. . . So, to tell you about bad books, I have to go back a little bit in history; I have to tell you a little about nursing school. Nursing school, you see, is as close to hell as you can get as a nominally free citizen– the hours are brutal, the respect is nil, the wages are zero, and you see many sights that Cannot Be Unseen. Really freaky stuff that messes with your head, too, dead people and surgical screw-ups and the vacant gazes of people who have decided they want to die and you’re just an inconvenient pause in their plans. Not to mention frequently running into patients who like to flick HIV-laden blood in your face and expose their shriveled manhoods to you and other indignities. It’s not fun.
I went through nursing school, the first semester, while heavily pregnant with my 4th child (not counting the stepson.) The second semester, I was a weepy postpartum mess trying to pump breastmilk in hostile conditions while maintaining a 4.0 GPA and raising a family. Yeah, not good. My baby turned sickly from being in daycare all day, which led to hospitalizations and drama, and I spent my second year in nursing school going to school all week and then working all weekend as a “nurse tech,” which is basically a technical term for “the bitch of every real nurse on the floor.” I also developed plantar fasciitis, which is about as much fun as having someone do a crucifixion on your feet every night before work.
During my preceptorship, I had to assist in delivering a dead baby girl. That messed me up, badly. I barely had the ability to finish my final project and walk the stage (although my grades were, annoyingly to everyone else, still at the top of the class, if not the actual top. I didn’t bother to check.) After I graduated, I was elated. I immediately got a job, a job with a staggering amount of personal responsibility that I had also heard had a high turnover rate (I should have been suspicious right then) but it was a real job! With a real wage! And, wonder of wonders, I didn’t have to go to school anymore! I could READ again!
So, being the more-than-slightly overly-ambitious woman that I have always been, I decided that what I needed to do was to read the Modern Library’s 100 Best Novels list. I sunk a large amount of money into a stack of the books on the list (from Amazon, of course) and dove in. I started with “Henderson the Rain King”, which was a somewhat odd choice, but the cover looked really neat with the big lion on it and, hey, Saul Bellow. Real literature with a capital L, people.
And it was wonderful– Henderson the Rain King is a really great book, especially when you’re in your mid-30s and wondering if life has a point and, if so, WTF is it?
The job didn’t last long– my husband transferred to Florida and I gratefully handed in my resignation before management could find a way to pin me with some legal responsibility for the next screwup. And, given that all my stress was suddenly gone, the baby we’d been trying to conceive for the previous year decided that, yes, he’d immediately be conceived after all, so I never went back to work as a nurse.
But I kept trying to read, with the stated goal that I’d read all those darn books by the time I was 40. By the time I hit 39, with several major health problems along the road, my newest toddler with a rare disease, and yet another baby on the way, I decided that finishing wasn’t really the point. I wasn’t going to fail any huge existential crisis by not finishing by 40, after all.
And I’ve kept plugging along at it. At this point, today at the ripe age of 43, I have seven titles left out of 100– James Joyce’s “Finnegan’s Wake” and “Ulysses,” “The Big Money” by John Dos Passos, “The Ambassadors” by Henry James, “Catch-22” by Joseph Heller, “The Studs Lonigan Trilogy” by James T. Farrell, and the ominously 12-volume “A Dance to the Music of Time” by Anthony Powell.
I’m basically down to the books that I am having to force myself through by sheer will. I have developed a fondness for Henry James, so he gets a pass, and I haven’t delved deep enough into the Dance to the Music of Time to even really get a feel for whether or not it’s a monstrosity or a delight, but the others . . . ohhhh. I loathe them. I hate them with a rare passion which could fill volumes.
And, yet, these are books which have been acknowledged, by thousands of people, to be true classics of Western Literature. How dare I, a humble little fantasy author, dare to say that they’re bad books? How, if they are bad books, do they get so much acclaim?
