Friday, June 13, 2008

Your Idea of Bad Books

Not too long ago I did what turned out to be an incredibly interesting post on bad books. What made this post so interesting to me was not of course what I had to say, but the reader feedback. I think there were a lot of good things said there.

What struck me right away wasn’t the lively discussion, but the definition of a “bad” book. Some of you latched on to the fact that there are a lot of books that I would consider poorly executed or just not edited, but you thought of as “bad.” You pointed out that there are a lot of books published by bestselling authors in which either the editor has become too afraid to edit or the author has too big of an ego to be edited any longer, or both. It’s true. Both of these things happen all the time, and does that make these books “bad”? It could, absolutely. I think ultimately though that with a strong edit you might find these books are good, just in desperate need of an editor.

Others of you discussed authors you clearly thought were “bad,” and I agree that there are plenty of books out there written by plenty of authors that I have never been able to get past page one on (although I have tried, I have truly tried). Are they “bad”? I’m not sure. They are definitely not to my taste, but there have been a lot of books over time that I love and others have called “bad.” So at what point can you universally decide that a book is “bad” versus not just to your taste. Books, unfortunately, are not like food. They don’t have a shelf life and a strong stink that can help define rotten.

I was also challenged. Some of you thought I was crazy to say that there were no “bad” books out there. And you’re right. Of course there are books that have been published that could be considered “bad” or, as one of you pointed out, mediocre. But is mediocre bad? That’s subjective again. I think McDonald’s is horrible and definitely bad, others would say it’s mediocre, while I would imagine that there are just as many out there who think that McDonald’s is nothing short of heaven. Very different tastes, obviously. Mediocre is not something I’m looking for, but of course there are plenty of you who might think some of my favorite books are mediocre. As a few of you pointed out, the publishing industry is not infallible, and neither are writers. There have definitely been times when a book was bought on proposal, only to have both the author and the editor surprised to discover that the final product could not come close to comparing to those magical first few chapters. Why was it published if even the editor thought it was of a lower caliber? And did the publisher think it was “bad,” but went forward with it anyway? It’s possible, but we’ll probably never know.

I’m reluctant to say that any books were “bad” since I’m a believer that there’s something out there for everyone. There are certain voices and styles of writing that I just can’t stand, that I can’t get through. Certainly when chick lit was really hot I had an extremely difficult time getting through all but a few books. Most of them I thought of as “bad.” But there was obviously a market for them and readers liked and read them. They just weren’t my taste.

One of the reasons for my reaction to the original question was defensive in part, and for that I apologize. All too often, as an agent for commercial fiction, I hear how the types of books I represent are “bad” simply because they are not considered “literary,” and for obvious reasons I strongly disagree. They are not bad, maybe just not to your taste. I appreciated your comments because while I’m reluctant to use the word "bad" because of different tastes, what hadn’t really dawned on me was the very different definitions of bad from editing to execution to simply style.

So with that being said, what really defines “bad” to you? What makes a book “bad”? Is it a style of writing? Lack of editing? Failure to properly plot or characters that didn’t come alive? Or is it simply that you thought the author was sloppy and disrespectful to the reader?



Richard L. Mabry, MD said...

So with that being said, what really defines “bad” to you? What makes a book “bad”? Is it a style of writing? Lack of editing? Failure to properly plot or characters that didn’t come alive? Or is it simply that you thought the author was sloppy and disrespectful to the reader?

For me, it's "any or all of the above." I'm looking for a book with a plot that pulls me in and keeps me engaged, written in a style that doesn't make me stop in the middle of a page and say, "He's shifted POV again." And I especially hate books by established authors where the writing is so far below the quality of their first best-sellers that I can't help thinking, "Who wrote this for him/her?"

Kimber Li said...

I can overlook poor editing, as long as it doesn't throw off story development. I'm no Grammar Guru.

I define a Bad Book as Weak Plot, undeveloped characters, and the author's failure to convince me the story is believable. I love Fantasy and Science Fiction, so I'm used to suspending my disbelief. However, it's an insult to what little intelligence I have, for example, to expect me to believe a couple will live happily ever after when their relationship consists only of sex. So, what happens when the woman is put on strict medical bedrest while pregnant for fear their unborn child will die? What if the man is struck by a drunk driver, rendered an invalid, and the woman has to take care of him, their children, and earn all the family's income by herself? If I'm reading a Romance novel, a Happily Ever After is required and I have to believe the Hero and Heroine are capable of making it happen by The End.

In other words, if Fabio won't change diapers, I'm not buying it.

Shaun Carney said...

I don't have a definition for bad, but there are some things I definitely do not like. For instance, when POV changes occur so rapidly that the reader loses track of whose mind they are in at the time. Sherilyn Kenyon comes to mind, but I've only read one of her Dark Hunter series - graphic erotica is not to my taste in books. It was an auido book, so I don't know how much white space she used, or if she bounced through various minds in the same paragraph. Either way, it was certainly confusing as an audio book. In her defense, my daughter tells me Ms. Kenyon writes under an other name and does not violate the POV traditions in those books, so it appears to be a matter of selection on her part in Dark Hunter.

