a thousand flowers bloom. Let readers read struggle with the exhaustion of the realistic mode, grams shrink and our students dwindle, and the result as they please, and what they please. but who are still determined to tell a story. What kind can be an odd, misplaced aura of the book. That is no of voice can such a writer provide when hyper-aware good. All literature is not good. Some is really bad, that, as William H. Gass puts it, all novelists are and we need to learn how to talk about why it is bad. Classic Bad Books liars. Heres two samples from two contemporary And we need to have some fun doing it. Without the American novelists. Paul Allen Miller recognition and railing about the bad book, there can Hed always thought of himself as a pro- University of South Carolina be no real pleasure in the good one. I just finished my graduate syllabus for this gressive. He believed in the perfectibility of the republic. He thought, for instance, Bad books in my field, classics and compara- term. I have a really, really bad one on there. I wonder that there was no reason the Negro could tive literature, come in two primary varieties. The if the students will notice. not with proper guidance carry every first is the easiest to spot. These books are generally burden of human achievement. He did not dull plodding affairs in which a hobbyhorse is ridden believe in aristocracy except of individual into the ground over several hundred pages. They Realistic Exhaustion effort and vision. often include long lists and tables but very little real John McGowan analysis or probing argument. The prose is wooden And the second: and the documentation laborious. Many of these are University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill He took the lamp from beside the bed and unrevised dissertations. They are often published What I ask for from a novel is easily stated jerked the cord free and climbed up onto by what are uncharitably termed vanity presses: for and very difficult to accomplish. The storyteller, the dresser and stove in the grate with the profit companies with little if any objective refereeing whether distanced from the events narrated or a metal lampshade and pulled it loose and of manuscripts (e.g., some allow you to pick your looked in. He could see the dragmarks own referees). These presses often demand hefty character implicated in them, must come across as in the dust. He climbed down and stood subventions, print only very small runs, and expect a man speaking to men (to use William Words- there. Hed got blood and matter on his the authors to do almost all the editorial work. They worths formula). I must believe the storyteller is a shirt from off the wall and he took the shirt profit off the need of academics to publish books for person talking to me about matters of real concern off and went back into the bathroom and tenure and promotion. They take advantage of the and in a voice a real person would use in earnest washed himself and dried with one of the nave who believe that getting something between conversation with another. Basic, boring realist bath-towels. hard covers will be their ticket to professional suc- aesthetics, you might sayand it is true that I read cess or at least survival, when often all it means is serious fiction compulsively while having no taste Good or bad writing isnt found in sentence structure that either the authors or their institutions will be out for fantasy, science fiction, mystery, or other genre or word choice. The first writer establishes an ironic several thousand dollars. novels, and a limited tolerance for avant-garde writ- distance from sentiments he cannot endorse, but The second variety of bad books represents the ers like Kathy Acker, Thomas Bernhard, or even which he can get inside of, and which he relates mirror image of the first. These books make auda- David Foster Wallace. And so, yes, within my chosen in the epiphanic moment that his character experi- cious claims, profess to shift the reigning paradigms world of realistic fiction, bad writing fails to provide ences a moment of self-doubt. The second writer in their field, and are often written with a decided an interesting angle, an arresting take, on the world uses distance as a shield from all sentiment, to be rhetorical panache. They feature little in the way of it unfolds. Heres a good example of bad writing, the recording angle who reveals no angle of vision, real supporting evidence and offer specious or circu- from Geraldine Brookss much-praised People of nothing about himself as narrator or his characters R the Book (2008): Fabers pale hands caressed each volume. He turned the pages with exquisite care. as people. Its all storyand its all pointless. And, worst of all, to me it sounds all affected, a tough- guy persona that I dont believe for a moment. I am baffled by the high regard in which Cormac Mc- Carthy (the quote is from No Country For Old Men [2005]) is