December 15, 2010

Why people like bad books


Steig Larsson: Bad enough to be good

“Why do people like bad books?” asks Laura Miller in her newest Salon column, “Why We Love Bad Writing.” She poses the question in the wake of a “salvo against popular fiction launched in the pages of the Guardian newspaper this week by the British novelist Edward Docx,” after finding himself on a train where it seemed everyone was reading Steig Larsson and Dan Brown. Docx’s comments have of course launched a heated discussion between genre fans and “literary” fans, an argument which draws an inspired observation from Miller: “The not-so-secret reason why pissing matches are so common, after all, is that some people just really love taking it out.”

But to get back to the point, Miller notes that while she doesn’t care for Brown, she read Larsson “with a considerable amount of pleasure.” In fact, she says “I am exactly the sort of person who might be glimpsed reading ‘The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo’ on a train.” This, despite the fact that, as she continues, “Even the most vehement of genre champions will not argue that either man is a good, or even adequate, stylist. (Larsson himself seems to have been well aware that he was no Hemingway.) Rather, they are both, in many respects and apart from the whole genre question, fairly bad writers. So why do so many people devour their books?”

Not too much work, she decides, and speed. While “literary” writers strive for originality and battle cliche, she notes, C.S. Lewis had a different take on it. He though many actually favor cliche …

… because it is immediately recognizable. ‘My blood ran cold’ is a hieroglyph of fear. Any attempt, such as a great writer might make, to render this fear concrete in its full particularity, is doubly a chokepear to the unliterary reader. For it offers him what he doesn’t want, and offers it only on the condition of his giving to the words a kind and degree of attention which he does not intend to give. It is like trying to sell him something he has no use for at a price he does not wish to pay.

Meanwhile, Miller notes,

With the advent of Amazon reader reviews, such readers have finally found a voice, and a vocabulary with which to express their taste. Speed is the operative metaphor. Novels are praised for being a “fast read” and above all for having writing that “flows.” “Flow” is an especially fascinating term because it’s one that literary critics have never used, and it perfectly captures the way that clichéd prose can be gobbled up in chunks at a breakneck pace. “The Da Vinci Code” is over 400 pages long, but you can race through it in about three hours. Combine the large population of casual readers who limit themselves to such books with the hardcore bibliophiles who like an occasional dip into something easy, and you have enough buyers to create a hit.

Dennis Johnson is the founder of MobyLives, and the co-founder and co-publisher of Melville House. Follow him at @mobylives