Yesterday, as I write this, I had a conversation with someone at church about some of the books I have been reading recently and I commented that I was disappointed with some novels that I had read by an author who has recently become somewhat better known in the mainstream world outside of regency fiction because her novels are being turned into a television series available on demand. And admittedly it is not hard to be disappointed in such novels if one has the expectation of seeing the past faithfully recorded and dealt with. Even where novels have serious moral issues with them and other aspects that are problematic, as the novels of this particular authoress do, there is still some defense for them that can be made. I wish to discuss these particular aspects in some detail, so rather than talking about them all in one essay, I thought it would be worthwhile to examine the grounds on which bad literature can be worthwhile to know, or at least worthwhile to understand even if we have little interest in it ourselves. It should be noted, moreover, that just about everything that is written, regardless of the genre or author, can easily be viewed as bad by some people for one reason or another. Everything that is written or created or communicated comes from a perspective, and there are aspects of all perspectives that others can find fault with for a variety of reasons.
What are bad novels? When one wants to find good literature, there are a variety of people who have attempted to write about great books. There are similarly various awards that seek to enshrine good books every year in terms of literary fiction. A great many of those books are also bad, but they are books trying to be good, and that is not the sort of book I feel necessary to defend. I happen to like many books that are great literary works, and that appear in Great Books collections, but these books and this approach to literature has a lot of defenders with a great deal of cultural authority, and so I do not need to add my voices to defend such books. Instead, I am seeking to defend those books that are not written as literary fiction, but are rather genre works that seek to appeal to more niche readers outside of the mainstream and which labor in ghettoes that influential cultural critics do not praise. Let us note, before leaving this, that sometimes works begin in such ghettoes and then move into more respectable circles. For example, the writings of Jane Austen were not immediately hugely popular but took a bit of time. Some of the writings that I consider to be “bad novels” worth defending may indeed end up being viewed someday as classic works. But they are not classic works now.
Having established that we are dealing with genre literature from genres that are not viewed as being particularly prestigious, let us flesh out at least a little what is meant by this. There are a great many genres of literature that exist out of the mainstream. Until I became a book reviewer, for example, I was not aware of the fact that there are a great many authors who labor in the surprisingly popular subgenre of Amish romances, but having read more than my share of romance novels, I can see why Amish romances would be popular simply as a way of having the enjoyment of romance without the contemporary focus on sexuality. There may indeed be more Amish romance heroes and heroines than there are actually Amish people in the United States, or indeed the world, and quite a few of these novels are deeply enjoyable to read. Romance novels, in general, are often made fun of for being so cliched, to the point where there are romance cliches and then further cliches based on what subgenre one is reading. We will be talking a lot about romance novels here. Additionally, there are other genres, like speculative fiction novels and Westerns, that are typically looked down on that are still worth discussing because of the good that they can provide. In addition, there are genres like mystery novels that are frequently far better than they are given credit for, and far more incisive of our general culture. The same is true of dystopian novels as well, which are sort of like the inverse picture of romance novels, but also often viewed as bad novels.
Besides at least a brief discussion of the sort of “bad novels” that we will defend here, it is worthwhile as well to point out on what grounds these novels will be defended. A great many of them have problematic moral elements that are not worth defending. A great many novels are written poorly. Some of the novels I will be talking about as having something of worth, at least to know about, are books that I do not find to be particularly good books within even the genres in which they are written, and quite a few will not be ones that appeal to me as being enjoyable reads. Yet even with all these liabilities, they are still worth defending on the grounds that the appeal of certain works is worth understanding because of what they speak to. That does not mean that I recommend that these books be read and enjoyed necessarily, but rather that they deserve at least some respect for bringing to light certain aspects of our times and of ourselves. For these books would not have appeal to readers if they did not spark a connection with something inside of us, and sometimes those parts of ourselves are not particuarly good. As human beings, alas, knowledge of the evil tends to come along with knowledge of the good, and our experience of evil tends to condition certain things that resonate with us in literature, and this is worth recognizing even if it is worthwhile not to indulge in these things. This defense, though, will be of a specific and limited nature, in the aim of knowledge of ourselves and our times and our world, not necessarily of appreciating that which is bad in its own right but rather only indirectly in defending the insights we can gain through certain aspects of that which is otherwise quite worthy of censure and criticism.