held. Give me E. L. Doctorow (Ragtime [1975]) every time. lar argumentation in favor of their grandiose claims. They are almost always books by well-known senior figures in their fields and published by well-respected academic and commercial presses. They have been nominally refereed, but because of the prestige of their authors and the relatively large potential sales anticipated by the press, these books are allowed to get by with a degree of argumentative and evidentiary sloppiness that would never be tolerated in the work K O of more junior colleagues. Such books allow unsup- EV On Being Bad O B IE portable claims to become current in their respective Brian McHale academic disciplines, and it is only the prospect of W The Ohio State University rigorous and critical reviews in major journals that serve as a break on their pernicious effects. When we are invited to reflect on bad books, I take it that what is really meant is books that some- body misguidedly thinks are good; otherwise, why An Idiomatic Inferno A bother? After all, the world is full of bad books that Christian Moraru nobody would bother to argue about.For instance, I M University of North Carolina at Greensboro read a lot of science fiction, and plenty of it is pretty ER bad, but so what? Who wants to hear about my dis- IC In Jean-Paul Sartres 1944 play Huis clos (No coveries in the lower reaches of genre fiction, or to AN Exit), a character, Garcin, infamously declares, Hell argue about whether (say) the last volume of David is others. What does that mean, many have asked Wingroves Chung Kuo series is bad or not? Badness themselves. Some have said that the pronouncement comes with the territory. Nothings at stake. conveys the uneasiness the writer and modernity SUBSCRIBING TO IT IS AN ACT OF LITERARY RESPONSIBLITY. The Wilson Library Bulletin But if I call a book bad when something is overall typically experience before alterity. Yet Sar- at stakewhen, by some criteria, it ought to qualify tre insisted that he had been misunderstood. What ONE OF THE NATIONS LIVELIEST GENERAL-PURPOSE READERS GUIDES TO EVERYTHING. as good; when its a bestseller (The Da Vinci Code his character meant, he explained, was not that our Michael Brub [2003]), or a text by a canonical author (Theodore relations with others are infernal by definition, but Dreiser), or one that turns up on course syllabi for that if these relations are distorted, then the other can reasons that somebody might find dubious (piety, continued on next page political correctness; Their Eyes Were Watching Page 8 American Book Review

7 continued from previous page be to us nothing else than hell because the others the idiomatic inferno of narrow-mindedness and de- the trial or Clydes incarceration. There is an old are the most important thing within ourselves that we lusional autarchy. They do no speak to you because Hollywood saw: You take good books and make can draw from to know who we are. When we think they are busy speaking to themselves. bad movies, and you take bad books and make good about ourselves, when we try to find out who we are, movies. A Place in the Sun is a wonderful movie, Sartre went on, we use the knowledge others already but it pushes only one part of Dreisers novel. Stevens have of us. We form an opinion of ourselves by means Textual Snowflakes has Elizabeth Taylor come visit Clyde on death row, of tools others have given us. Whatever I say about whereas, in the novel, no such meeting with Sondra, myself, an others judgment is always contained in Daniel T. OHara the rich girl, takes place, and when Clyde is marched it. This means that if my relations with an other are Temple University off to the death chamber, Elizabeth Taylors face is bad, I am completely dependent on this other. And superimposed behind Montgomery Clift, and Clifts then I am truly in hell (my translation). I decide a book is bad if I get angrier and angrier expression can only be read to mean that it is worth Before and after Sartre, the moderns (to say as I read it. That happens rarely. But if I discover an being executed in order to have dated Elizabeth Tay- nothing of their postmodern heirs) have both recog- author cheating, by taking shortcuts, not doing the lor, not the message that Dreiser wanted to convey. nized and disowned this dependence. It is not that necessary homework however long it might take, ATT, though, is a great novel, great enough to survive our relationships with others are good, bad, and any- relying on second-hand knowledge, overlooking a bad ending in either medium. thing in between. It is just that, no matter how they the other sides of the issue, or experience, then I am are, they always define us and therefore shape our ready to explode, and so I know it is a bad book. If I self-definitions, who we are, who we think we are, am served up a self-interested snow job these days, or what we want to be taken for. Like it or not, being it is usually