Robert Jordan and Terry Goodkind have good examples of bad books. But I consider them bad in relation to the other books in their series (The Wheel of Time and Sword of Truth respectively). They run off on tangents that don't relate to the rest of the series, or are forced in later where they don't seem to belong. Plus, this gives the appearance of them milking the series for every penny, wasting time, and dragging it out needlessly (Mr. Jordan passed away before completing the WoT series).

Anticlimactic endings are possibly more a matter of taste than simply bad, but I don't like them. Mr. Goodkind has eleven (or is it twelve?) books in the SoT series, all building up to this "final battle" the hero must win. In the end, the hero uses an ultimate power and simply says something akin to, "Poof! You're gone." This was very disappointing, but was it bad? I don't know.


Anonymous said...

I think if a writer you've enjoyed in the past turns out a dry, dull, formula-driven book and it gets by on name momentum alone, that's bad. It's cheating the reader.

I recently read a book (that shall remain nameless) that reached new heights of bad. I took a pencil and started circling the phrases that made absolutely no sense at all, which appeared on every other page. I became fascinated by just how bad it was. (Maybe that was the point?)

Anonymous said...

I reserve the term "bad" for books with poor plot, blatant inconsistencies and contradictions, and sloppy writing. I would never refer to a book in a style or genre that doesn't appeal to me as "bad" simply because I don't like it.

Bernita said...

Probably dull and fuzzy writing with an abundance of cliches.

Anonymous said...

I've read several books other people adore, that I couldn't stand. The bad books lose their plot, it's not subject matter or necessarily editing. I hate sad endings, but not everyone does. The important thing is what does the reading public want. Personally, I think many literary agents and publishers are looking for different things than the readers are. They tend to forget even though their tired of seeing the same book ideas, the readers are not. For instance I've read over & over in blogs "how tired they are of seeing Vampire books for teens", but I happen to know that my teen daughters are still looking for good reads about vampires. They haven't enjoyed all the was they've read, but Stephamie Myers made that interesting for them. It really doesn't matter what the literary agent or publisher wants. What matters is what the public wants. Your idea of different or amazing isn't important in the grand scheme of things. People are going to buy the books that are interesting to them, even if they're not to you.
PS I'm not trying to sell a vampire book, but if there are more published I'm sure my daughters will buy them.

Ulysses said...

A number of years ago, a friend of mine went to see Jurassic Park III. I asked him if it was good, and his response was, "It's a Jurassic Park movie. If you were expecting Casablanca, you'd be disappointed, but as a Jurassic Park movie, it was perfect."

I think it's a matter of expectations. For me, a bad book is one that doesn't meet my expectations of the basic things: grammar, plot, characterization. On the other hand, if I have reason to set my expectations differently, my opinion of the book will be relative to that. I stopped reading the Wheel of Time because I expected a standard fantasy (good, evil, simple plot, epic run up to a clear resolution) and was disappointed to get something different. On the other hand, I expected Orson Card's Abyss novelization to be a standard movie adaptation and was delighted to get something more involved.

Hetty St. James said...

(Very long post -- sorry. This one really rang my bell!)

As a writer, an editor and a reader, I truly love books. However, I’m the first to say – not ALL books! I’m also a non-paid reviewer for the biggie site, although I won’t buy anything from them. I know—that and $5. will get me a coffee in some places. Big deal. If I can’t complete the book, for any of several reasons, it’s not fair to write a review of it, unless I state up front that I couldn’t complete it, and here’s why.

I don’t like horror or anything close, although to my great surprise I have read several humorous gay vampire mysteries and loved them! I write romance novels, but don’t find them—as a category—to be at all on the same level. Some of them just drive me up a wall. I’m also not totally enchanted by science fiction (my fault, not the genre). I do have a vivid imagination, just not into that realm.

Truly ‘bad’ books (by my definition) are those that disrepect the reader, for any of a number of reasons. Some books by my favorite authors are in that category, and I can only shake my head and say ‘huh?’ Where did this come from? I haven’t a clue.

Books (and the creative process) are very subjective – which is why there are so many of them. Some of them ought not to have been allowed out of the computer in which they live. Others that have remained hermits in that dark, silent space are so good that it boggles the mind. But the author has no confidence and so they’re never released to the bigger world.

First and foremost, however, the writing has to be wonderful. I’d like a plot to be sensible—regardless of the type of book it is, other than non-fiction, of course. But non-fiction still has to make sense, too.

Writing always comes first when I read, followed by characters, plot, accuracy (even non-historical books have accuracy problems, for which there is NO excuse!) and readability. (Doris Kearns Goodwin is a genius at this!) Five points equal five stars when everything is as it should be. A wonderful plot can be seriously hampered by silly, inane characters, or there may be no sensibility whatever to the time and place in which the story is set. I despise any kind of historical novel that claims that category only because the author says so. All of these things serve to pull the reader away from the story. When that happens, I close the book, and go on to another one.

