When Bad Books Happen to Good Readers: 5 things we can learn from writers we despise

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We all have our own little lists of books that inspire us to be better humans and writers by virtue of their existence. That first, great novel that made us feel like the world of fiction was full of adventure and possibilities still gives us butterflies akin to those we felt for our first love.

Then, there are other books that do not deserve to occupy space on our bookshelves next to the works of J. M. Barrie or Lewis Carroll: the kind so terrible we hesitate to recycle them because “Future Toilet Paper” is too lofty a title for these wretched objects.

While no one likes the sadder-by-wiser style lessons bestowed on us by these books, here are 5 such lessons that may or may not soothe the sting caused by the disappointment we find within their pages:

  1. Good books are things of beauty. I’ve asked multiple editors if reading is still pleasurable or if it feels like work after having done it all day. They say it is pleasurable, but they are extra appreciative of good books. Bad books are something they gotta be paid to endure, which leads us to…
  2.  Life is too short for bad books. Many book reviewers are inclined to speak of their “Did not finish” pile as though it’s a locus of shame: “Sorry, everybody. I know some of you love this novel. I just couldn’t do it.” Readers should not need to apologize for knowing a waste of time when they see one and moving on. If a book doesn’t bring you pleasure, and no one is paying you to read / correct / review it, please oh please, spend that time you could’ve spent finishing that book you hate on seeking out more books to love.
  3. There is no such thing as an unpublishable book. Agents and publishing bigwigs will sometimes describe a book as “unpublishable,” and that is misleading. What they mean by that is “I lack the patience it takes to find a market for this book.” If Lolita and Handbook for Mortals made their way onto the Barnes & Noble bookshelves by any route other than that which leads through Self-Pub Hell (not that all Self-Pub is Hell, just the inhospitable corners where-in reading its bookish contents feels like a punishment), your book can make it onto those shelves, as well.
  4.  Sometimes, the power of marketing triumphs over good narrative. As much as we like to believe excellent books will sell themselves, how much of why we pick up a book has nothing to do with its quality? Folks picked up The Red Queen because the cover art was so exceptional, readers saw it and said, “I must possess it!” Books that bear the name “William Shatner” get picked up on the regular because they break the “so bad, it’s good” barrier. One of my least favorite books is sci-fi offering that could easily be marketed as “Star Wars meets 9/11 attacks.” There is nothing subtle, creative, or good about the story. But Dude’s book is a best seller with his publisher because the cover is amazing, the publisher hypes the snot out of it, and the author knocks himself out to promote his book at event after event. So as far as the publisher is concerned, quality books are less coveted than an author who is good at marketing. Marketing will sell the book. Quality will keep it in the hands of the reader and off the shelves at Good Will.
  5. Bad books inspire us to write better books. As much as I’d like to believe the novel is an author’s gift to the world, I’m a spite writer. Some of my best work has come from my looking at someone’s awful work and saying, “I can do better.” If you aren’t a spite writer (it’s honestly better for your soul if you’re not), the best advice I’ve read, heard, and given is “write what you want to read.” If you’re sick of seeing naught but nasty stereotypes or the dialogue is atrocious in your favorite genre, think of how you would fix it, and write a better story around it than you’ve hitherto seen. If you’ve encountered it in fiction enough to get sick of it, there’s likely someone else who’s sick of it too, and that guy or gal might be your biggest fan. Unless you don’t write the book. Then, the both of you might be stuck with commiserating with one another cruddy books.

So if you think you suffered through your copy of Twilight, Slammed, or Divergent for nothing, fear not. We can thank our lucky stars not all books are like the same, and revel in the books that matter!

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