Warning: controversial opinions to come.
Read, Analyse, Review
As a former English Literature student I have had to read, decipher and pick apart more books than the average reader. I have spent hours pulling apart the meaning in lines of poetry and opening paragraphs to the point at which I think I might go mad. For some people analysing a book is the worst thing you can do. But for the most part, I often enjoyed a book much more with a bit of analysis.
Take The Great Gatsby for instance. I studied this at A-Level for a module called ‘Love Through the Ages’. I had heard of Gatsby and the word ‘great’ in the title gave me the impression that this was going to be an epic love story. I was sadly disappointed and I didn’t like it. Then I studied it. I understood that Gatsby is a story about obsessive love, about the idea of love versus the reality of it, about the complexity of love and loyalty (see Daisy and Tom). I learnt about the significance of the green light and the eyes of Dr Eckleburg watching over everyone. I could go on and on but we might be here all day.
On the other hand there are lots of texts that I have read, studied and still not liked. Don DeLillo’s White Noise was a book that I just did not enjoy. I studied it, learnt about its place in post-modernism and the satirical elements featured (the main character, Jack Gladney is a professor of Hitler Studies at The-College-on-the-Hill, for example) and I still didn’t enjoy it. I recognised what it was doing but that did not make me like it. It wasn’t a bad book per se, just not to my taste.
Good Books, Bad Experiences
I think I can be a little bit more objective about my reading now. I can recognise poor writing and can tell whether something was good or just enjoyable.
Okay, here’s where the unpopular opinions start.
I don’t really enjoy reading Neil Gaimon or Terry Pratchett books. I know. I know. I’ve tried! I’ve read Stardust and Coraline. I’ve read Guards, Guards and Good Omens. I just can not get into the writing style. I’ve seen adaptations too. I adore Stardust the film. I loved Going Postal, it was brilliant. And I know that Gaimon and Pratchett’s writing is witty and clever and good. It’s just me.
I had a similar experience with Jasper Fforde – I enjoyed reading Shades of Grey but it didn’t sweep me away and I tried reading The Eyre Affair but despite it featuring so many elements that I should have enjoyed – time travel, mystery and characters from literature – I just didn’t like it.
The God of Small Things on my TBR for aaaages and I’ve heard nothing but good things about it. But I just could not make it past 50 pages. I see that it’s well-written literary fiction but I just could not get on board with it.
Patrick Ness is another example. I’ve read A Monster Calls and I loved it but I cannot allow myself pick up another one of his books after reading The Knife of Never Letting Go. I don’t understand why people like that book tbh. I absolutely hated it. (And actually, I’m in two minds about Ness because A Monster Calls is beautifully illustrated which is the work of Jim Kay and the story was Siobhan Dowd’s so maybe he isn’t a good author?)
Bad Books, Good Experiences
I’ve also gone back to childhood favourites and haven’t enjoyed them the second time round. I think good children’s book authors should be able to write something that can be enjoyed as an adult.
Disclaimer: I adored Jacqueline Wilson as a child. She was my favourite author of all time, at one stage I had read every single one of her books and I still have a signed birthday copy of The Diamond Girls when she came to my local Ottakar’s for a book-signing. But I grew out of her and I realised that her characters were very similar in their likes and dislikes (likes: Art, English, writing, dislikes: Maths) and their insecurities (mousy hair or straw hair depending on whether they were brunette or blonde. And feeling chubby). The protagonists for her books were often interchangable. This is not good writing. But did I love her books? Hell yes.
(As a side note, during work experience at Penguin Random House I had to pass JW’s fanmail onto her agent. One letter was from an autistic child who, for the first time, identified with a character and really enjoyed Wilson’s books. So you don’t need to be a stellar writer to make an impact.)
Meg Cabot’s another author whose books I adored reading. Her books suffered from a first-person perspective that could have been any of her protagonists. Different characters, yes, but the same voice and writing style. (A few years ago I reread The Princess Diaries series and still loved them, but my point still stands!)
I think it’s easier to recognise well-written, good books that you didn’t like rather than badly-written, poor books that you did. I was struggling really to look at the books I’ve enjoyed and remember whether they were poorly written or not. I also think that writing style is very individual. Personally I cannot stand books written solely in third-person present tense, it’s just something I can’t ignore. Everyone has their own preferences.
So what happens when you like something and recognise that it’s a little bit rubbish? Does it become a guilty pleasure? I feel like some of the books I read as a teenager fell into that category. I am not a chick-lit kinda girl and I don’t watch rom-coms. But I read every book in the Confessions of a Shopaholic series (though I would never advertise it at the time). Yes, I watched the film too. But sometimes you need that kind of book in your life, that you can just switch off and read without thinking.
And of course, sometimes you’re absolutely right. It was not a good book, it was not well-written AND you didn’t like it. Bask in the glory of being right.