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?