Who hasn’t, at some point, looked across on the train or in the café, seen what someone else is reading and felt a sense of distaste that someone is reading ‘trash’? Perhaps it comes with that additional flush of intellectual superiority, that you are able to recognise how appalling that book is, whilst they cannot not.
For me, I first became aware of it happening with Twilight, then again with Fifty Shades of Grey. Perhaps because they were such a huge sensation, because they were so pervasive, there was no avoiding them and so I was repeatedly forced to confront my own feelings, which likely became stronger with each repetition. I was righteously indignant that such terrible books were so popular, that they’d made so much money, that so many people I deemed to be otherwise sensible were not just reading, but enjoying them. Quelle horreur! Naturally, I was convinced that my assessment was entirely objective, that these books were bad from a completely academic point of view – people can like what they like but intrinsically, scientifically, without question, these were bad.
But in the last few years, I’ve realised that there is a place for what people deem ‘bad books’, even books that are apparently objectively without redemption.
1. All Reading is Good Reading
One of the common arguments people give in defence of ‘bad books’ is that all reading is good reading. This is usually given in the context of getting children to read and is something I used to have to say again and again to parents during my brief tenure as a teacher, and when I have worked as a tutor since. So many parents have complained that their children only want to read comics, or ‘silly’ books, but when building an interest in reading and developing literacy skills, there is no such thing as a bad book. Engagement in the reading material is one of the key markers for building a love of books – Neil Gaiman wrote a column on this very subject for The Guardian in 2013, and said
I don’t think there is such a thing as a bad book for children. Every now and again it becomes fashionable among some adults to point at a subset of children’s books, a genre, perhaps, or an author, and to declare them bad books, books that children should be stopped from reading. I’ve seen it happen over and over; Enid Blyton was declared a bad author, so was RL Stine, so were dozens of others. Comics have been decried as fostering illiteracy.
It’s tosh. It’s snobbery and it’s foolishness. There are no bad authors for children, that children like and want to read and seek out, because every child is different. They can find the stories they need to, and they bring themselves to stories. A hackneyed, worn-out idea isn’t hackneyed and worn out to them. This is the first time the child has encountered it. Do not discourage children from reading because you feel they are reading the wrong thing. Fiction you do not like is a route to other books you may prefer. And not everyone has the same taste as you.
This rallying cry has been repeated again and again by librarians and publishers and teachers alike. All books build reading skills, even comics help children to build their narrative recognition skills, following images across the page which tell the story. The important thing is that they’re interested, and they associate reading with enjoyment.
It was a lightbulb moment when I realised that this wasn’t just true of children’s literature, but of all literature. I had been promoting literary egalitarianism for children and blithely ignoring it once a certain age threshold had been passed. In reality, it never stops being true – people read for lots of different reasons and enjoy many different things. Even though I think a book is awful, it may be the book which gets someone reading for the first time in years.
Twilight may be trash as far as I’m concerned, but it led to a massive rise in book sales for Middle Grade and YA readers. Fifty Shades of Grey might be boring nonsense for me, but it became the fastest selling UK paperback of all time, and has sold 125 million copies worldwide, across 52 languages. So what if I think they’re bad books? People are reading, and that’s surely the most important thing, particularly when there are constant cries that technology is leading to an illiterate society. (See also: Super Sad True Love Story, which is a novel embodying all the fears Gen X has for the Millennial generation and beyond becoming illiterate technophiles)
2. Literary Snobbery is a Bad Thing
All genres face some form of literary snobbery. The Bookseller wrote an obituary earlier this year for Lyvia Gollancz, where it claimed that the publisher her father started and which she ran was now ‘merely a science fiction imprint’, and wistfully remembering when it had published some of the greats of literary fiction. The article declared the last twenty years of Gollancz’s history ‘a tragedy’, because it used to publish ‘more important’ works.
Naturally, this caused a bit of upset amongst the SFF community as Gollancz is hugely respected as a genre publisher. People came out in droves to support Gollancz on social media. Ed McDonald wrote a blog in response, discussing the issues of genre snobbery – and noting a key point: that a book is SFF if it’s ‘bad’, but Speculative Fiction if it’s ‘good’. This came up again when Kazuo Ishiguru published a new fantasy novel, and faced criticism from Ursula K. LeGuin. Specifically, Ishiguru notes that Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale, set in in a future dystopic society, is considered emphatically by Atwood as Speculative fiction, not SFF. This is the case for many works which are deemed literary but which stray into genre fiction, including Hank Green’s new book, A Truly Remarkable Thing which is listed under SFF on Amazon, but is also listed under Literary Fiction. It is a book about giant robots, but if you look at the book copy, there is clearly a desire to move away from the SFF element of it, and towards the Literary fiction side:
While roaming the streets of New York City at 3 a.m., twenty-three-year-old April May stumbles across a giant sculpture she calls Carl. Delighted by its appearance – like a ten-foot-tall Transformer wearing a suit of samurai armour – April and her friend Andy make a video with it, which Andy uploads to YouTube. The next day April wakes up to a viral video and a new life.
There are Carls in dozens of cities around the world – everywhere from Beijing to Buenos Aires – and April, as their first documentarian, finds herself at the centre of an international media spotlight.
Now April has to deal with the pressure on her relationships, her identity and her safety that this new position brings, all while being on the front lines of the quest to find out not just what the Carls are, but what they want from us…
I have never seen a book about giant robots be less excited about the giant robots part of it, and instead want to focus on relationships and self-definition. In the UK, it is even published under Trapeze, one of Orion’s literary imprints, rather than Gollancz, Orion’s SFF powerhouse. Distance is clearly desired between these books and SFF. Perhaps the perception is that SFF isn’t ‘good’ enough, or that the books will be viewed as less important for being strongly genre fiction.