And there’s the secret right there, my dear readers: tastes vary. Some of these books on this list were written a long time ago, for very different audiences. Some of them have completely lost their cultural context– quick, tell me the relevance of all the people John Dos Passos includes in his character sketches, given that they’re a bunch of union rabble-rousers and Communists from the 1919-1940 period! Tell me how much “Tobacco Road” has ever mattered, considering what a schlocky piece of prejudicial crap it is, other than to give Yankees another reason to look down on Southerners. And please, find me a reason to respect VS Naipaul besides the fact that he comes from an underrepresented culture so we’re forced to swallow his bilge wholesale.
Some of the books, most of the books, on this list are amazing books. They’ve changed my heart, touched my soul, given me hope and strength, and allowed me to better navigate the tides of my life. And some of them have been crap, and I’ve read them wondering why I force myself through this. I’m not getting a grade– no one is giving me some kind of medal for reading these books. I’m not getting extra credit. So why, besides some kind of completionist obsession, would I force myself through something like “Catch-22” when it’s like listening to a long boring joke told by some tottery old uncle with no sense of humor?
As far as I can figure out, fumbling through these books on my own, the bad books have something to teach me as well. They may teach me something about a part of our history that I’m not too familiar with– Under the Volcano, Zulieka Dobson, and Angle of Repose all fit in that category. They may teach me about how to write truly repellent characters– for this one, all you have to read, really, is The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. They may teach me different writing techniques, they may teach me nothing that I can even discern at first, but just getting through them requires me, as a writer, to do the most difficult thing that any writer has to do:
I have to put myself into someone else’s head.
That’s never easy– so many of our characters are just us, different aspects of us, writ large and split into different people. My daughter, who is reading my novel “Dragon Venom” right now, sometimes comes up to me and points out a passage that sounds like some aspect of my personality, digs out a joke that sounds like something I would have made, or accuses me wholesale of excavating one aspect of my psyche and turning it into a character entire. Well, of course, I am the person I know best. Of course I mine myself for material. But I also have to examine other people, learn about them, predict what they would do, and make extrapolations from there. And that’s where these books that I loathe come in handy.
Because they are decidedly NOT me. I’d never have gotten myself into the mess that the protagonist let himself in for in The Magus. As much as I love DH Lawrence, I would have killed off every character in “The Rainbow” rather than have it end as it did. The House of Mirth made me hate weakness in myself as much as it made me hate the protagonist for her weak decadent fate. Some of the characters make so little sense to me (hello, JP Donleavy), that I can’t even begin to figure out what they’re thinking. And I don’t want to– they’re jerks.
But that’s been the only good part about all these bad books. Many people disagree that they’re bad in the first place– to say, publicly, that you hate James Joyce because he was playing the system doesn’t make you especially well-loved by people who admire him for masterfully playing the system. That’s an insolvable problem, there. I will always see him as a man obsessed by his own literary fame, and they will see him as a genius who struggled to make his vision clear to the world. We’ll just have to agree to disagree.
And I will, for these next two months, agree to force myself through it, no matter how bitter the taste. Maybe I will learn something. Maybe– the man had talent, that’s for sure, I just disagree about the uses he put it to. I’m halfway through “Catch 22” and “The Ambassadors”, just a long boring bath or two from finishing Studs Lonigan and The Big Money. The Dance to the Music of Time 12 book series? Seriously? I am having the hardest time with that one. So far, Book 1 has been a “British boys away at boarding school” thing and it’s giving me no particular thrills. I am hoping that it gets interesting quickly, because that’s the only stumbling block on my road to completion of this now-decades-long reading challenge that I saddled myself with.
I am hoping to learn something that I will need on this next novel-writing journey. Because my goal, dear readers, is not to just crank out another novel in a boring trilogy and pad out my word count. My goal, my eternal goal, is to get better with each book– I want you to care about my characters. I want you to cringe when they die, rejoice when they win, suffer with them when they’re in troubles and tribulations. I want them to be as real people as they can be, given that they’re characters in a book. I want the action to flow naturally and logically from the plot. I don’t want to shrink from making the big decisions– I want the bravery and the love to do the right thing, to write the book the right way, and to give you a book at the end of it which will make you happy to have read it.
And that is why bad books matter– they show you, better than anything else, what you don’t feel is true, what you don’t feel is right, and how not to do things.
Wish me luck in applying these lessons!