Finding the Good in Books We Hate

| Monday, February 20, 2012
Today's Tune: We Found Love

Sometimes, as aspiring or published writers, we deal with a lot of conflicting emotions when we read a book that we really, vehemently dislike. There comes this sort of obsession to dissect and destroy. Then it bleeds into criticism of the readers who dared to actually enjoy it. We proclaim that we can't understand why anyone would like it, how any self-respecting reader wouldn't throw it away it disgust. It creeps under our skin and festers.

I'm not talking about standard criticism and analysis, which I think is a valid and necessary part of the literary experience. I'm talking about that nagging voice that comes from a dark place inside us and decries the value of something we find so distasteful. I'm not going to pretend to know where that voice comes from for anyone else, but I know that for me, it often came from a place of boredom, frustration, and sometimes jealousy. I was bored with the same tired storylines over and over. Frustrated with writers who insisted on portraying certain types of people in a certain way. Jealous that something I found so average (or flat-out bad) achieved such high levels of popularity and acclaim.

It's really easy to get caught up in these emotions and use them as fuel to discount a work. It's easy to write off its popularity and fans as empty-headed sheep who don't know what good literature is. Adopting these viewpoints frees us from having to ask ourselves the really hard question, to think about something we hate in a positive light. We can walk away and convince ourselves that we just know better, we just understand more.

We don't have to think about WHY this piece of literature is connecting with so very many people and why it's resonating with them. And not thinking about it or asking that question can be detrimental to us as writers.

It's not uncommon for people to come up with excuse after excuse for the popularity of a book or series. I commonly hear people use marketing as a scapegoat. Well, obviously this is selling so much because they pumped marketing dollars into it! This publicist must be super good at their job, because no one would buy this book if it hadn't gotten this much press!

Speaking as a marketer, I can say that this just plain isn't accurate. No amount of marketing can make the public buy a uniformly bad product. Yes, it increases visibility and spreads the word, which encourages purchases. But some researches argue that extensive marketing is often just as quick to sink a product as sell it. Sure, you'll see an initial boost in sales from people who saw the advertisements and decided to give it a try. But word of mouth is far greater currency, and if the word of mouth is that the thing sucks, then you can stick a fork in it.

It's definitely not wrong to use a troubling book as a springboard to ask bigger social questions (like why young girls are finding such appeal in jerky and controlling male love interests), but there are always positives to be found. By writing off a book without really exploring why it's connecting with its audience, we're doing ourselves a disservice. Learning what exactly about it is piquing audience interest is knowledge we ourselves can use.

I'm not suggesting that we drop everything that's important to us in favor of trying to mimic a bestseller we dislike. What I'm suggesting is using that bestseller as a learning experience. Maybe you can look deeper and find that readers are connecting to certain kinds of characters. Or the rapid-fire pacing. Or emotional highs. Or sexy kissing. You know, whatever.

Sometimes it's better to swallow our pride and stop focusing on our opinion of everything a writer did wrong, and instead explore what they did right. It doesn't mean we have to like the work. We can still find all the problematic elements problematic. I just happen to be one of those annoying people who's decided I'd rather focus on the positive than dwell in the negative.

At least most of the time. Sometimes having a good frothing-at-the-mouth hate-on session with a buddy is a great stress reliever, not going to lie.

What about you, readers? Can you find the positive qualities in a book you hated? Have you learned something from them?


{ dr b } at: February 20, 2012 at 7:35 AM said...

One of the things I work hard to teach my students is that it's a sign of sophisticated thinking to be able to hold seemingly contradictory ideas about a text at the same time. It's easy to love or hate unabashedly. It's harder to say, "I really dislike the plot / pacing / diction / values in this text, but I recognize that this character is well-developed / the dialogue is honest / the themes are well-explored." I think good readers (and writers!) don't live in the black-and-white of YES AWESOME or NO AWFUL, but rather in the grey area in between. I think that's where the challenge of strong, critical reading comes into play, which is one of the skills that reading fiction should help all of us develop.

{ Shallee } at: February 20, 2012 at 7:45 AM said...

Brilliant post. I had someone (I don't remember who) tell me something similar-- that I can learn something even from books I didn't like. It's true, I have. There is value in everything (well, almost everything). :)

{ Old Kitty } at: February 20, 2012 at 7:52 AM said...

I think so far I've learned more from books I like (not necessarily love) but thought they were ok reads - really more for the technical side of things - see how this author moved his/her plot forward, how they ended each chapter, how they used "less is more" to make the novel readable.

I can't say I've hated many books. One or two. Ahem. One being "Sophie's World". I'm yet to find a redeeming quality to this book. I am in the minority obviously! LOL!! But, hey, I didn't go on amazon to rant about it - I just put it aside, wished the author well in my mind and moved on!

Take care

{ Emy Shin } at: February 20, 2012 at 9:19 AM said...

Every writer should read this post, seriously.

Jealousy is a normal thing. But even books we hate manage to strike a chord with other readers -- and time is much better spent learning why those books succeed rather than bemoaning that such books are so popular.

{ Andrew Leon } at: February 20, 2012 at 1:37 PM said...

Books that are popular -tend- to be like McDonald's. They are made to be appealing in a generic, you get what you expect sort of way. There's nothing wrong with that. McDonald's wouldn't be the biggest fast food establishment if that kind of thing wasn't what people want. However, it doesn't make their product -good- or good for you. It's just that you know what to expect, and, really, that's what people usually want.
Sometimes, the popular thing can also -be- good, but I don't think that's usually the case.

Here's the thing, I don't eat at McDonald's. Not because I don't like them. It's good to have a trashy, tasty burger once in a while. It's because it isn't good for me. I do believe books are the same way.

I'm fine with people with people writing to the masses. It's a fine thing to do, just like it's (sort of) fine for McDonald's to make food for the masses (at least, they quit using that pink goo stuff). That doesn't mean I'm ever going to say that it's -good- even if I'm also not going to say that it's -bad-. It just is.

Speaking of, I just finished Peculiar Children and was disappointed to find that I didn't like it. I can see why it's as popular as it is, but I didn't enjoy it, even though, from time to time, there were passages that completely captivated me. There were more, by far, where I was rolling my eyes.

{ vic caswell (aspiring-x) } at: February 20, 2012 at 5:01 PM said...


{ E.Maree } at: February 21, 2012 at 3:26 AM said...

This is a great, wise post. I think one of the worst situations is when your hear a book is *so fantastic*, then you read it and... meh. But then I have to ask myself, am I disappointed because it isn't good or because I built it up too much? It's a puzzle.

{ We Heart YA } at: February 22, 2012 at 6:30 AM said...

MOST of the time, we completely agree. What you're describing is the best way to handle things, from a critical point of view.

But we think it's important for people (readers and writers) to realize that it's okay to NOT like something. We don't have to like everything just to be nice or find value in everything just to be productive. That doesn't make us bad people or bad writers.

As long as that's established, then yes, it is better to learn when you can. :)

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