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The backwash of completing Shakespeare’s plays has sent me into the academic sphere in order to read more about the work. It is a way to interpret better, and connect the works. One thing comes through again and again in some of the analyses is that no play is bad, everything is good; even the cluttered, overburdened works, are signs of an irrepressible creative energy, not in need of editing or revision.

This type of analysis is suitable only to academe where all the material is acceptable for discussion and analysis; so much unlike a real audience, or a commercial producer, who would be selective and ask for rewrites of the less well finished plays. The analyst is an omnivore and takes it all for their own project, which is to interpret, to classify and study. That is as it should be or the total stock of knowledge would be a lot less otherwise.

Even for ordinary reader (and all writers begin as readers) there is something to be said for the not-very-good, the weak, the bad. Most readers and writers would automatically dismiss bad books. There is no reason to read them, let alone try and draw any lessons or inspiration from them. Counterintuitive though it may be, bad books are a useful source, even a better guide on the craft of writing than a reading list comprised of only the good, great, classic and exemplary writing.

The reason why bad books are worth the time and instructive, lies in their failings, the gaps: the whys and the various how not-to-dos of such works. Such weaknesses give the reader, especially an attentive writer, the chance to fill in the mistake, to ask why that part did not succeed, what if it had been done differently. The bad, unsure and laughable may consist of any part of a book: from a character, to a mood, to a passage of writing, in particular a key romantic moment, which often delivers embarrassing paragraphs: either too much detail, or too much euphemism. These can be clumsy grammatically or unmusical, just sticky lumpen words that should have been edited. Such elements provide material to use as points of reference.

Bad books may be divided into two categories: the instructively bad which offer insights into writing by their errors; and secondly, the irredeemably bad book which is the linguistic equivalent of trans-fat: a triple cheeseburger with toffee sundae. If they are in the first category, bad books come in many forms: those that are poor technically; morally weak and much artistic criticism is a moral critique about one’s choices or options compared to another writer’s.

Unfortunately bad books, unlike bad movies, are not much loved, their perverted pleasure is not communal and their terrible dialogue cannot be recited to amused friends. No, bad books are considered a waste of time. They have cheated the reader of time that might have been devoted to a good work. The author of the bad book is reviled unlike the bad movie director who can achieve cult status exactly because of their shortcomings.

But what makes bad books good can also help a writer realize what they are aiming for, or wish to be, by understanding what they are not. Difficulty in setting style or finding the so-called ‘voice’ is part of that larger process. It is done by selection in comparison with the ranges of available styles that a writer may choose, even subconsciously enter. The blank page and unrealized stories are symptom of unreadiness which bad books can help to overcome.

Guy Cranswick
27 July 2012

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