done in the name of a good cause, which entails being dependent on people and situations makes it harder to criticize. outside you. Autonomy is a superstition, solipsism Wai Chee Dimocks Through Other Continents: an untenable view of things, and egotism unethical, American Literature across Deep Time (2006) is my in todays network society more than ever. choice. The book received honorable mentions in One way of looking at bad booksone way of nationally prestigious contests, and leading Ameri- entertaining the notion that there are bad books at all canists have given it their endorsements. The gist in the wake of the culture wars, the canon debate, and of its argument, taken from its publishers website, multiculturalismwould be trying to figure out the is, Throughout, Dimock contends that American degree to which the text in question allows for this literature is answerable not to the nation-state, but outside, acknowledges this paramount dependence. to the human species as a whole, and that it looks Now, moderns like Sartre were ambivalent about it. A dramatically different when removed from a strictly romantic aftershock, their authenticity standard was national or English-language context. one of originality. To be authentic was to be original, I applaud this goal, yet all of the texts drawn Poetic Throwback and to be original was to be indebted to no one or at from global contexts across deep time are present- least to appear so. The postmoderns borrow overtly ed in English translations. Henry Jamess novels and Marjorie Perloff and revel in literary and cultural indebtedness. They The Epic of Gilgamesh, to give one comic example, Stanford University call it intertextuality and define authenticity, and get read together. I knowin this case, who cares? with it originality, rather correlatively. To them, the But this is true throughout. Knowing a text in its The various poetry books collected in Frederick original writer handlesplays on, recycles, etc. original language and cultural contexts is crucial. Seidels blockbuster Poems 19592009 (2009) have effectively a material, a theme, and even a project If such knowledge is removed, due to the scholars won extravagant praise from important poet-critics that in an important sense comes from and echoes an inadequacies or the assumed readers, the result is like Michael Hofmann (Life on Earth is an exem- outside, an elsewhere, other times and places. readings lacking resonance, depth, weight. Reading plary book[o]ne of the best by an American poet Surely some postmoderns do a better job than then is like looking at a childs shaken snow globe, in the past twenty years) and Lawrence Joseph, others. Needless to say, there are good postmodern with the texts-snowflakes gradually settling down to who declares in The Nation that Seidel is one of the books, and then there are some not so good. But what one common level. All are globally equal now but most vital and important poets we have. What the postmodernism can be said to be doing more and equally bland and banal. critics (almost all male, I should note) seem to like more these daysand thus possibly take postmod- about Seidel is his candorhis willingness, in casual, ernism in a new direction altogether, and into a new chatty (but occasionally rhyming) free verse, to let it cultural paradigmis institutionalize this concern, Ending Badly all hang out, to talk about the messes hes gotten into, implement this poetics of dependence systematically, especially with the women hes gone to bed with and in the process ground our aesthetical judgments William A. ORourke women who have absurd foibles and hang-ups. ethically. University of Notre Dame Cloclo, from Ooga-Booga (2006), for ex- Let us face it: yesterdays bad books are on ample, is an elegy of sorts for The golden person todays syllabi. Think, for example, about the whole Ive been telling students for many years that curled up on my doormat, / Using her mink coat as sentimental tradition, about romance, or about the Theodore Dreisers An American Tragedy (1925) is a blanket who had lost the key to the apartment and paraliterary genres. Things change, as they must, one of the best American novels, up until the time was found by the poet Luxuriously asleep in front of standards evolve (some say, collapse), benchmarks Clyde is caught, then it goes into the toilet, more or the front door like a dog. What fun for the man who shift, for all the usually stated and unstated reasons. less. A great book than goes down hill at the end. finds her there! Seidel proceeds to recall her life of What does not go away is, first, the writers and their Recently, I looked at it again, to see if what I have artsy vacuousness, the poem ending with the phone books genetic dependence on othersprecursors, thought for so long is true. AAT is divided into three call from Florence, informing him audiences, the people out there beyond the famil- books; book three is