I love it when I learn something new from a book; whether it's a look at a different culture, or a time long past--or one to come--or a new way to look at something that seemed familiar. I don't care for stereotypes, or mean-spirited things either. The very best surprise is a new author who dazzles. Or yet another new book from an old friend--an author whose books I've loved for years!


Mark Terry said...

I'm pretty sure I responded last time the same way I will this time, which is to quote Charlie Berns, the main character in Peter Lefcourt's, "The Deal," when asked if he thought the movie script he was turning into a film was "Bad."

"The only bad script is one that doesn't get made."

Same reaction: the only bad novel manuscript is one that doesn't get published.

That's probably crass and cynical, but there's a lot of truth to it.

In general, I think that the worst sin, what might make me call a book "bad" is to be boring. That's entirely subjective, so I steer clear of "Bad."

AN example from a recent film I viewed, was Robert Redford's "Lions To Lambs." I thought it was "interesting," in the same way a position paper might be interesting. I thought it was "thought-provoking."

But I did not think it was a good movie. I thought it was a "boring" movie primarily made up of very, very good actors talking to each other across a desk. It was not cinematic.

Does that mean it shouldn't have been made? No, because it had some sort of audience and the people involved probably made it (in many cases) for reasons that didn't entirely revolve around making a buck.

Is it "bad?"

Well, I would argue that it was, but if I take Charlie Berns's definition and apply it to this movie, then no, actually, it was not a bad movie.

Chro said...

A book is bad when I stop reading it before I finish.

This is not the same as 'I stop reading and can't motivate myself to start up again.' It's when I make a firm decision to put the book down and never pick it back up again. It's too painful, either because the editing is atrocious, the plot is cliche, or I fall asleep because the pace is atrociously slow. I'm a pretty accepting reader, so this only happens rarely.

Then again, one of the books I consider 'bad' is Heart of Darkness, so this is all subjective.

Anonymous said...

I read fiction for the story. But the writing must be minimally craftsmanlike. If the story engages, then I'm much more tolerant of other weaknesses. But typically, at least in my experience, if the story catches and holds, it is because the writer is hitting on most cylinders.

The writers I most admire are those who can engage in story and are fine stylists. I'm a sucker for a beautifully written sentence.

Liana Brooks said...

Bad, for me, is subjective. There are some authors I don't click with. And some I will overlook bad editing to read anyway. And then there are some authors that need to be told they should never, ever write again...

What I find *bad* is:
- slow plot... you need to keep the pace up

- unrealistic plot situatuons... like a random sex scene thrown in for no apparent reason. No lead up, no discussion afterward, just six pages of erotica in the middle of your book.

- giving the plot away early.... if I pay money for a book I want to read every page. I do not want to read the first three and then have the MC flashback to four years ago to sum up everything. If I can read page one and page last, skip the pages in between, and still get the story there is a problem.

- whoring characters for plot..... if the only way you can make a book last is to make a character To Dumb To Live you have written a bad book (oh, yes, I do have a particular author in mid- how ever did you guess?)

- major editing issues.... if the MC's name changes for 3 chapters there is a problem

- it's obvious you didn't do your research.... historical books are not fantasy (usually). When you set something during the reign of King Edward the Second you better have done enough research to know that the King was not driving a Rolls Royve to a Southern Baptist church. This also applies to the school of "But So-in-so said..." researchers. If you want to portray a time period, people, race, or culture in your book do the research or write some fantasy and use made-up names for your made-up people.

- copied boook syndrome..... when an author copies the plot of another book (their own or someone elses) and merely changes the names. Serial writers sometimes get this way- the first book is great but by book 3 you realize the author is writing the same story arch and just changing names.

Liana Brooks said...

And my spelling is off and I can't find the edit button for the post... sorry. Situation.

See, it can be spelled correctly :)

Di Francis said...

Bad book: Atlanta Nights by Travis Tea (but then the point was to *make* a bad bad bad book)


E.D. Walker said...

Something no one else has talked about but I definitely think makes a book bad would be one where the author did something morally repugnant to get the book written. I mean, of course, The big "P" word- Plagiarism. I don't care how brilliant you are, how well written the book is, if you stole someone else's work and put it into yours without attribution then you have written a "bad" book, and you are a "bad" person. It's stealing. I don't want to read it, and anyone who's caught at it shouldn't be allowed to have their book on the shelves.

You also pegged one of my other biggest pet peeves: the author who's too big and important to even be copy-edited anymore. I read one book this February by a big name bestselling fantasy author. Typos, sentence fragments, plot holes, etc. It was a series and there were also inconsistencies with the world-building she'd done in previous books. Whether they didn't have time to do even a basic edit because it was rushed or because she really does think she's too big now to have other people look, that book was definitely bad. The really annoying thing is it might have been great.

Gabrielle said...

Thanks for asking, Jessica.

