The Worst Books by the Best Writers

I got an email today from someone at oedb.org (Online Education Database) asking me to share an article with my blog readers. Generally, I ignore such requests, partly because the articles seldom have anything to do with the topics covered in this blog, and partly because . . . well, this is my blog and my personal soapbox. But I am making an exception in this particular case because I liked the following introduction to the article, “The Worst Books by the Best Writers.”

It is said that even a blind pig finds a truffle now and then. That may be true, but writing a good book (despite what so many deluded amateurs seem to believe) is exceedingly difficult. A lousy writer is unlikely, under even the best circumstances, to produce a novel of any value. The reverse, however, unfortunately happens quite easily. The finest writer, if prolific enough, is still practically guaranteed to come up with a couple of duds. Lest anyone mistake the spirit of this inquiry, in which we look at failures on the part of authors whose reputations remain unimpeachable, let it be understood that our choices, though bound to rankle in some cases, are not meant to offend. It may be that we can learn something from great novelists’ misfires, perhaps as much as we can from their successes.

You can find the rest of the article and the list here: The Worst Books By the Best Authors.

Quite frankly, I’m not sure that I consider any of those writers to be the best. (They list Ernest Hemingway, DH Lawrence, John Updike, Tom Wolfe, S.E. Sinton, Kurt Vonnegut, Flannery O’Conner, Bob Dylan, Alice Sebold, Jeffrey Eugenides). I know don’t remember being particularly enamored of any of their books. But still, the person who wrote the article has a good point, that we can learn to be better writers by considering books that missed the mark.

My current concern is that except for a select group of writers and perspicacious readers, few people seem to value good writing or good books, let alone great books. In a world where everything has devolved into opinion, and one person’s uninformed opinion is the same another’s studied judgement, the only books anyone seems to care about are those that sell, usually because of some sort of titillation, whether erotica or violence. I sound jaded, I know, but what passes for good writing today makes me want to weep. If by chance the writing is okay, the story is often trivial, which is just as bad. Triviality is not the mark of a great writer.

It won’t be too long before literature degrades to the point where all we can do is celebrate the best books by the worst writers.

4 Responses to “The Worst Books by the Best Writers”

  1. sandy Says:

    Just because Daughter Am I is my favorite Pat Bertram title doesn’t mean I think the others aren’t good. I don’t think good writers write bad books. I think readers bring their own experience and empathy to a reading and that influences what they get out of it. I loved the work of Flannery O’Connor and Kurt Vonnegut, the others not. I loved Beloved and Jazz more than Toni Morrison’s other books. I loved Love and Other Demons by G.G.Marquez more than Love in The Time of Cholera. Tracks by Louise Erdrich interested me more than The Beet Queen. So what? opinion. I agree that what passes for “good writing” these days can be really awful because people are less into thinking for themselves and more into following where the media directs them. It is disheartening but the good news is there are still some excellent young writers out there. They are not the majority but they are out there. Our job is to find and encourage them.

  2. Carrie Rubin Says:

    Interesting article. Thanks for the link. My blog post I wrote for this upcoming Monday has a somewhat similar theme–deals with the issue of how best-selling authors can get away with more than the rest of us. 🙂

  3. V.V. Vaymin Says:

    Reblogged this on V.V. Vaymin and commented:
    This post has my mind turning with the question, “what is a good book?” How do we define a book to be worthy of our affection, passion, our need to tell everyone about? What is it that inspires us, or touches us? Is it the characters, the plot, the themes covered? Does it have to be all of those things or just one or two?
    Reflecting on some of the books that stand out to me each one has something that sparked my interest whether I thoroughly enjoyed the story or not. I haven’t read much lately. Most of the books I’m thinking about I read years ago, and yet I still remember them.
    Black Boy by Richard Wright—I enjoyed his style of writing.
    Beloved by Toni Morrison—Hated the style, hated reading it and yet I remember it. I believe it is because of the characters, the way the story wound itself around me even as I tried to quickly skim through it.
    Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck—Loved this book, mostly for the themes. While I enjoyed the characters and the plot, it was the topic of mercy killing that stuck with me the most.
    The Belgariad Series by David Eddings—I found the characters to be likable especially Silk/Kheldar. I liked his role within the story and found his quirks to be amusing.
    The Dark Tower Series by Stephen King—I started by reading the third book and then began from the beginning. I still haven’t finished the series, eventually I’ll get to it—maybe that’s why I’m thinking of it.
    Perhaps for me, a good book is one that isn’t easily forgotten. It has left its mark on my memory in some way, shape or form.
    How would you characterize a good book? What makes one worth reading?

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      Thank you for the reblog. You make an interesting point about a good book being one that isn’t easily forgotten. Most books I’ve read were forgotten within days after reading them, they were so unmemorable, but some books stay with me a very long time.


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