essentially a police procedural, that she has died quietly a minute ago, ial and the familiarand, second, the talent and and here Dreiser makes use of what was historic Like a tear falling in a field of snow, honesty with which that connection is incorporated, material, since a similar killing had taken place, Climbing up the ladder to the bells out of accounted for, and paid homage to. To write is to along with a circus-like trial, a fixture of the era, Alzheimers total whiteout, write with and ultimately for others. Writing is mov- some twenty years earlier, one that had inspired Heavenly Clotilde Peploe called by us all ing toward others, says Paul Auster. We write, adds the book. So, part of the problem is that theres a Cloclo. Julia Kristeva, to honor the foreignas we should, lot of telling at the end, unlike the showing that had How cleverly condescending can one get? A strangers to ourselves as we quintessentially are. been going on earlier, such as the murder scene tear falling in a field of snow! Poor old Cloclo: she To my mind, the worst books bask ignorantly on the lake. In that way, the first two thirds of AAT never had a chance, at least not in Seidels poem. And in a sort of stultifying self-centeredness hard to is more a product of Dreisers imagination, until this poet is also given to writing political poems like fathom, by me at least. Exercises in navel-gazing and reality takes over, since the actual murderer did not The Bush Administration, which relates the poets simplistically formulaic, their horizon is exceedingly share Clydes fictional background. The character of own suicidal thoughts (so sui-Seidel) to the events narrow. They do not care and are not curious. They Clyde had been pulled out of Dreisers own murky leading up to 9/11 (The United States of America do not explore and do not take risks. They do not inner life. Dreiser has never been accused of being preemptively eats the world), responding to the draw from a world, nor do they not call out to one, a stylist, so a difference in language is not the ques- radio news of an American being beheaded in the and in that do not project one either, as Thomas tion; it is more a matter of Dreiser letting the public Congo with the words The downpour drumming on Pynchons character famously puts it. Bad books may record interfere with his re-imagining. In any case, be, to some, stylistically exquisitefor now, for this in the 1951 movie, A Place in the Sun, directed by scholastic-aesthetical momentbut usher you into George Stevens, Stevens spends hardly any time on continued on next page JanuaryFebruary 2010 Page 9

8 continued from previous page my taxi gets the Hutu in me dancing, and soon he bad, its good.) who push themselves and their projects to the limits is imagining himself on all fours eating grass / So Books are not just objects but also rhetorical of the feasible would occasionally overstep in one I can throw up because I like the feeling. / I crouch actions in which authors try to do things to their direction or another. In this category, I think the over a carcass and practice my eating. Is this a dar- readers. Consequently, books can own their own greatest bad books must belong to Gustave Flaubert, ing revelation of ones inner demons? I suppose so, badness. And they can be bad in three ways: 1) the a writer so wary of writing the same novel twice but when we note that the poet who has these fleeting things they try to dotheir goalscan be bad; 2) that instead he took each book as an opportunity to thoughts is comfortably inside his taxi, most often their goals can be good but their efforts to achieve reinvent the entire genre. Madame Bovary (1857) on the Upper East Side where he lives so well, the those goals can be bad; 3) both their goals and their is, obviously, a great book, and Three Tales (1877) admission seems merely tasteless. If you like the efforts to achieve them can be bad. Good things and Sentimental Education (1869). Bouvard and tell-all nastiness encountered here, you may well authors try to do include giving us new ideas and Pecuchet (1881) is to my mind the greatest of them chuckle along with these images of Seidels frayed new ways of thinking, engaging and sharpening our allbut not all of them are great. Salammbo (1862) nerve ends. To me, these oh-so-witty and painful ethical values, offering us enriching aesthetic experi- is not great, although the idea of it is great. But The psychodramas feel like a throwback to the worst of ences. But sometimes the new way of thinking turns Temptation of Saint Anthony (1874)thats my John Berryman and Robert Lowell in the 1950s. In out to be incoherent, the ethical values we engage pick for a bad book. His friends told him to hide it 2010, who needs it? with are abhorrent, and/or the vision of aesthetic away, not to publish it, and while its tempting to bliss is riddled with clichs. Sometimes the goals romanticize any negative reception of a great