To me, a bad book is different from a mediocre book. A mediocre book (like some-- but NOT ALL-- chick lit) is a book that fails in one respect (good writing) but is good on descriptions or interesting characters, etc. I'm willing to overlook a tepid use of adjectives for a good romantic romp.

However, a bad book is a book that just does not work and this is almost ALWAYS because of the actual writing. If I pick it up and read it and it looks like a first draft, it is a bad book. This includes flat characters, stupid hooks, no mastery of language or even appreciation thereof... it is bad.

If it insults my intelligence, it's bad. If I would never recommend it to anybody under any (ANY) circumstances (except to show how bad it is) I judge it a bad book. Down the chute with the rest of the bad eggs it goes!

Elissa M said...

Things I consider "bad" in a book:

Obvious plot "twists".

Nothing has happened by the end of the book.

Stories that don't end.

Egregiously poor editing.

Sloppy writing of every type, but especially multiple POV shifts and explaining/describing the same thing repeatedly.

A "good" book is one I can read a dozen times and thoroughly enjoy it each and every time.

But "good" and "bad" are still subjective, and I hesitate to publicly label any particular book as such. Books I privately despise are someone else's all-time favorites. I've often been in situations where any book at all was better than none, so perhaps there are truly no "bad" books, only "bad" readers.

Anonymous said...

Bad book: The Girl in the Box

I literally threw this book into a wall when I finished. I felt so cheated after I'd spent pages and pages forming an attachment to the main character only to have the book end with no ending. Urrgghhh!!!

Thank you for allowing me to get that off my chest.


Sookie said...

When it comes to spelling and grammer, errr, grammar (remember Suki, there is no 'me' in grammar.) this girl doesn't throw stones in glass houses.

However, with characterization, I have been known to throw a book when a character acts simply 'out of character'.

Am I perfect at characterization? No way, but man, I try to make my story people real and believable. I think most writers achieve this, but a few appear to make the character fit the plot rather than the other way around. That makes for a 'bad' book.

My two cents, anyway.

Kristin Laughtin said...

While I might call books not to my taste "bad" in private conversation, I know I'm making a subjective judgment there, and that others might love that book. My true definition of "bad" is when the book is bad on a technical level--terrible grammar, improper characterization, too many plot holes or inconsistencies, etc. Sometimes it seems that the author just isn't telling the story well, and other times it's very obvious that proper editing could have made the story 100x better. I actually like reading bad books every once in a while though, because I become more aware of avoiding such weaknesses in my own writing.

Of course, even when I try to analyze from a purely technical point of view, my subjective tastes never truly disappear. I can think of several books in my library where I think the writing is mediocre-to-bad based on my above criteria, but I like the overall story enough that I read and enjoy it anyway.

Melinda Leigh said...

corny dialogue and ridculous events, like time traveling to medieval Scotland with a working laptop! Or wearing modern clothing! Anyone writing time travel should read Timeline by Micheal Crichton to get a better idea of how to incorporate a historical period believably.

Kathleen MacIver said...

I will only call a book truly "bad" if it's so totally against my moral convictions, that I believe it's a threat to society.

But there are lots of poorly-written books, poorly edited books, poorly-conceived books, and books that just aren't up my alley.

But I don't call them "bad."

Robena Grant said...

There are no bad books only bad writers. Sorry. Grin.

As a struggling wannabe writer I get annoyed with poorly written books that slip under the wire. It makes me wonder who is bothering to check on the galley copies. The author has to sign off on those.

I read a romance last week from a multi-pubbed author that had eight cliches in the first thirteen pages. It made me feel sick. I got so mad I used a yellow highlighter and started talking out loud. "Aha, here's another one." Swipe. I finally tossed the book it was too much work.

Last night I started reading one of Pat Gaffney's books and by page twenty three I knew who the characters were. I was deeply engrossed, ecxited even, to find out more about them. They were so alive. So real. That's a good book.

Bill Peschel said...

It becomes apparent that this discussion boils down to what your definition of bad is. It can vary so much from person to person, ranging from a book that unreadable to one that's poorly constructed to the all-encompassing "if it's [insert genre here], it's bad", that it's not surprising the discussion becomes a Tower of Babel.

Take, for example, "Da Vinci Code," which I finally got through on the third try. I found it impossible to read (and I tried twice), but listening to the tape version forced me to keep going. And, despite the terrible grammar, despite the holes in the plot, and despite the outright lies Brown told (all the while, after publication, claiming that everything in it is 100% true), the book still works. There were even a couple of scenes near the end that were effective.

While I was wondering if the book could be rewritten to remove the glitches, I was reminded of a story told about James Thurber, who would work on his drawings and work on his drawings, trying to improve the look of his scribbling, until E.B. White took him aside and advised him to stop, saying, "If you ever got good you'd be mediocre."

I wonder if that would do the same to Dan Brown's book.

Amie Stuart said...

So with that being said, what really defines “bad” to you? What makes a book “bad”? Is it a style of writing? Lack of editing?

