Why Do Readers Enjoy Objectively Bad Books?

November 18, 2019

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 scorn 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.

31 Comments

  1. Zachary Holbrook

    ‘Entangle readers’. I like that phrase. I shall entangle readers, and they shall never escape. *evil laugh*

    On a more serious note, I think it’s rare to find a popular bad book that’s 100% bad. Often there will be at least one good element that readers latch on to. For example, I found myself loving ‘The Promised Neverland’ despite its many flaws simply because the protagonist radiates goodness in a dark world.

    Reply
    • Josiah DeGraaf

      I haven’t read “The Promised Neverland,” but agree with your general statement. It’s remarkably hard to create a 100% bad book and a book’s popularity often implies it’s doing something right (whether it has other major flaws or not).

  2. E. K. Seaver

    I find myself loving a book for two main reasons: Emotions and Logic. The more important of those is logic. I can’t stand plot-holes or “deus ex machinas,” so even if the vocabulary in the story is impeccable, bad logic will ruin the story for me. The other option is if the character or plot makes me *feel* (whether positive or negative emotions) I like it more. It’s proof that the author was able to make the character genuine enough to connect with me on some level.

    Reply
    • Josiah DeGraaf

      Yep. I’ll delve into those a bit more in my follow-up article, but both of those elements are pretty important for writing an entertaining story!

  3. Rose Sheffler

    You mentioned that readers are “devouring specific genres like candy.” I propose we extend the metaphor.

    Why do people enjoy candy? Because it tastes good. I don’t think the real problem is that people enjoy the junk food or the bad book. I love candy. I always have. Some people don’t like candy and I feel sorry for them.

    I think one deeper question behind the question of why we read bad books, is “Should we read bad books? And how often?”

    And another question I have is “What do books like that do to our souls?”

    Great article. I look forward to the next one.

    Reply
    • Josiah DeGraaf

      Mmm–I think both of those are good questions. Regarding how often we read such books, I think it depends on our motive in reading bad books and what else we’re reading alongside it. I don’t think it’s foolish to read books that are more like candy if it’s part of a healthy diet–there are a fair number of those books that I read either because (a) there are some of those that I legitimately enjoy and (b) I find it helpful as an author to study poor works of fiction along with excellent works. What precisely that diet looks like will vary from person-to-person.

      I’ll somewhat address the second question in my follow-up article, so I’ll avoid getting into that much here, but my basic response will be that it depends on what type of “bad book” the story is, as there are some different categories I’ll differentiate–some of which have milder harms than others.

  4. EricaWordsmith

    I really enjoyed this… And agree very strongly. One thin I hate is loving a book, then reading a book that reshapes my reading appetite and going back to read the book I love only to discover where that it has weak spots…

    Reply
    • Josiah DeGraaf

      There are some books that I avoid re-reading (particularly from my childhood, because I know I won’t be able to appreciate them anymore sadly. 😛

    • Buddy Lieberman

      Turns out that you have more will-power than I do, Josiah. 😜

      Good article, because I think there are books we come to find we enjoy for special moments. And then we realize that the events surrounding those moments we enjoy really aren’t so poignant.

  5. Tabitha

    Dwight Longenacker writes in The Romance of Religion: “I raise my glass to the rabble. I salute the common man and woman who love sentimental stories and romantic tales, because they are the majority. As a rule, I am suspicious of majority rule. I doubt whether the majority are right about many things, but I don’t doubt that they are right when it comes to matters of the heart. The fact that ordinary women by millions of copies of medical romances, and ordinary men flock to movies where the hero always kills the bad guy and embraces the beautiful woman, reminds me that the search for love is a universal component of humanity.”

    I think there is a reason cliches are so popular. They touch something deep inside. My goal is to analyze and steal just the essence of those overused components.

    Reply
    • Josiah DeGraaf

      Depending on what the cliche is, I agree. Certainly the examples he brings up are good indicators of this! The fact that most stories can be boiled down to nine basic plots is something that points rather strongly to the transcendent, IMO. Lewis gets into the popularity of cliches (especially cliched phrases) as well in Experiment in Criticism with some rather interesting insights.

  6. Ryana Lynn

    Ugh! Bad books drive me nuts. I’m reading one that needed major edits and the pacing is terrible and I really don’t like any of the characters thus far and I’m over 50% done with it.

    Grant it, I’m by no means a literary expert, but I really don’t understand why some people really love this story, even in laying aside the editing/pacing issues. Perhaps it is the message? That’s why I’m pressing through, trying to find the message. I want to know why it appeals to people.

    Great post, btw. It’s already helping me rethink how I view books I hate XD

    Reply
    • Josiah DeGraaf

      I’ve learned a lot through analyzing books I dislike to understand why people still like it despite its (seemingly glaring) flaws. Studying reviews is quite helpful as well. Hope you find the process illuminating!

  7. Eden Anderson

    A very thought provoking article! I loved reading this and I can’t wait to read the rest in the series.