art- can be good, but the gap between those goals and the ist, in this case I think they were right. It just isnt Engaged Literature ability to achieve themat the level of style, char- a good book. acterization, plotting, as wide as the Pacific John D. Pizer Ocean. Other times the goals can be deficient and Louisiana State University the efforts to achieve them embarrassingly weak. In these cases, the only interesting question about this Two of the leading theorists of the second half third phenomenon is whether the double deficiency of the twentieth century, Roland Barthes and Hans- multiplies or mitigates the badness. Georg Gadamer, give us models of reception theory, I submit that the most interesting badness in that, when considered in tandem, provide one avenue books is partial badness. Its easy to dismiss the thor- for defining a bad work of imaginative literature. oughly bad, but the mixture of the bad and the good Barthes proposed the idea that there are two kinds is compelling. If Mark Twain had nailed the ending of literary works, readerly and writerly. Readerly to Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), would the works do the work of the reader, guiding him or her novel be so widely discussed? If Twain had written a in one clear path that allows no interpretive devia- less brilliant first two-thirds of his novel, would his tion, providing all the information, dotting all the is ending have as many defenders as it does? If that first and crossing all the ts, while a writerly work forces two-thirds were not so brilliant, would the ending be the reader to actively engage with the text, only as bad as it is? No, no, and no. suggesting modelsmultiple modelsof exegesis. Of course its bad to ask such tendentious ques- Gadamer focused on the hermeneutics of reception, tions and answer them with unsupported blanket how a genuine work of literature forces the reader to assertions. But providing the support would be worse, reach across the ages, across cultural and linguistic since it would entail an ethicaland aesthetic barriers, to meet the author half way. breach of the conventions of this forum. So, I end Worthwhile literary works force the readers my rhetorical action with a reminder that even if its active participation and inspire him or her to engage bad, its good. in the hard work of hermeneutic dialogue. Bad books do not do this. Of course, a bad book written in a past age and/or anchored in an unfamiliar linguistic or Zombie Mayhem The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly cultural milieu might force a contemporary reader to do the sort of bridgework called for by Gadamer, but Liedeke Plate Kyle Schlesinger once that bridge is crossed, one finds exactly what Radboud Universiteit Nijmegen University of Houston-Victoria one expected. Bad books are not inevitably polemi- cal, and good books can be polemical. Otherwise, all With time as perhaps our scarcest good, isnt a No true Western philosopher could forget the imaginative texts categorized as engaged literature bad book one we might define as not worthwhile, stunning conclusion of Sergio Leones masterpiece: would have to be categorized as bad books. How- that is, as too unimportant, uninteresting, or unre- the bad dies, the ugly survives, and the good rides ever, even good engaged literature will force you warding to justify spending time, money, or effort off into the sunset weighted down with gold. Books to question your presuppositions and make you do on it? Arthur Schopenhauer once quipped, One have met other fates. You cant judge a book by its some mental writing, will prompt you to engage in can never read too little of bad, or too much of good cover; vigilant readers know that the back, spine, hermeneutic dialogue, will challenge you to exercise books. Therefore, he maintains in his essay On margins, typography, paratexts, paper, binding, your brain! Bad books issue no such challenge. Their Reading and Books, In order to read what is good printing, illustrations, and yes, sometimes even the authors know their readers have preconceived ideas, one must make it a condition never to read what content, should be taken into account. stereotypes about people and paradigms, and employ is bad; for life is short, and both time and strength When I was in Portland recently, I had the them to satisfy their readers expectations. Formulaic limited. pleasure of visiting David Abels exceptionally well- detective fiction and pornography are examples. Bad Following this precepttime management curated Passages Bookshop. I bought a copy of poet books do not challenge readers to think, while good and all thatI am the lucky reader of very few bad Brian Patten and painter Pip Benvenistes When You books do. books. This is cause for self-congratulation: my Wake Tomorrow (1971) published by Turret Books. times well spent! But I am haunted by the question: The edition is limited to 125 numbered and boxed what if