In 1945 none other than George Orwell wrote an essay titled, “Good Bad Books”. What did George have to say about the subject at the time and has the definition changed any in the last 70 years?
According to Orwell the term “good bad books” was coined by G. K. Chesterton, an English writer, poet, philosopher, journalist, and literary / art critic.
Orwell characterized good bad books as escape literature and said their existence was due to “the fact that one can be amused or excited or even moved by a book that one’s intellect simply refuses to take seriously.” Among the the books he includes in this category are the Sherlock Holmes novels by Arthur Conan Doyle, We the Accused by Ernest Raymond, Dr Nikola a Tibetan thriller by Guy Boothby, Dracula by Bram Stoker, King Soloman’s Mines by Henry Rider Haggard, which has the honor of being made into a motion picture screenplay five different times. Orwell suggests that the supreme example of a “good bad book” is Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe: “It is an unintentionally ludicrous book, full of preposterous melodramatic incidents; it is also deeply moving and essentially true.” Orwell never traveled to the USA during his lifetime but that never stopped him from opining on American literature or culture.
George Orwell concedes the need for the distraction light literature provides and further acknowledges that “there is such a thing as sheer skill, or native grace, which may have more survival value than erudition or intellectual power.” Orwell felt that most of the good bad books were written in the 19th Century and the early part of the 20th century but not at the time of his essay. As he wrote, “A type of book which we hardly seem to produce in these days.”
Like many people I enjoy a good bad book on occasion. Maybe too often given the choices available. I think it is safe to say there has been an increase in such books since Orwell’s day. Certainly there has been an increase in bad books, period. Reading a bad book is never a pleasant way to pass the time. When I think of my first good bad book it would have to be Valley of the Dolls by Jacqueline Susann. Some of the tougher critics might include Arthur Hailey’s Airport, Hotel, and The Money Changers. I read all three and enjoyed them all. I read most of Vonnegut’s work but found Slapstick disappointing. Hi ho. Was Slapstick a good bad book or just a bad Vonnegut book? I’m not sure. Vonnegut gave the novel a grade of “D” in his notable report card grades of his books. One of only two D’s he handed out (Slaughterhouse Five got an A-).
My ultimate good bad book is, The Lady in the Lake by Raymond Chandler. It was Chandler’s first novel and my first and least favorite Chandler. It is well written but I figured out the mystery part in the first third of the book. That’s never a good thing. Chandler is great at describing the outside of a building but less adept at detailing the inner workings of a character’s mind. In that particular novel anyway.
What about you? Have you read any good bad books lately? Drop me an email at ThailandFootprint@gmail.com or leave your good bad book choice in the comments section below if you have a WordPress blog. I’m interested. All authors, dead or alive, are welcome.
To read the entire short essay, Good Bad Books by George Orwell click here.