    Reply
    • Josiah DeGraaf

      Thanks Eden! I’m glad it helped to spark some good thoughts on your end. 🙂

  8. Cerra Cathryn

    I have often wondered why so many popular books don’t seem to have the depth, relatable characters, or thorough story structure that I look for. I’m excited to continue learning about this topic!

    Reply
    • Josiah DeGraaf

      Part of that has to do with the market and what it takes to appeal to the most readers possible, but part of that I will attempt to answer in the next article. Glad that you’re enjoying it!

    • DeepRun

      Excellent, excellent article! I appreciate the depth that you all are willing to dive into.

      So, and maybe this will be addressed in the next article, I guess a lot of this hinges on where you draw the line on bad fiction.

      For if there is good, doesn’t that necessitate there being an opposite? A truly bad side of literature? Not just a book being the occasional bag of M & M’s but something truly toxic to health? And what measures prove that, going beyond personal preference and taste?

      I come at this from an artistic perspective too. I loathed all abstract art prior to training. Now, I not only appreciate abstract art, but enjoy producing it. Thoroughly. Yet, I am rather vehement about not using “abstract” as a blind pass for bad art. Which means I have to have a set of guidelines, principals…. Truths, maybe?… In place to back up such an assertion. You’ll get flayed alive otherwise, tossing around such things assertions.

      Really looking forward to the next article. Thanks for being unwilling to open the can of worms.

    • Josiah DeGraaf

      I’ll be tackling those questions in my article tomorrow, so I’ll avoid answering them here. 😉 But I’d love to hear your thoughts on tomorrow’s post!

  9. Jess

    Nicely insightful, and I look forward to the rest of the series! But one more thing sprang to my mind that factors into rave reviews online for books that we view as objectively bad: Unfortunately, reviews can be bought by one medium of exchange or another, even reviews that are fairly well-written and speak of specific aspects of the product. There could even be a script sent to review-sellers, like “Make sure to point out one or two of the following specific details.” I’ve had to remind myself of that when reading reviews of products I consider ordering. If there are relatively few reviews and almost all of them speak in amazed and glowing terms of something that makes me wonder how in the world they could possibly be so brilliantly enthusiastic, it’s a red flag for me. Also if there are far more reviews than that but there’s a huge disparity between remarks made by different reviewers, to the point that I wonder if they’re even reviewing the same product or if the five-star reviewers are on major happy pills. And if a lot of reviews are negative or “meh,” but then there’s a run of solid five-star reviews all within a short period of time, that’s another red flag that makes me suspect review fraud. It can be hard to maintain a cynical-enough eye for the reality of online reviews, for those of us who would never consider buying or selling them.

    Reply
    • Josiah DeGraaf

      That’s a fair point. I tend to believe this happens less for books than for other products (though there have certainly been several high-profile cases of authors who have done this), and most of the books I’ve found this to be the case for have enough glowing, long reviews that I think they were authentic. But certainly there will be some books that fall into this camp.

  10. Isabelle

    Fascinating article, Josiah! I’ve found that I often judge books based on how satisfying the ending is. There’s been many a well-written book that left me feeling depressed or discouraged, and a few poorly written ones that I liked if not loved for the reason that the characters I cared about were happy and successful at the end.
    I’m interested to read the next article!

    Reply
    • Josiah DeGraaf

      The right ending can make or sink a book, so I’m 100% with you on the importance of endings!

  11. Jewel

    I’ve read a book or two before that completely lagged for me in the plot, but because I loved the characters… I bought the sequel. Characters are one of the most important things in storytelling, in my opinion. The more a reader can connect emotionally with a character, the chances are, the more they will love your book.

    Reply
    • Josiah DeGraaf

      Yep! Feeling attachment to characters is really important for building reader engagement.

  12. Warden

    Very interesting article! I will be sure to read the following articles.

    Reply
    • Josiah DeGraaf

      Glad you enjoyed it, Warden! And I love that profile picture. 😉

    • Warden

      Do you like 100 Cupboards?

    • Josiah DeGraaf

      Yep! Great book series. 🙂

  13. Michaela Tasker

    You’ve got me on the edge of my seat…I’m looking forward to reading the rest of the series!

    I hope I’m not stepping on anyone’s toes, but I don’t like Hallmark movies. I’ll watch them if someone else in the room is watching them, but I wouldn’t voluntarily choose them unless I’m outlining the plot, analyzing the acting, making fun of them (a guilty habit that I should probably quit) or something like that. I’m genuinely curious about why people love them so much. To me, it seems like it’s the same plot and similar dialogue over and over again just with different actors. I will admit, I subtly enjoy the “Christmasy” aspect of the holiday Hallmark movies, but that’s about all I like about them. No hard feelings toward any Hallmark-lovers 🙂 I wonder…what aspects do these movies get right?

    Reply
    • Josiah DeGraaf

      Thanks! The whole series is released now so you should be able to see it on the blog. 🙂

      I’ve never seen any Hallmark movies personally, though I’m aware of their reputation. So I can’t unfortunately give great answers on that front, but my hunch is that they’re doing something right for a specific audience given their popularity.

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