I think I have to throw my vote in with sloppy writing. Back at the beginning of the year I picked up a highly recommended UF book, first in a series with four or five other books already out. I was so excited.

It was HORRID! The first fifty or so pages that I Literally waded through riddled with freshman mistakes my earliest critique partners had beaten out of me--the most glaring and widespread being INFODUMPING.

I've never had a book make me mad before but this one lit me up so bad I returned it. Then about two weeks ago, I picked up a UF book from my TBR pile...first in a series, same imprint, different author, same problem. Infodumps--and I'm talking in the middle of a FIGHT SCENE! HELLOOOOOOOO

Again, furious!!!!!

But now I don't wonder if this is a) a sign of that particular imprint or b) that particular editor at that imprint(and I have no idea if they even have the same editor).

I can forgive so-so writing if the storytelling and/or voice are there. But I can't forgive seeing such huge freshman mistakes in published books. And I don't know why but in both cases it INFURIATED me.

Phoenix Sullivan said...

Derivative plots, characters and writing that don't rise above their derivative roots make for "bad" books to my mind. As do sloppy writing, content editing, plotting and/or characterization.

I define "bad" in the critical sense, not the personal taste sense. Some people might enjoy a book that's badly plotted or poorly written. Does their enjoyment mean the book isn't bad? Of course not. Some people enjoy snuff films and kiddie porn. Literary badness and taste don't necessarily go hand in hand. Even artistry and content don't go hand in hand.

I've yawned my way through literary criticism classes and am far, far from being a "literary snob." Bad doesn't come easily. It takes a lack of talent, caring or time to turn out a truly bad book. But it happens, I think. (And I'm sure I've liked a bad book a time or two myself.)

Anonymous said...

I love reading the many comments as to what constitutes a 'bad' book. Plot seems to be the word most often used. My choice of reading is romance and mystery, in that order. I have read many books that the plot was weak and as Jessica said, it was hard to get past the first page. However, if I pay for a book I'm going to eventually read it to the end.

Do I think typo errors make the book bad, no. It's human error.Writing style, to each their own and so forth.

A bad book to me is when pages are full of 'stuff' that has no relevance to the story, good or bad. In literature everything should mean something. If an author is putting 'stuff' in the book just to meet a certain word count, then shame on them. Example: I read a book where the author spent a good paragraph describing a beautiful ladle in a punch bowl...When I realized that no one was getting hit over the head with it or it wasn't going to be stolen to further the plot. I sighed, and not in a good way.
An author should make every word count. Everything should have significance. If not, it's a waste of a good tree.

Karen Duvall said...

I've never read a bad book. If a book I start reading drives me nuts in a number of ways -- flat characters, slow pace, contrived plot, self-indulgent over-writing (rosy fingers of dawn type crap), etc. -- I don't finish it. Therefore, I can't say I've ever read a bad book.

Anonymous said...

I feel bad for all the "lack of editing" and "lack of copyediting" comments. I've read books where the editing was terrible, as well, and while I understand the ball was dropped by the publisher/editor in this area, it really does skew your perception of the writer.

Maybe it shouldn't?

To work that hard, get an agent, finally make it on bookstore shelves and then, BOOM... because of your lack of support editorially or from a copyeditor, you're book is doomed to be one of THOSE books. Ugh...

Anonymous said...

Oops, I'm Anon 1:15 above.

I meant "your" books, not "you're" books. See what I mean? I need a copyeditor for a post, apparently.


Diana said...

I have a hard time calling a book "bad." "Poorly edited," "horribly designed and laid out" (like self-published books done in pink script font), "serious grammar issues," and "not to my taste" are more likely to come out of my mouth.

Even somewhat plotless books can be amusing if the characters are great.

However, I am willing to call a non-fiction book "bad" if it is poorly researched and presents incorrect information. A medical book with serious errors that could endanger someone's health if they heed its advice would, in my opinion, be a "bad" book.

Anonymous said...

A bad book is like a bad day: you hope it gets better and when it doesn't, you give up and wish it'd never happened in the first place. Only with a bad day, you have some control over the outcome. With a bad book, not so much.

I don't believe in bad books. But I do believe in books that fail to accomplish any of the objectives of a book. Thing is, there's no word for a book that really isn't, so what else do you call it but bad?

The objectives of a book will vary but I think it comes down to this: the purpose of a book is to entertain a particular audience. If someone who only reads mysteries calls a romance "bad", I think nothing of it. But if "bad book" pops up from someone who knows the genre well, I pay attention. Same thing with series books. If devout fans start lynching the author for jumping the shark, that's a red flag for me as a reader, because those are people who are predisposed to liking those books come hell or high water. And when they don't, I start looking around for an angry mob and a guillotine.

So here's my list of what makes a book bad:

- When a book rambles on for 300 pages and then stops, it's a bad book. Anyone can go to and print off 100,000 words of randomly-generated Latin, but that don't make it a book.

