The Best Bad Book You’ve Ever Read

MarxIn the New York Times Sunday Book Review, Bookends Section, the question asked is “What’s the Best ‘Bad’ Book You’ve Ever Read.” This area of the Book Review always asks the question to two individuals in the world of literature or journalism and often the answers constitute a rousing “he-said, she-said” of literary taste and opinion. Not always, however, and the response to the question this last weekend was varied but not especially combative.

For the record, James Parker dipped back into his love of popular genre fiction, selecting Earl Thompson’s 1974 novel Tattoo (I actually read this one) but quickly spreading out his opinion to cover what might be called a genre of bad fiction, from Science Fiction to Rockstar Autobiography. Parker did not convince me that I should read any of the works he reminisces about.

But Leslie Jamison focused on a specific book and then asked a very pointed question (but flunked the answer):

AliceIt’s easy to argue that “Go Ask Alice” is a terrible book. The anonymous 1971 “real diary” of a teenage drug addict is unabashed, unadulterated, unapologetic. It’s sentiment on steroids. It tracks a young girl’s ragged descent from the tame ecosystem of late-’60s suburbia (gelatin salads and autograph parties) to the edgier pleasures of acid and speed (“like riding shooting stars through the Milky Way, only a million, trillion times better”) and finally into the grim realities of full-fledged addiction itself: daily fellatio in order to keep the heroin supply intact. The book’s back cover gives away its ending in the same grim moralizing tone that haunts the narrative itself: “You Can’t Ask Alice Anything Anymore.”

The voice of our narrator is hyperbolic — by turns enthusiastic and despairing — saturated with melodrama and an excess of exclamation points. We get exclamation points about orange yeast rolls (“I can’t wait! I can’t wait!”), and exclamation points about how much Joel enjoys them (“Joel ate seven! Seven!”); we get exclamation points about what future these rolls might yield (“Dr. and Mrs. Joel Reems. Doesn’t that look lovely!”). The book is cloying and ham-handed and anything but subtle. It starts to feel an awful lot like antidrug propaganda — which, in fact, is exactly what it was.

After various controversies about its origins, “Go Ask Alice” has since been officially classified as fiction. The book’s copyright belongs to Beatrice M. Sparks, a therapist and Mormon youth counselor who produced a number of other alleged diaries: of a girl who gets pregnant, a girl seduced by her teacher, a boy who gets involved in the occult and commits suicide.

If a book that asks to be redeemed from its aesthetic failures by virtue of its “real”-ness isn’t real at all, then what do we make of it? “Go Ask Alice” isn’t the actual melodrama of an actual teenager, but the fabricated melodrama of a rhetorical instrument, a piece of propaganda hastily carved into the shape of a girl …. Though the narrative confesses the appeal of drugs, it does little justice to their thrall. Peer pressure looms large, and our narrator’s final relapse remains implicit in the margins, as if describing it would make her less sympathetic. This exclusion is an act of narrative cowardice, an evasion of everything confusing and frightening about relapse and its paradoxical machinations.

Jamison goes on to say that she still loves Go Ask Alice for all the things it is even if it isn’t really those things. Really?

But the important observation is “If a book that asks to be redeemed from its aesthetic failures by virtue of its “real”-ness isn’t real at all, then what do we make of it?” Answer of course is, IT’S ALL FICTION!

MillerHave there been instances where authors have been enlisted to purposely write a bad book (other than Dan Brown, of course)? I recall that Henry Miller was challenged to write a wildly obscene novel which resulted in Under the Roofs of Paris. Come to think of it, that was a truly lousy novel as well as being borderline pornography (most pornographic novels, I suspect, are poorly written and not even the sex will keep them from the compost heap … eventually).

What is the best bad book you’ve ever read?

4 responses

  1. I was answering one of your follow up questions: “Have there been instances where authors have been enlisted to purposely write a bad book (other than Dan Brown, of course)?” and must confess that I haven’t actually read NCTS.
    Perhaps it’s cheating to pick a YA novel, and one in the horror genre at that, but my favourite bad book is Remember Me by Christopher Pike. It’s utter rubbish but I’m sure I read it dozens of time as a pre-teen and if I had kept my copy I’d probably still give it a re-read every once in a while.

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    • Young Adult or Juvenile books are problematic: I have memories of a few books I read in my youth which I hated to finish: they were so good. But were they? However, even if I were to reread them today, sixty years later, and find them horribly written, I might be missing a characteristic of good literature in which suggest is speak to a projected audience.

      I’m reasonably sure that after many years of reading and studying literature (some might even be considered great literature) a title by R. L. Stine would inevitably violate all known characteristics of good literature … but would it? The things I see as problems would not be noticed by the young reader who was riveted by the story or who identified with a favorite character.

      My Kid is a professor at the university now and if anything is more erudite and analytical than I, the old curmudgeon. But I’m pretty sure I remember her being enthralled by Babar … at least when she got a little older she accurately discarded Catcher In the Rye as dreck.

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    • Hey, I read NCTS when it was published. If I recall the true author (or group of authors) was disclosed fairly early, unlike Primary Colors where the actual author did a Deep Throat and seemed like he might never be revealed.

      But do you consider NCTS the best bad book you have read or are you just commenting on the nefarious process of created pornography by secret committee?

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