those books I have deemed unworthy of my copies signed by the poet and artist. My typographic Partial Badness time arent really bad? Should I not give them a try hero Asa Benveniste printed this sumptuous, over- and start reading Pride and Prejudice and Zombies sized portfolio. The poems arent exactly my speed James Phelan (2009), and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and (I met her early in the evening / the cars were going The Ohio State University Zombie Jim (2009), and other classics mixed with home / I was twenty four and dreaming), but theres zombie mayhem? much to be learned from Asas impeccable design, Its good that ABR wants to promote the discus- and Pips images hold their own. Although content sion of the badanother sign that its once again safe always comes first in my appreciation of a book, I to talk about better and worse when we talk about The Temptation of Saint Anthony do pick up things from time to time because I value literature. There will, Im sure, be no consensus them as works of art (or craft, if you prefer). about what constitutes badness or whether it belongs Martin Riker Philip Whalens Highgrade (1966), a book to the book, the reader, the situation of reading, all Dalkey Archive Press that isnt particularly rare, but much cherished by its of the above, or none of the above. But thats okay. readers, was also a fortunate find at Passages. In the Even bad ideas about badness can at this stage help One mark of a great writer must be the willing- advance the discussion. (Even if what I say here is ness to write a bad book. It makes sense that writers continued on next page Page 10 American Book Review

9 continued from previous page preface, Whalen states, I write everything with a The Witches Hammer drinks, then has a fight with her boyfriend, then has fountain pen that must be coaxed and warmed before a few more, then argues with her mother. The novel it will work properly. The following pages were writ- James J. Sosnoski asks you to take the substance of the fights seriously. ten more for the pens benefit and instrumentation University of Illinois at Chicago My reaction: Get sober and then tell me about it! than they were for mine or for that of the public. In Shades of The Sun Also Rises (1926), another book this oversized facsimile edition published by Coyote I have disliked numerous books liked by other dangerously verging on being an NDK. Books, I observe Whalens poems and doodles as readersat the least, their publishers. Reluctant to direct expressions of his thought in a verbal/visual construe what constitutes a bad book as an invita- continuum. Witty half-truths and playful elegance tion to discuss those that fall below my expectations, characterize this work. Although the book is lovely I was perplexed. (rusty staples and all), it is its transparency that I The question suggests that badness can be an value most. intrinsic quality of a book. But, unlike fruit which At Powells Books, I found So Long (1993) can go bad, or bad luck, or computers that wont by my favorite contemporary fiction writer, Lucia boot up, books cannot rot, gamble, or fail to start. Berlin, and tore through it over a couple shots of Granting that a manual that fails to describe how to espresso one rainy morning. Books published by use a computer might be judged bad, it is difficult to Black Sparrow Books are fairly formulaic, espe- adjudicate the mattermost customers who look for cially in their later years, and those designed by bargains at Best Buy would find incomprehensible Graham Mackintosh (this one wasnt) are brilliant, manuals techies enjoy. though unassuming. Aside from the grotesque cover The intrinsic badness of books is a baffling designed by Barbara Martin and the clunky use of idea. Imagine a book without words. You open it up ornaments by a typesetter named Words Worth (!), and the pages are blank. Is this a bad book or a good I was so infatuated with her subdued stories that the diary? Imagine a book filled with sentences such as Posthumous Juvenilia physical fact of the language I was holding became Colorless green ideas sleep furiously. Would this be immaterial. I wonder if Berlin was thinking of one a bad book or a good joke about Noam Chomsky? Regina Weinreich of the characters in Leones film when she wrote In the face of such conundrums, I construed a School of Visual Arts the last couple of lines of her short story (included bad book as a harmful one. The Malleus Malefi- in this collection) entitled Good and Bad: There carum (The Witches Hammer) (1487) by Heinrich And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks, a was nobody to speak to. To say I was sorry. As to Kramer and James Sprenger came immediately to 1945 collaborative effort by the young Jack Kerouac which is which, invariably, only the reader can decide mind. and his friend, the somewhat older William S. Bur- (or prefer not to). For those who do not have Maleus Maleficarum