Looking at other genres, Crime and Horror are equally maligned by different groups, whilst most bookstores in the UK don’t have a dedicated Romance section, instead grouping it under ‘Women’s Fiction’ (which frankly is a term I despise because the idea of a genre for an entire gender is absurd and patronising). That’s if bookshops stock it at all. At the end of last year, there was even a flurry of discussion on twitter claiming that Literary Fiction was itself a victim of genre snobbery, because people were prejudging it based on misconceptions of the genre – seeing it as snobby and a luxury item for the self-important. Over at TLC, Michelle Shakespeare pondered why she valued Literary Fiction as her genre of choice from an author’s perspective, and also examined why people might be put off it. It’s interesting to see the spread of author perspectives – Given McDonald and LeGuin’s concerns that people distance themselves from genres because they’re afraid to embrace them fully, because they fear judgement, does Shakespeare’s perspective explain Atwood’s choice to keep The Handmaid’s Tale speculative? Or does it justify the decision for Green to shy away from the SF elements of A Truly Remarkable Thing? Why is there such a distinction between what is deemed ‘Literature’ and just plain old ‘Books’? Why are genre tropes only allowed to be lauded if your work is considered ‘worthy’?
In the end, though, genre snobbery hurts everyone. Judging a genre in its entirety doesn’t allow for the breadth, depth, and nuance which can be found across each subject. Distinctions of what makes Good and Bad fiction are entirely arbitrary, and too often dictated by the Literary Canon, which was almost entirely compiled by white, middle class men. There’s also some assumption that if something is commercial, it must therefore not be ‘worthy’. But… we want books to sell, don’t we? So surely commercial appeal actually makes for a better book? But what about books that are important, but lack a broad commercial market – is it right to rule those out entirely?
By writing off an entire genre because it is not ‘good’ enough, or too ‘good’ to be properly appreciated, we’re only limiting ourselves as readers, but also hurting the publishing industry. We don’t want people to stop buying books, because then books won’t be printed, so let people read what they want. Merits of literature are entirely subjective, and whilst we may be informed by our own experiences and the opinions of those around us, no-one wins in literary snobbery – people are made to feel bad about what they enjoy, and others miss out on new experiences and excellent books.
3. Bad Books + Good Sales = More Books
As I have mentioned before in various posts on the publishing industry, publishing is not a business with big profits. Yes, there are some big sellers, but for every big seller there’s a big flop which a huge unearned advance that has to be covered somehow, and in between a list of books which make a respectable turnover but aren’t raking in the cash. This means that publishers tend to be cautious about their signings – one big flop could erase the whole year’s profits, so better to buy something that is guaranteed to at least earn back its advance.
This can lead to a slightly homogeneous offering in book stores, but things are selling, and fewer books are returned to be pulped, so it’s just about a happy ending, if a boring one.
If a book does turn into a massive bestseller, if it covers its costs and keeps earning more, suddenly the publishers have money in their pockets. Money that they can spend on new books. The more money a book makes, the bigger financial buffer a publisher has, which means the more risks they can take. Books which wouldn’t have been published during a slim year have a better chance when a publisher does well, because they can afford to take a risk on something which doesn’t have such a broad commercial appeal. For example, because of the success of Harry Potter, Bloomsbury were able to diversify massively, buying other publishers to operate as imprints, and expanding their offering to a wider range of genres and titles, as well as increasing their output. Meanwhile, after publishing Fifty Shades of Grey, Random House’s operating profits rose by 75%. This was money that they intended to reinvest, to use for expansion – ultimately, to publish more books.
So, if you can’t accept that people reading at all is good, and that people should read what they enjoy, consider this: for every Fifty Shades of Grey, a publisher is able to take a risk on more diverse books, books which could go on to be prize winners, more unusual books. Even though it seems counter intuitive, these books make the market better.
5. Censorship isn’t great and Critical Reading is amazing
Whilst there is something to be said for non-fiction books which purport to be fact but are inaccurate, hateful, or even dangerous, the discussion of censorship and non-platforming is another, very long, debate. Personally I feel that there’s a difference between harmful books and ‘bad’ books, but banning books has never proven particularly successful. In situations with books like that – the recent debacle with Milo Yiannopoulos comes to mind – I have seen people calling for boycotts of the publishers. Again, that seems like the wrong approach, as you are punishing authors for the actions of their publisher. Perhaps the best way is just to not buy the specific book – unearned advances are extremely bad for publishers, and make them more cautious in their future commissioning.
Book censorship is also an extremely problematic issue, as often this can prevent voices and stories which need to be told being told – the power dynamic in places where censorship is enacted is such that it’s not necessarily the harmful books which are censored, but the diverse ones, or ones that don’t fit what governments or schools see as ‘appropriate’. Looking at the list of banned classics can be quite an experience, seeing what was previously considered inappropriate or dangerous. Taking into account everything that has been banned around the world, the list grows alarmingly long.
Issues raised with fiction books promoting unhealthy relationships (Twilight) or unsafe practices (Fifty Shades of Grey), or even just examples of historical misogynistic ideals (just about any fairy tale) cannot be ignored either. For my MA, I wrote an essay on issues I had with parents preventing their daughters from accessing princess stories because they were sexist, and my feelings were very clear: instead of banning these books, use them as a point for discussion and a way to develop critical reading and thinking skills. Why isn’t this good? How could it be better? If you build critical reading into early literacy education, by the time children are old enough to read Twilight, they’ll be confident enough also to assess it critically as a work of fiction, as opposed to passively accepting the portrayals in it to be acceptable and suitable for real life.
By using critical techniques instead of censorship, we can actually use bad books to become better readers, and maybe even better people.