- When a book doesn't tell a story (or when a series book fails to continue a story), it's a bad book. An unfortunate series of events documented on paper doesn't constitute a plot.

- If I start skimming or fall asleep or forget to keep reading, it's a bad book. (There are some exceptions to this. I fell asleep while reading THE HOBBIT, and I don't think it was a bad book. I think it was just a book I didn't find interesting. Big difference.)

- If, when I finish a book, I feel as if my IQ has been lowered to 40, it's a bad book.

- In a series, if a book is 90% rehash from other books in the series, it's a bad book AND insulting, because hello? I've already paid for that book. Don't ask me to pay for it again. That's just rude.

- If I feel like a sucker after having read it, like the author is off somewhere cackling with glee that she pulled the wool over my eyes by getting me to fork over a credit card for crap she just threw together all willy-nilly, it's a bad book.

- If a book causes me to lash out in some way - setting the book on fire, ripping it to shreds, ordering a hundred pizzas to be delivered to the author's door - it's a bad book.

I have several pet peeves when it comes to plotting and pacing and characterization and things like that, but at the end of the day, if I like the story, I don't care how it's told. But if it's just dead air, what's the point?

CoreyHaim8myDog said...

Jessica wrote:

I’m reluctant to say that any books were “bad” since I’m a believer that there’s something out there for everyone.

I have to refute this. I think it is a form of artistic relativism. I really like your blog, Jessica, but this sort of thinking has often seemed to me like a form of evasion, an unwillingness to commit to an opinion. In your position that's probably an intelligent option but it leaves you saying nothing.

I think books that have no literary value, contribute in no way to the shared human story, risks nothing and serve only as meager entertainment are "bad."

I'll paraphrase (horribly s0) a comment Sean Penn made when asked about film as entertainment. "Films shouldn't be about entertainment, you want entertainment, get a couple of hookers and an eight ball."

I concur with him. Passing time just isn't enough when there is so precious little of it we are each allotted. I expect more from the written word.

End Rant

Anonymous said...

I think a book is bad when it has no redeeming qualities. I can deal with mediocre writing, with flawed plots, with crappy dialogue, with characters I don't love, with poorly done research. But all in one book? No way. If you're writing for publication, there's no excuse for not getting at least one of these things right.

Anonymous said...

Most of what I like or dislike in a book is personal taste. I read one book recently that got generally bad reviews (with reason, after I thought about it), but I enjoyed reading the book. I've also read best sellers that people praise and my reaction is "eh."

The ones that I do consider bad is where the author really let the reader down by taking shortcuts. In one mystery, we spent the entire book investigating intrigue and suspects only to find out at the end that it was a random killing. What then was the point of the book? In another, a thriller, the author made sentries incompetent so he could make the story happen. I put the book down after the sentries spent several pages debating whether they should investigate an alarm that had gone off and then decided, "Naw. It's nothing"--right before the bad guys killed them.

I can accept mediocre writing, but when the author takes shortcuts like that, I consider it a bad book.

Marian Perera said...

I just finished reading a true crime novel. I wanted to enjoy it, but within the first ten pages, a victim was described as the suspect's younger sister. She was twenty and he was nineteen.

I figured one typo was understandable, but then I came across a description of the Leopold and Loeb case, and the book stated that they were executed. In an alternate reality, perhaps, since on Earth as we know it, the brilliant lawyer Clarence Darrow saved them from the death penalty. That was just bad. I can understand slipups with plot and character, but mistakes like this could have been fixed so easily.

Julie Weathers said...

I refuse to read people who redefine grammar, or refuse to use it, to make a point of their genius. Some of them are best selling authors. My $30 for a book, my choice.

For the rest, I look at it like I look at people. I believe there is someone out there for everyone. Going to a laundromat and watching people proves that theory.

Just because the African Laundry Warrior is a little bizarre for my tastes, doesn't mean someone else doesn't love him.

Having said that, the guy who writes like an fourteen-year-old, seething mass of hormones loses me quickly. I'm on to you, buddy. Outrageously gorgeous nubile female gets into a fight and is completely naked within minutes, but continues to fight on, swinging through the crowds with just a sword and a smile. She totally destroys twenty men with armor and then snaps at the gaping crowd, "What are you staring at?"

But, yes, even that is high adventure to someone.

Just give me something slightly believable, decent characters, plot and moderately edited so I am not tempted to get out a pen and mark as I read.

nancorbett said...

Two things really put me in a book burning mode.

The most intolerable trait a book can have is a protagonist I don't care about. I love great writing but can tolerate the simple. I can suspend my disbelief with ease and scoot along where others stop short and yell, "Hey! I don't believe that!!" But if I don't care about the protagonist or what happens to him, I get the urge to light up the wood stove and start letting 'er RIP. (Er, that can stand for rip or Rest In Piece.)

The other thing is an improperly foreshadowed twist at the end. If I feel manipulated at the end of a story because something comes from way outside the fringes, rrriiiip!