roughs, to render a fiction of the true-life story of in their libraries, here is a review of it: the murder of Dave Kammerer by the boy he was stalking, Lucien Carr, is considered a bad book: 1) it For nearly three centuries Maleus Ma- was not published until last year, and so, not having The Uniqueness of Badness leficarum was the professional manual found a publisher early on, when it was first sent out, for witch huntersby two of the most it must be bad; and 2) it is thought to be a lesser work Davis Schneiderman for these iconic writers, and why publish a bad book famous Inquisitors. Under the Bull of Lake Forest College by otherwise good writers, especially posthumously Pope Innocent VIII, [they wrote a treatise in 1484 on]how and why women roast and after much lauded careers. Alternating chapters Good books are all alike; every bad book is bad in the hardboiled detective genre, the two authors their first-born male childhow witches in its own way. Take The Secret (2006) by Rhonda reveal an interesting moment in early Beat history deprive men of their vital memberwhen Byrne. Thats a very bad book, even though it has and the beginnings of their own crafts. Is it ever good to use the trial by the red hot ironand made me filthy rich by unlocking the great chain of to publish a serious writers post-juvenilia? Perhaps many other [topics]. being within my ribcage. challenged by this material, Kerouac went on to write Good books make us smile or think or scream a new version in the realistic style he was developing or cry or wheeze ad infinitum. Yes, we are thrilled. even before The Town and the City (1950), his first The Novel That Doesnt Know We rave about the precious little tomes to friends published novel. That version, a gem called Wish and colleagues and neighbors and parents and online Robyn Warhol-Down I Were You, remains in fragment, and is the finest rating services. The Ohio State University example of Kerouacs pre-spontaneous bop prosody. These books wrap us in each other. As to Hippos, well, the book provides a glimpse into Other bad books sit on our shelves and never As a narrative theorist, I can find something the lives of young people in postwar New York City, get readdespite the signatures of our many writer interesting in any piece of prose fiction, and as a and even if Kerouac/Burroughss best writing is not friendsor they migrate to the underside of the feminist, I am wary of pronouncing books good fully displayed, still fascinates. In fact, if not exactly couch, substituting for the missing leg. Our butts, to or bad. I always ask, whos it good forwhose good, its not half bad either. read, should be level. interests does it serve? However, I acknowledge one Or maybe the books we never read are in fact kind of truly bad book: the Novel that Doesnt Know the good books; they cant then reaffirm the way we (NDK). The NDK is a work of realistic fiction that live the way we think the way we love the way we makes foolish mistakes in its representation of the forgot the way everything happens to us rather than material world. us happening to anything. Books we read happen Novels set on college campuses, for example, to us. Take George Orwells minor work Keep the are almost universally ignorant of the tenure process. Aspidistra Flying (1936), a book about books and Candidates for promotion are forever getting or los- bookstores, where the protagonist, Gordon Com- ing it because of some personal remark they made stock, puts his ear to the pregnant belly of his new to somebody. The NDK has no idea how people wifeon the final pageand hears the rush of his actually progress toward tenurepresumably its own blood in his ears. too arcane to matter. Sometimes academic novels Oh shit, more of me in the world. dont know information thats much less obscure. Put another way, there are maybe as many bad The protagonist of Chasing Shakespeares (2003), books as there are bookshanging onto their hard a twenty-first-century Harvard graduate student in copy bodies the way a fish might bring its aquarium English, got his BA at the University of Vermont, onto dry land for commerce with the mammals. Tak- where he played football. Thats just dumb: UVM ing up space, killing trees, requiring vast resources to hasnt had a football team since the 1970s. How hard print and ship and sell and store and rot and pulp. would it have been to check? Dont get too excited about e-books either: The NDKs that irritate me the most, though, think of the carbon footprint of the technological- are novels whose protagonists tribulations can be microprocessing complex. attributed to their active alcoholism, but the novel has Maybe good books need to run greenall in no idea. As I remember Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya our heads. Sisterhood (1996), one of the protagonists has some continued on next page JanuaryFebruary 2010 Page 11


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