by Dave Ervin
But not everything we read is worthy of emulation.
What can we take from a bad book? Why is it important for a writer to finish a novel even if it’s no fun to read? As Stephen King points out in On Writing, it can be incredibly helpful to occasionally read something that leaves us saying “I don’t ever want to write like that.”
Below are reviews of two popular books that turned my stomach, and what they had to teach me about becoming a better writer.
1) Relentless by Dean Koontz
Everything about this novel is obnoxious.
The story, which sets up as a dark comedy about a writer being pursued by a murderously insane book critic with an elitist agenda, could have worked if it were treated with a wink at the audience. Instead, the novel decides to take itself seriously, and it’s just too implausible for that. For example, the fact that the antagonist has seemingly every high-tech device and ninja skill known to man could have been funny, but instead Koontz attempts to frighten us with this aspect of the villain and we are left laughing at, not with, the author.
The main reason I hated this book is the way it tries to blend genres. It starts as a comedy, then turns into an action caper, only to delve into some deep realms of sci-fi the reader is in no way prepared for (genius kids? time-traveling dogs?). All of this is interspersed with a grisly backstory that is more at home in a Sue Grafton novel.
I don’t mind reading a stupid book once in a while; just let me know up front what I’m in store for and I’ll go with you. Don’t change course on me midstream.
Lesson: Don’t cheat your audience–anything is acceptable if it’s earned. Make sure the spices in your novel stew blend together.
2) The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho
This much-loved novel is not loved by me.
A young man has dreams of finding his one true treasure in Egypt and sets off on a quest to find it. I get the whole allegory thing, but perhaps that’s what turns me off. Not that allegory is necessarily a bad thing, but it begins to lose steam over the length of a novel. Allegory lends itself to broadly drawn characters with good and bad clearly defined, leaving little room for complexities in the characters or the story.
This approach can work in genre fiction (the work of Joseph Campbell has almost made character archetypes and formula plots a necessity in fantasy/ sci-fi), but when a novel aspires to be something else–a piece of Literature with a capital “L”–the trappings of allegory fall flat.
The Alchemist is not trying to entertain in the same way the Harry Potter novels are. It doesn’t want to excite and bedazzle us with larger-than-life characters and the intricacies of its specific world. It wants to move us and to teach us and to touch us deeply. It doesn’t. Instead, it comes across as condescending and predictable.
Lesson: Don’t talk down to your audience. Don’t consciously use your novel as a teaching tool–instead tell your story and let the lessons/themes emerge organically.
Reading is a necessary pleasure in a writer’s life. But even when the pleasure turns sour, the task is worth it. So next time you’re stuck for what to read, find some bad books and take joy in the fact that you’re better than that.
Then read something good.
Discussion questions: Do you ever intentionally read bad books in order to become a better writer? How does reading a bad book improve your own work? Any examples to share?
A writer and teacher from Fort Worth, Texas, Dave has been published in print, on the web and in literary journals. Visit him at daveervin.com