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Tuesday, December 08, 2009

What are the good bad books today?

The term “good bad books” originates with George Orwell, I think: He used it to refer to low-brow books that lacked the academic or cultural pretension of great literature but nevertheless were irresistibly fun for intelligent people to read. At the time that Orwell coined the phrase, Kipling’s work counted as good bad books, as did Sherlock Holmes stories, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and a bunch of others. As Orwell noted, sometimes these books long outlast the classics to which they are unfavorably compared, and sometimes they evolve from the status of pulp to camp classic to an academic classic worthy of a volume in the Library of America (Consider H.P.Lovecraft or Raymond Chandler as examples – although Chandler was arguably a faux good bad book, given the high-brow pretensions with which his work was treated during his lifetime).

Orwell says about good bad books that “[i]n each of these books the author has been able to identify himself with his imagined characters, to feel with them and invite sympathy on their behalf, with a kind of abandonment that cleverer people would find it difficult to achieve. They bring out the fact that intellectual refinement can be a disadvantage to a story-teller, as it would be to a music-hall comedian…. The existence of good bad literature — the fact that one can be amused or excited or even moved by a book that one's intellect simply refuses to take seriously — is a reminder that art is not the same thing as cerebration.”

So what counts as a good bad book today? What sorts of books do you read as a guilty pleasure, knowing that their authors are not clever or well-educated and that their reputation are academically disreputable? (Of course, I will not take your answers seriously unless they are anonymous: Any book that you, an academic, are willing to admit that you like to read cannot count as a good bad book).

Posted by Rick Hills on December 8, 2009 at 02:59 PM | Permalink


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Ian Fleming, though perhaps he's too far back in the literary canon for his works to qualify as among "today's" good bad books. I'd also submit Harry Turtledove, who writes about "alternate history", history as it might have been if one key event had gone differently. It's a fun little subgenre of historical fiction, and Turtledove is the unquestioned master.

Posted by: Daniel | Dec 11, 2009 9:58:36 AM

I would throw out a vote for stuff by Arturo Perez-Reverte.

Posted by: Hauk | Dec 9, 2009 12:42:39 PM

"Bad books" are not what I would call such works. Surely,
some of those listed here are "clever" and the fact that
they might not be "academic" reading does not lead to
embarrassment even among academics, does it?

Carl Hiaassen, for instance, is a clever writer. Is a book by
Kellerman really "bad" either? Now, Robin Cook, that can be
a 'bad' book ... having read a few, those can be fun and
ridiculous and badly written at the same time.

Posted by: Joe | Dec 8, 2009 6:49:26 PM

For instance, Dave Barry's profile of New York: http://www.davebarry.com/gg/newyork.html

Posted by: student | Dec 8, 2009 6:13:36 PM

To me, Harry Potter is the paradigmatic example. To a lesser extent: Michael Crichton, Agatha Christie, and Dave Barry.

Posted by: student | Dec 8, 2009 6:12:01 PM

Comic books.

Posted by: The Nth Anon Commenter | Dec 8, 2009 5:39:25 PM

Okay, I'll pony up with anything by Diane Wynne Jones, whose books I read to my children (now 15 and 17) when they were much younger and which I continue to love, albeit without any respectable excuse for reading them.

Posted by: Rick Hills | Dec 8, 2009 5:10:05 PM

The Ender's Game books beyond the first two. After Speaker they took a turn into the twilight zone. Absolute garbage, but still enjoyable. I would also second the King comment. Many years down the road they will get the respect they deserve.

Posted by: Somedude127 | Dec 8, 2009 4:19:25 PM

Beat the Reaper is pretty good, and so is the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society. I also like Dahlia Lithwick's ongoing novel on Slate.

I'd do this anonymously if I could! Not sure this website permits it.

Posted by: David | Dec 8, 2009 3:57:34 PM

Older Stephen King books are truly great ('Salem's Lot, It, Dead Zone, The Stand, etc.). Also, the Percy Jackson series (for kids, but great). I bet both of those will last a while. Less classic, but still very fun to read: Jonathan Kellerman, James Patterson, John Grisham.

Posted by: anon | Dec 8, 2009 3:54:53 PM

Never read it, but I insist that it MUST be a "good bad book," how else to explain a) the obsession over it and b) the obsession over enumerating its faults?

I speak, of course, of Twilight and its progeny.

Posted by: Matthew Reid Krell | Dec 8, 2009 3:30:00 PM

Anything by Carl Hiaassen. And it doesn't really matter which book, since the characters and plots are all pretty much variations.

And alongside Raymond Chandler I'd put Dashiell Hammett, though I'm afraid that age might've turned those hard-boiled novels into something approaching classics, thereby disqualifying them from consideration.

Posted by: anon | Dec 8, 2009 3:25:25 PM

Great question, Rick. I am a fan of Robert Parker's "Appaloosa" series.

(Sorry, cannot bring myself to comment anonymously, so you will have to discount the endorsement.)

Posted by: Steve Lubet | Dec 8, 2009 3:08:55 PM

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