I've only actually burned one book in my life, and I don't even remember the title of it because the experience was so horrific that I have blocked it out. But there are two others where I've thought about it.

Anonymous said...

"Bad" means no care seems to have been taken with the book. Books that are loaded with errors, poorly plotted, presented, characterized etc. Few books are bad, but lots of books are merely mediocre. Books with plots that are done before, characters that are unsympathetic... other such things. There are books that are just not for me as well.

Anonymous said...

Here's an interesting question: are bad books marketable?

Most definitely, yes. That also being said, "bad" books aren't necessarily *horrible* or 'unbearable' or something like that either. For sure, there's always someone out there who will identify and enjoy any given book. Me, personally, I couldn't stand THE HISTORIAN by Elizabeth Kostova. I couldn't get past chapter 2. It just moved tooooooo sloooooooooow. It was so deliberate, so archaic. It just didn't work for me. I consider that a "bad" book. There were a lot of things that were just bad about it. Does that mean it had no market value?

There's the important question. It's a national bestseller. Obviously, people have had to like it. I still think it's a bad book because of some of the things that worked against the novel. Like its pacing. Every book has flaws, right?

I think the point is--

What's marketable is a much more realisitic question than what is bad or not bad. Bad is relatively subjective. But here's another point: even "bad" books can be enjoyable! Or how about this point: the main premise of the book is phenomenal, but the TELLING of it absolutely stinks. But we read it because we're absolutely fascinated with the premise. Or we love the genre. The book can suck royally, but we happen to be huge fans of hardboiled crime dramas. That sort of thing. Ultimately, a book can be so putrid, so unbelievably stinky--and it's actually possible that the book will still make money.

So the real important question again is:

Is the book marketable?

Anonymous said...

two words: Dan Brown.

seriously, i was forced to read his stuff, like so many, by having a weathered paperback (or in my case a first edition hardcover, nice mom) shoved in my face by a glassy-eyed relative borderline foaming at the mouth over such a cool and almost (wink) factual plot.

but the writing, ugh. the editor should be shot. he said she said tell and not show writing, with some stereotypical characters that were hauled out of central casting, without even a wardrobe change.

i often hope in the back of my mind someone, someday, takes the concept (which at the core is very well done, IMHO) and rewrites it as it should have been. while i know this will never happen, a man can still dream...

Anonymous said...

I guess bad for me is what feels forced or shallow. Where characters are face worth or the storyline is being not moved along by actions of the characters, their reactions, but this one way tunnel vision.

Also there was this one YA book I got from a friend for my birthday once that I could never read... I kept it into my marriage & my husband tried to read it & even he (who can practically read anything) found it "bad" due to structure). 3-4 word sentence. 3-4 word sentence. REALLY long sentence that takes up two line on the page.

PS-McD's makes the best chicken nuggets in my opinion... See you prove yourself right.

Anonymous said...

A bad book is one that I sit down to read, skip a few pages in the first three chapters because it just doesn't grab me, keep at it....put the book down....I find it a few days later and try all over again, only to experience the same in essence a book I just can't freakin get through, and there are usually a host of reasons for this.......

Anonymous said...

'Bad' books to me are episodic, have vicious and nasty characters as their hero/ine protagonists, start one story and wander off into another, are 2nd draft level, star villains with no real motivation - and finally, since much of the same could be said about many tv series programs, are ultimately emotionally unsatisfying.

But I've realised through reading agent blogs, taking in all that's said about good, professional, polished writing and then seeing something that absolutely doesn't belong on that palette swooped upon that probably many of us writers judge books _as_ writers because we're constantly in the critique zone and constantly trying to weed out all the flaws in our own writing too.

The two discussions here on this topic finally made me realise: agents are primarily readers! Yes, you know a lot about polished and professional writing, and more about the reading market than the rest of us do put together - but a book may catch you up in it even when it doesn't sport polished and professional writing. As a reader, you love it, you know the reading market will love it - and that's all there is to it.

Anonymous said...

I once read a book that was so bad, I continued reading out of morbid curiosity. The author chose to give the life story of every character she introduced, even walk-on characters. She jumped into the heads of those same characters. She shifted POV--often--during scenes. She changed the MC's character to fit the plot as needed, going from shy and demure, to a bold Yankee who got whatever she wanted. And transitions? Forget it. The author sewed scenes into the plot like it was a mismatched quilt.

This book had been recommended to me. Consequently, I recommend it to others as a good example of how NOT to write a book.

It's a shame, too, because I could see the story inside of all that mess. With a lot of help, I think it would have been a good book.

Santa said...

To me a bad book is one that takes me out of the story again and again. I can suspend belief at the drop of a hat when a book works but if I stop and say 'wait a minute' or 'that doesn't make sense', more often than not, I'll put in my UBS bag and move onto the next book on my pile.

Unknown said...

Chris, I really like what you said about books that contribute nothing to the human story. I'm sure there are many who will argue that that too is subjective: so be it.

A good book, to me, is one that makes me a better person -- better informed, improved in outlook, bolstered in moral thinking, or inspired in some way.

