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Reading Bad: why writers should read "bad" books

Guess what movie I just saw

Most writers agree that in order to write, you must also read. Author Allison Winn Scotch raised this point in a recent blog post titled just that:

I think being a successful writer means reading your peers and learning from them too – I can’t tell you how much reading authors whom I admire has helped me up my game. Additionally, I think it’s hard to get into a literary state of mind without, well, being literary.

And Pulitzer Prize-winner Jennifer Egan agreed, saying in an interview (via):

My advice is so basic. Number one: Read. I feel like it’s amazing how many people I know who want to be writers who don’t really read. I’m not convinced someone wants to be a writer if they don’t read. I don’t think the problem is that they need to read more; I think they might need to readjust their life goals. Reading is the nourishment that lets you do interesting work. To be reading good things. I feel that you should be reading what you want to write. Nothing less.

But can writers also learn from reading books they’d never want to write? Say, that bestseller most reviled by “literary” writers… Twilight? Here I’m going to take a controversial stance: Twi-hard or Twi-hater, you should read Twilight.

GalleyCat recently wrote about a literature professor who–after mocking Twilight as an example of bad writing–finally picked up the books to read them. Said the professor:

“I’m really not looking forward to reading these … Every time I reference low forms of literature, I always use Twilight as the example. Today a student asked if I’ve actually read them, and I had to say no. They demanded that I do.”

I admit I’m not a Dan Brown fan, and after I found myself citing his books in class as examples of terrible writing, I did feel guilty–so I got a copy of The Da Vinci Code. And now I can not only feel justified in my mockery, I can dissect specific sentences for my students as examples of what not to do.

So what do you think? Can you learn something positive about writing by reading a book you believe is bad?

Join the Discussion

  • The way you describe, yes, I think it is useful, especially in moderation. If there is a book that one often dismisses, but hasn’t read, it seems it could be very useful to read it, at least a good portion of it, as further solidification and also as maintenance for one’s aesthetic.

    However, generally, I think there’s too many good books, too many books one will like, too many books that will lead by example for a writer to waste too much time on books that do not aid in the advancement of one’s craft. Personally, I’m too the point where I don’t have any reservations in putting aside a book that doesn’t appeal to me.

    To sum up, certainly a book that one does not find redeeming can have value as a reminder, as a counterexample, but I’m cautious to spend too much time on these types of books.

  • I suppose I could learn something positive about finally reading Mitch Albom, whom I’ve been bashing online for years. At the very least, I suspect it will make me feel infinitely better about my own writing.

  • Lee Thomas

    I think one interesting wrinkle in the whole “bad reading” conversation might be why lovers of fine literature also – sometimes – LOVE bad writing. I like a lot of really lowbrow stuff, and while I’d never make the argument that Agatha Christie or Helen Fielding should be classed with William Trevor or Shirley Hazzard, I still enjoy the absurdly plotted mystery or gossipy, read-in-four-hours chick book from time to time. So who out there wants to write an apologia for Twilight? Side note: I totally agree, Celeste, one should trash not what one has read not.

  • I would never call something “bad” writing if I hadn’t bothered to read it first. I can’t write an apologia for Twilight because I haven’t read it, but I could do a whole dissertation on Barbara Cartland novels. (And what’s wrong with them. And why I like them anyway.)

    To me, “bad” books are like junk food. They satisfy a craving for something yummy and unhealthy. They resemble my primal instinct to load carbs against the inevitability of winter and the possibility of famine: I have to read as much as possible, as quickly as possible, because Mom is going to make me go outside to play jump-rope with my little sister soon and after dinner I have to do the dishes and there’s never enough reading time in the day. I need “bad” books because when I read “good” ones I’m like a milk snake that has been fed a very plump mouse. I can’t digest what I’ve read right away, and it’s impossible to move around much or to keep on reading until that big lump in my middle has been broken down and absorbed. Good writing sticks to my ribs. I need something light and fizzy afterwards to clear my palate and aid in digestion. Finally, reading “bad” books gives me a feeling of having maximized my reading time – the highest page count per hour. Sometimes the act of reading is more important to me than the content or quality of the text.

    The risk that a writer runs in reading “bad” books can be similar to the risk one takes in eating junk food. In moderation, there’s little harm done. Taken to excess, it can be a disaster (at least for me; what goes in my mental ear often affects what comes out of my pen) – the literary equivalent of gastric distress, weight gain, nutritional imbalance, disease, even the death of a manuscript in progress, because I want writing to feel as easy as reading the “bad” stuff, and I despair of ever getting anything done.

    Reading can be light and easy.

    Writing never is.

  • Oops – that last comment didn’t answer the question, did it? Looking at a text one believes to be “bad” in order to find its aesthetic flaws strikes me as hubris – or at least a great way to develop a false sense of confidence in the “greatness” of one’s own writing. I’d personally rather approach a blank page and the Muse with uncertainty and humility.

    I’d rather look at any text – even one I don’t think I’m going to like, or one that I believe will not appeal to my personal sense of aesthetics – with an eye out for the things that DO work well in it. Even the books of Dan Brown and Barbara Cartland have redeeming qualities. If I open my mind wide enough to discern the good qualities of a “bad” book, who knows what else might find its way in – and how I might put it to use?

  • Charlotte Boulay

    I am writing the apologia for Twilight, much as it pains me to admit that. About the time this latest (and last, thank goodness) movie comes out. I adore many bad books. (I did not adore Twilight, but I did devour it.) Sometimes the writing is unintentionally funny, but bad books are rarely boring…

  • Lee Thomas

    Thanks, Charlotte. I tend to gravitate toward mysteries, some of which make little sense, or have huge long passages that would bore most people to tears, the sort of poring over microfiche mode that some writers fall into … BUT, doesn’t stop me from tearing through those either.

    Jerri, I like your expansive view of high and low, and determination not to set out with disparagement but appropriate what does work for one’s own work. It’s a very generous approach to reading. What makes something a bestseller? Oh, yeah, some brisk plotting. (Often, at least.) What could much literary fiction use? Some brisk, tight action!

  • I have to admit that I did the same thing as Celeste after bad-mouthing Dan Brown. I went out and read not just The Da Vinci Code but Brown’s entire catalog…it was like sneaking a slice of cake from the ice box in the middle of the night.

    Here’s what I discovered:

    1) Brown struggles to write a sentence in the English language.

    2) Brown is able to do something that some writers of stunning sentence cannot: propel a plot.

    3) Brown is the biggest Hardy Boys fan ever; he’s nicked the key devices of that formative series and sold them to adults…brilliant!

    In short: ALL writing, if read with an open mind, has something instructive within it.

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  • M. Morneau

    I read the Twilight books mostly because my best friend bought them for me as a wedding present (not sure why she thought it was good idea). And since I had them, I thought I would read them to see what the hype was about.

    I almost slit my wrists, the writing is terrible and the editor should have been fired for letting that slip into the public as it was.

    “No one is completely useless, if anything they can serve as a bad example”

    It was painful and the books were thrown quite a number of times, but it was worth it to know what I was talking about later to others.

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