In order to better understand the purposes and worth of literature that one might have several grounds to disparage and criticize, it is worthwhile to point out some of the ways that people seek to compare different types of literature. Among the ways that certain literature is looked down upon is based on the claim that certain novels are simply a means of escape. It would be nearer to the truth by far to say that the exact opposite is the truth. Bad literature does not provide a means of escape from the problems of life and the world, but all too often provides (often spectacularly terrible) attempts to solve the problems of reality. Good literature, on the other hand, allows people resources in dealing with reality that they may not have otherwise. This would seem to indicate that one of the things that make bad novels bad is the way that they presume to give readers skills and resources to deal with reality that end up making reality more dire and more problematic.
Let us flesh this out a bit more. How do bad novels attempt to provide insight into reality but fail miserably at the task? There are many ways this happens. One of the striking ways that I have noticed many bad novels resembling each other is the way that they deal with some of the more unpleasant aspects of reality. For example, I once reviewed a “Christian” historical book that dramatized Mephiboseth’s story during the time of King David, where he was portrayed not only in the biblical sense of being handicapped, but also as a survivor of child abuse at the hand of the loathsome Ziba. Similarly, a book that purported to present a picture of the times of King Hezekiah showed a totally imaginary character as having survived brutal rape at the hands of the Assyrians before escaping to return to Israel. In general, one of the trends of contemporary literature, especially genre literature, is the exploration of the damage done to men and women as a result of rape and sexual abuse, itself something which can be praised. Less praiseworthy is the way that these books tends to encourage dealing with such matters and the fallout of such things as PTSD and an understandable lack of competence in areas of trust and intimacy.
Similarly, there are entire genres of literature whose exploration of the fears of the contemporary generation of youth can itself lead to negative results. For example, the entire genre of dystopian young adult fiction encourages young people to think of themselves as having the burden of saving the world from the problems that adults are responsible for. These books nearly uniformly present the adult world as being intensely hostile and even sadistically cruel to young people. They also present young people in the uncomfortable position of being heroic in causing massive social change that is viewed as a positive and also as being incredibly damaged as a result of their intense bravery. As a temperamentally conservative person with a pessimistic streak about human nature, including (and especially) that of would-be social revolutionaries who routinely underestimate the amount of darkness and evil lurking in their own hearts, I find this to be a very unpleasant state of affairs, in that these books can both traumatize young people as well as confirm them in some of the less helpful and less accurate views that they have of their own proper role in the world. Again, bad literature fails to present an accurate view of reality, but is not an escape from reality.
How, then, are we to praise bad novels if they do not provide good solutions to the problems of reality? It is, admittedly, easier to praise good novels for the way that they deal with such issues. Let us take, for the sake of convenience, the writings of Jane Austen. Austen’s novels demonstrate that the most secure fate for young women, especially of the gentry class, was marriage to suitable gentlemen, and that this offered advantages to both men and women, demonstrating how a combination of moral duty as well as emotional sensitivity on both sides could lead to very successful unions that would create godly families and provide meaning and security and comfort for men, women, and children. This is a good solution to a real problem, and one that is done without making Jane Austen a social pariah as a radical feminist, since she was able to combine her sharp wit and keen intellect with politeness and tact, something many people neglect to do, thus causing unnecessary offense and creating unnecessary enemies. Because not only the message but also the approach of good literature provides good solutions to real problems that are timeless in nature because of the unchanging aspects of human nature and human frailty, it is easy to praise good literature for the way that it can provide people with the resources to cope with the constraints of reality.
Bad literature, though, does still provide us with something that is useful, if not as useful as what good and great literature provide. With all of the problems that come from bad novels, there is still something that they do that is worthwhile, and that is draw attention to real problems that deserve to be addressed better. Romance novels that feature problematic examples of spousal rape as being a solution to the PTSD that results from child abuse are not good novels, but they do point out that rape and child abuse do leave damage that makes it difficult to enjoy successful intimacy with one’s spouse. Simply because the wrong solutions are pushed on the reader does not mean that the problems discussed are unworthy of being addressed. A better novel might acknowledge that some damage is perhaps too much to be overcome in this life, or that growth and improvement will require a lot of effort as well as a great deal of patience and kindness over a long period of time. But the value of bad novels is to provide us with an understanding of the problems in society that are so obvious to those who are sensitive to them that they attract both good and bad solutions to them. When we are clued in to what other people are concerned about and want answers about, then we can go about to equipping people with the skills and worldview and resources that they need to cope with reality without fancying themselves to be the saviors of our dark and evil world, or without becoming evildoers and wicked and immoral people in search of some imaginary and often hypocritical idea of justice and happiness. If we cannot go to bad literature in search of answers, we can at least view them as a source of worthwhile questions.