What do I mean, can a bad book be a good book? Well, I mean a poorly written book. One criticized and mocked, and treated with derision by a good deal of the general public. Perhaps it’s ridden with plot holes, or the characters are all shallow, or the writing itself is just plain shoddy and hard to follow. Want an example? I’ve already ranted about Twilight, so, in honour of the recent movie, I offer 50 Shades of Grey up for examination. Now, I must mention that I’ve yet to actually read this work of the imagination, but I’ve heard all the criticisms. You either love it or you hate it. For the purposes of this post, let’s just assume the criticisms are at least mostly valid.
But that’s the thing. People love it. Selling at ridiculous rates, this book seems to be a favourite among middle-aged mothers everywhere. These women don’t know anything more or less about the literary arts than the average person. And yet, they devour this trilogy like a wealthy, fetishistic young man might devour his young female employee. One must ask what it is exactly that appeals to them in this series.
Alright, alright, I’m sure it’s nothing especially nuanced, and likely exactly as obvious as it seems. And yet, the author,E. L. James, has tapped into some essential interests, urges, and emotions underpinning a significant portion of women in the west. It would seem that no other authors recently have managed to do that, not to the level E. L. James seems to have managed. If there wasn’t something special in those books, we wouldn’t have heard of them.
Not just anyone can write a story that makes people passionate, and gives them the desire to share it with their friends. It takes a certain amount of intuition into the human psyche. After all, some stories just won’t sell. Nobody wants to read a book about a koala trying to eat as many leaves as possible and suffering from fleas. Nobody can relate to that, and so nobody’s really interested. But if you can give that koala a douche-bag crocodile boss who continually hassles him about his leaf quota, coworkers who gossip about the koala’s illicit affair with the kangaroo, who suddenly gets pregnant with a baby who’s suspiciously green and scaly, and all of a sudden, you’ve got a hit Australian office drama on your hands. Appealing to an audience is a skill, a skill most prized by lawyers, politicians, and artists, or at least, the ones who want to make money. Most authors apparently must lack it, or have yet to develop it.
And it would seem that that skill is completely unrelated to actually writing ability, if the 50 Shades phenomenon can be taken at face value. And so, my question becomes: can a poorly written book which appeals to some fundamental aspect of human nature be considered a good book if it is prized by a large enough number of people? Conversely, one could ask whether a skillfully written book which no one cares about is in fact a terrible book. After all, the purpose of art is not to put strings of words together in a way that is clever, or perfectly replicate some image, or to create a really complex sequence of sounds with skillfully mastered instruments. The purpose of art is to make people feel something. No artist wants anything more than to make someone cry, or laugh, or break out into goosebumps. Or, apparently, to orgasm. And if you can do those things, well, you may still have work to do, plot holes to fill in, characters to fill out, grammar to brush up on, but I think you’re well on your way to being a good writer. Even if you suck.