On the Comfort of Bad Books


At last weekend’s New Yorker festival, Salman Rushdie ventured the opinion that the inexplicably popular 50 Shades of Grey “made Twilight look like War and Peace.” I don’t like Twilight, I’ve never read 50 Shades of Grey, and still some defensive antenna of mine shot up. Not to pick on Rushdie too particularly, of course, his statement was hardly original or surprising. It’s just that there is something thoroughly frustrating about the way a certain kind of book person talks about a certain kind of book, which is to say the kind of book that not-book-people read. And which, to continue down that confusing path, is the kind of book that most people actually buy.

We want to say that on the one hand are the good books, the hard books, the books that require dedication of the reader, of the work readers do. The books that Real Writers (apparently a self-selecting class) write. And then there are these others. Yet it’s a strange thing to watch book culture, which is itself in a perpetual stage of fear about its own decline, slice off pieces of its very own flesh.

If you don’t believe that we are all one body here, try this on for size: Of all the details D.T. Max dug up on David Foster Wallace’s life for that original New Yorker profile of his, the one that has always haunted me most is taken from the time Wallace’s mother had to come and pick up her broken-down son in Tucson.

They rented a U-Haul and took turns driving and reading aloud a Dean Koontz novel during the sixteen-hundred-mile trip home

There you have it: the most allegedly “difficult” novelist of our generation spending time with a crap paperback thriller. You could say that Wallace, here, was just doing the same kind of thing he did when he spent hours watching television, a medium he once likened, in its pure embodiment of desire, to “sugar in human food.” But he seemed to think there was something else there. In his syllabi, which are all over the web, it turns out he assigned these books to his students. He assigned Joan Collins and Mary Higgins Clark and Thomas Harris. And he cautioned students: “Don’t let any potential lightweightish-looking qualities of the texts delude you into thinking this is a blow-off type class. These ‘popular’ texts will end up being harder than more conventionally ‘literary’ works to unpack and read critically.”

Even if we are not talking “literary merit,” whatever that is, the soothing effect of getting lost might in itself have critical value. Some people, when they’re lost, read the Bible; others go for a walk; still others houseclean. Me, like Wallace and his mother, I read an allegedly “bad” book, often one I’ve read before. For this purpose trade paperbacks generally feel too fancy, although mass-markets are no longer as easy to come by, which means that I end up selecting from my ancient collection of Kings and Irvings, Koontzes and Ann Rules.

I understand why, among writers, who are usually endless-appetite readers as well, the reading of books other than Real Books is a vaguely shameful activity. We all live on borrowed time, and there’s DeLillo and Nabokov and Pynchon I’ll never get to because of the hours I’ve spent reading… well, I’m even afraid to tell you their names. You can and will judge. But I do it anyway because sometimes I just need the comfort of falling into something that is ready to catch me. I need it to hold me. That feeling of is a little sacred to me, actually. I guard my escape quite jealously, because there are times when I need it to go on.

That vaguely religious feeling about books is not as silly as it might sound. That attachment, the faith they can inspire, it is an important thing on more than a personal level: it is crucial to the future of books. It is the thing that will keep people reading a thirty-page story in the face of the 140-character limit. It is the thing that will make them think twice about buying from Amazon, if indeed it’s shown that Amazon is killing the book industry.

Oh, but you might say, but there are other purposes to literature than that comfort. There are other goals than bathing anyone in warmth. It’s not your job; you are the novelist. And even Wallace said, as quoted in the Max book that you should all buy, “The crux, for me, is how to love the reader without believing that my art or worth depends on his(her) loving me. It’s just about that simple in the abstract. In practice it’s a daily fucking war.”

Wallace, of course, was talking about the author’s relationship to his own readers, rather than readers writ large. But what I am trying to say is that the way you feel about a person who reads you can’t wholly be divorced from the way you feel about every person who loves books. In other words: if you want books to be the grail, the thing that makes us feel less alone, and you have to want that, I think, as a writer: you have to be okay with letting people come to books themselves. You have to realize that the crucial part is not the leading to water. It’s the drinking. If they don’t drink in the first place, we’re already gone.

Last week I was at the New Yorker panel on Wallace, and in the Q&A a young woman stepped up to the mic and asked whether one really needed to love the reader at all.

Mary Karr fixed her gaze firmly on the questioner and said something like, “Well, tell me: what’s the Plan B then? Help me to understand.”

And the woman looked at Karr, and opened her mouth, and left her jaw hanging. The look on her face was of someone who just could not think of anything to say.


Animal covers via jovicke at Flickr on a Creative Commons license; Dean Koontz spines photo via -Wink- at same.

Michelle Dean has written for a variety of places, including The Awl, ELLE and Bitch. More from this author →