April 24, 2015 at 9:30 AM

The Good Bad Book

April 24, 2015 at 9:30 AM

“A type of book which we hardly seem to produce in these days... is what Chesterton called ‘the good bad book’: that is, the kind of book that has no literary pretentions but which remains readable when more serious productions have perished.”
-    George Orwell

What Mr. Orwell says here reminds a person that two types of books share space in our world.  In our universities, scholars study the first type, the good good book.  One finds these occupying spots in the canon: the territory of Vanity Fair, Moby Dick, and Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, gems from the golden age of novel writing.  One can get her teeth into these books, but the good bad book also deserves respect.  Just as the point of a song is to keep the listener humming, the goal of writing is to keep the reader thumbing the pages.  Often, well-written genre novels surpass in quality more “serious” works.
An example of this truth appears in Barbara Vine’s King Solomon’s Carpet, a CWA Golden Dagger award winner from 1991.  This novel features superior characterization and razor sharp scenes.  Vine works her way right inside the brains of her characters and lays them out raw: the bewildered old woman who regards her daughter almost as a creature from outer space; the runaway violinist; and a drifting, leaderless but resourceful boy.  Several scenes in the work truly leave one with white knuckles, particularly those involving the boys getting kicks by riding on the roofs of subway cars.  Altogether, this well-written book indeed fulfills the purpose of fiction: to keep the pages turning.

At the same time as one can believe Ms. Vine’s works will enjoy a long popularity, some books age poorly.  Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest seems in many places forgotten, although its target audience was supposed to be much more serious than that of Ms. Vine.  Fifty years ago however, it was a bestseller and later a successful film.  In the young days of some of us, its “anti-establishment” theme sounded “hip.”  But since that day, thanks to changing times and a wiser outlook, books featuring the brave struggle of downtrodden, oppressed white men have sadly gone musty.  One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest lost its “hip” disguise, revealing the black shirt of the fascist underneath.  It exemplifies the failure of a “serious” novel.

One can find King Solomon’s Carpet, and many more good bad books, in your local independent bookstore. 

Celebrate these establishments on May 2, 2015.  I will be at Audreys Books in Edmonton, Alberta.  Come out and say hello between 3:30 and 4:30 on May 2, 2015.

- S. Noël McKay, author of Stony Point


1 Orwell, George, “Good Bad Books,” The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell Volume 4: In Front of Your Nose, Orwell, Sonia and Ian Angus, Editors. Middlesex, England. Penguin Books Ltd pg 37

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