The opposite, what I call a bad book, leads to destructive thoughts, excites my mind without leaving me anything of value, or presents an ugly or degrading view of the human condition that I know is inaccurate.

Both of these, by the way, are often different from a poorly written book. Poor writing abounds, but it also finds a readership, largely because many people are not highly critical readers. The publisher markets a book that he/she knows will appeal to a targeted audience, and it often does. So the author is happy, the publisher is happy, and the audience that fits with that particular book is happy. Unfortunately, those of us with different tastes may only find out that we are NOT the targeted audience after buying the book and regretting it.

My 2 cents....

Anonymous said...

It was painful for me to read some of these comments, especially the ones that actually named an author. As an author and as a friend of various authors, I know and see how difficult it is to sit down and write a book, knowing it will be reviewed, knowing it won't satisfy EVERY reader. I don't know one author who doesn't try their hardest to put out their best work just because it's so difficult to hear awful reviews. To suggest otherwise is just ignorant and mean, in my opinion.

Jana Lubina said...

I don't think that "bad" and "good" and "mediocre" are mere subjective things.

Dislike of a particular genre, subject matter, political or religious stance -- that is subjective.

Bad grammar, spelling, pacing, POV shifts, use of language, logical consistency, and etc. are certainly not subjective, so if a book fails on those levels, then is it not fair to call that book bad, or at least mediocre?

I dislike many so-called "great" books because they completely failed to capture my interest -- Heart of Darkness, as another person here also said -- is a major one. I had to force myself to get through it; but I can't deny that it was a really well written novel. Ben Jonson -- another writer I had to struggle through; but again, he was a great writer, and despite my dislike, I can still recognize that. This is exactly why literary criticism is still an important and vital subject, and something that every student should be exposed too. It teaches you the difference between subjective and objective thinking.

As a writer and avid reader I find it insulting when I pick up a novel that is pure drivel on every single measurable level. This has nothing to do with sour grapes, and everything to do with my time and money.

When a well-established author puts out badly-edited and sloppy work, or a debut author manages to publish something so horrendous; these things are a major insult to the reader foremost, and to other writers as well. When that established author is selling books on reputation alone, I find that despicable. When that debut author is married to a well-known author or editor, it becomes clear how they managed to get themselves in print, and it's no less insulting or wrong.

And yes there is such a thing as bad taste. Just as there bad books, there are people incapable of telling the difference, and that doesn’t validate the “everything is subjective” theory being thrown about here.

I don't think there's anything mean or nasty about this. And an author shouldn't be praised or coddled for their "best intentions."

Anonymous said...

- unrealistic plot situatuons [sic]... like a random sex scene thrown in for no apparent reason. No lead up, no discussion afterward, just six pages of erotica in the middle of your book.

Is THAT where Nicole Kidman finds her movie scripts?

Anonymous said...

I agree with you in trying not to label any book as 'bad', but the ones where the author has totally dropped the ball by providing poor plot, two-dimensional characters, and not much care in the storytelling - as if they didn't believe in the story and were just trying to make a quick buck - are undeniable candidates.

Amie Stuart said...

>>if I pay for a book I'm going to eventually read it to the end.

Anon 1:28...I have to refer to Liz's list (which I loved btw). If it makes me mad enough that I feel violent (IE rip it, shred it, burn it etc) I'm returning it.

Karen Harrington said...

What a great discussion. I thought I'd offer a different perspective because everyone's grammar, editing and plot points are already well covered.

The good/bad discussion reminds me of what my own editor has often told me and recently wrote about in his blog. Here's an excerpt from that post( about the submissions he sees and evaluates:

"Not all submissions are created equal. There are rather more submissions that end up rejected than accepted. Being rejected doesn't necessarily mean the submission isn't of high quality, of course. Years ago there was a television show called The Waltons. On it, John-boy Walton was an aspiring author. In one episode he received a rejection letter from a publisher and he was dejected. His wise old grandmother said wisely, when I go shopping for gingham, I don't buy lace, no matter how pretty it is. This has stayed with me ever since. Authors who are rejected by a particular publisher should keep it in mind. You might have been rejected because you submitted lace when what they wanted was gingham."

So I think this suits the bad book discussion because what's bad to one person may not be bad to another, blatant poor grammar and writing aside.

Kerry Allen said...

Most people who read fiction do so to be entertained. With that function in mind, a truly bad book is one that fails to entertain even one single reader, and that book has never been and will never be written.

But by all means, let's petition the OED to amend the definition of "opinion" to "universal truth," since that has obviously become such a common usage.

Anonymous said...

That is just what I meant when I posted this question in the first place, Jana Lubina. Thanks girl, you hit the nail square on its bonker!

Kate Douglas said...

For me, "bad" is defined by characters that are unbelievable, inconsistent or just flat out too stupid to live. I see that occasionally and have reached the point where I just can't finish the story. Of course, those are the same characters another reader might instantly fall in love with...go figure!