Have you ever ordered a popular book and eagerly dove into it the day it arrived, only to discover it isn’t as amazing as it’s chalked up to be? It’s riddled with cardboard characters, confusing pacing, and a contrived climax. You can’t fathom why anyone would endorse it.
But a scroll through Goodreads reveals dozens upon dozens of glowing reviews. People talk like they read a completely different book. What gives?
Sometimes I call a book I loathe “objectively bad.” But that description poses a problem. If other readers rave over “objectively bad” books, how can any writer confirm that their work isn’t equally poor?
At our 2019 summer staff retreat, we attempted to resolve that question, and this article is the result. As writers, we want to avoid producing bad books. That begins with understanding why people enjoy them in the first place. Let’s explore three hypotheses.
Hypothesis #1: People Haven’t Read Enough to Gain Experience
To an extent, this answer makes sense. Until you’ve eaten a gourmet cheeseburger, you don’t realize how mediocre a Big Mac is. If people had access to better books, perhaps they’d frown at the titles that used to be their favorites (like I do with the books I adored as an uncultured teen).
However, people’s habits indicate that this theory is false.
Book subscription sites report that superusers read 1–3 books per day, devouring specific genres like candy. Statistically speaking, they probably consume content that I’d consider garbage. But they would disagree, despite their wide repertoire.
Alternatively, many kids study great works of literature in school but still disdain them. Yes, a poor teacher can influence how students feel about a book, but the reason they gravitate to junk isn’t that they haven’t been exposed to masterpieces.
However, we rejected this hypothesis primarily because the reviewers who praise “bad” books can clearly articulate why. They think about the words on the page. Thus, decrying other readers for assumed ignorance is both uncharitable and snobbish. While some readers (especially young ones) may enjoy bad books because they haven’t read enough to build discernment, that’s rarely the case after a certain age.
Hypothesis #2: People Don’t Value Artistic Stories
So, the first possibility failed. Perhaps we could instead look to the wisdom of C. S. Lewis and contemplate whether “bad” books attract unliterary people. In chapter five of An Experiment in Criticism, he lists traits that these kind of readers share:
- They only read stories that seem realistic and have fast-paced plots.
- They have no ear for style and prefer clichéd prose over artistic prose.
- They lean toward simplistic stories.
Perhaps these or similar designations explain people’s reading proclivities. While Lewis doesn’t specifically argue that point, other authors such as Laura Miller at Salon have: Do people enjoy bad books simply because they lack literary taste?
Though this hypothesis bears more promise than the previous one, it likewise contains holes: sometimes “bad” books appeal to intelligent, literary-minded readers! During our summer retreat, some staff members mentioned that they love books I hate (and vice versa), much to my surprise. Unliterary readers do exist, but the reason people enjoy “bad” books is more complex than apathy toward art.
Hypothesis #3: People Connected to the Book
After a long discussion, we reached a tentative solution. When we analyzed the positive reviews for books we thought were terrible, we noticed a trend. “The theme really spoke to me!” “I empathized with this character.” “The plot grabbed me.”
All these readers connected to the story—whether the relatable characters, true themes, engaging plots, or imaginative settings—and that caused them to forgive its flaws. Moreover, some readers connect to a story’s characters and themes easier than others do.
My guess is that most of us have a book or film that’s our “guilty pleasure.” I recently read a fantasy novel by an author I was a fan of in high school. By “objective” measures, I could criticize the book for its over-the-top allegory, preachy moments, two-dimensional characters, and deus ex machena moments.
But I enjoyed it.
Why? I can’t give a solid reason. I cared about the characters, and that was enough. I had similar feelings after watching Mortal Engines. The plot was basic and uninspired and the characters were wonky, but the world fascinated me, so I overlooked everything else.
The bottom line is that storytelling is inherently subjective. As German literature professor Wolfgang Iser points out in “The Reading Process,” authors “will very quickly lose their reader” unless they “activate the reader’s imagination.” And because all our imaginations differ, we don’t experience a story the same way. We can’t rely on literary/unliterary distinctions to decipher why we love/hate a book, because all of us come to it with unique backgrounds.
The Weakness in Our Third Hypothesis
As our conversation at the retreat wound down, we faced a series of enigmas. If our subjective imaginations color our likes and dislikes, can we ever judge a book as “objectively bad”? When someone connects with a book we can’t stand, is their perspective invalid or unliterary? Especially if multiple people applaud the book, could our distaste just be a fluke?
These questions are hard to answer, impossible to apply, and lead to an unsettling conclusion: bad books are a myth because the only measuring stick is people’s whims.
And that’s a zinger to end an article with.
Postmodernism, Bad Books, and You
Lest you worry that I’m about to veer in a postmodern direction, I don’t actually believe all books have merit. (One of our tenets as a site is that preachy Christian fiction is problematic!) However, we need to explore more nuances of the issue to be able to assess a book and, by extension, our own writing.
On Thursday, I’ll explain the verdict of our retreat discussion in my next article, “Can Books Be Objectively Bad? Or Are Ratings Based Only on Personal Taste?” In the meantime, though, I hope we’ve uncovered at least one valuable lesson for you: if readers enjoy “bad” books because of a connection, they need that to appreciate “good” books too. A stunningly artistic story may put you on an awards list, but that doesn’t mean people will read and be transformed by it.
I talk about this more in my article “The Real Reason People Read Fiction (and Why This Matters to Writers),” but as you wait for the next installment, sit back and think about your current novel. How can you strengthen the characters, themes, and plot to entangle readers?
Connecting with readers is essential for telling an effective story.
Josiah DeGraaf is the editor-in-chief of Story Embers and the fiction content manager of The Young Writer. He writes because he’s fascinated by human motivations and loves to take normal people, put them in crazy situations (did he mention he writes fantasy?), and then force them to make difficult choices. Someday Josiah hopes to write fantasy novels with worlds as imaginative as Brandon Sanderson’s, characters as complex as Orson Scott Card’s, character arcs as dynamic as Jane Austen’s, and themes as deep as Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s. In the meantime, you can find him teaching writers at Ink Slinger Academy or writing short stories at his website as he works toward achieving these goals.