I don’t read that many bad books, I take no pleasure in them. People sometimes talk about how they are going to gorge on book-junk as though a bad novel is a messy burger and there is a special joy to be gained from swallowing it. Not me.
I like many kinds of fiction and there are great writers in any genre, but I would rather seek out the glittering best of any given type rather than read that which is merely mediocre or indeed plain awful. So I do some research, take advice from people whose taste I trust. Hence I read very few bad books.
The exception came when I was a newspaper journalist and used to review books as part of my job. Then I got what I was given and, of course, the quality was mixed.
The worst book I ever read was a self-published memoir by a retired small businessman. This was in the pre-digital days when, to self-publish a book, you had to pay a vanity publisher to do a print run. He had plenty of money I guess and had coughed up so there were none of those blunt object problems like terrible proof-reading and so on. Also the prose was adequate, the firm who printed the book for him had titivated that a little too I’m guessing, it made you sleepy rather than bringing you out in a cold sweat.
But what I had to wade through was a book which simply should never have been written. It was the story of a life so unremarkable that the highlights were barely worth telling as an anecdote down the pub, never mind committing to print.
I could have stopped reading it early on – written a couple of inoffensive summary pars about the thing for the local paper and moved on. But I found I couldn’t stop reading. The guy’s very blandness was addictive.
He had run some kind of small engineering firm. He saw his life story as a rags to riches tale – though he was hardly born in rags and didn’t get all that rich. But he assumed his legion of readers would be swept away by his tale of modest success in provincial manufacture. Nothing happened to him of any note whatsoever yet he told us about it all in forensic detail. He reminded me of the man in Auden’s satirical poem The Unknown Citizen who is remembered fondly by the state for his inoffensive ordinaryness.
“Was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd:
Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard.”
There was one horrifying chapter – headed something like: ‘The Transport’ where he went into significant detail about every motorcar he had ever owned – how much it cost, its vital statistics, how it felt to drive. He even included a photograph of himself standing smugly next to each shiny chariot.
There was another, rather spiteful, chapter, where he went into detail about every member of staff he had felt compelled to dismiss from his employment during his time as CEO of Sprockets Inc. In this one he endeavoured to present himself as having the wisdom of Solomon and those who he sacked as venal and wicked.
Finally he offered us his thoughts on the future. Though the preceding chapters had been focussed on the minutiae of his existence, in this one he spread his horizons to global politics and economics, telling us nothing of value about any of it.
When I arrived at the foot of the last page I was strangely satisfied. I would never, I felt, read a book as bad as that again. I wrote two inoffensive summary pars about it which duly appeared in the newspaper.
The worst book I ever read was a maddening scrap-book of nothing, of interest to nobody, except one man – the man who had written it.
Is there a message in this for us writers? How do we avoid writing the worst book someone else has ever read?
Well, I think the one simple message is to put the reader first. The basic problem with the worst book ever was that the man who wrote it didn’t care about anybody but himself. His reason for writing was self-aggrandisement, he didn’t give two hoots for anyone who might be unfortunate enough to read it.
Let’s not be that man – let’s be writers who care about our readers. The world has enough bad books already.
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