|Illustration by John Cuneo.|
Good Bad Books is a short essay by George Orwell first published in Tribune on 2nd November 1945. It is, as the title suggests, a look at books we love but know are in reality bad. It begins,
Not long ago a publisher commissioned me to write an introduction for a reprint of a novel by Leonard Merrick. This publishing house, it appears, is going to reissue a long series of minor and partly-forgotten novels of the twentieth century. It is a valuable service in these bookless days, and I rather envy the person whose job it will be to scout round the threepenny boxes, hunting down copies of his boyhood favourites.
A type of book which we hardly seem to produce in these days, but which flowered with great richness in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, is what Chesterton called the “good bad book”: that is, the kind of book that has no literary pretensions but which remains readable when more serious productions have perished. Obviously outstanding books in this line are Raffles and the Sherlock Holmes stories, which have kept their place when innumerable “problem novels”, “human documents” and “terrible indictments” of this or that have fallen into deserved oblivion. (Who has worn better, Conan Doyle or Meredith?) Almost in the same class as these I, put R. Austin Freeman's earlier stories — “The Singing Bone” “The Eye of Osiris” and others — Ernest Bramah's Max Carrados, and, dropping the standard a bit, Guy Boothby's Tibetan thriller, Dr Nikola, a sort of schoolboy version of Hue's Travels in Tartary, which would probably make a real visit to Central Asia seem a dismal anticlimax.Orwell continues, giving some examples of what he thinks are 'good bad books', talking of "escape literature",
They form pleasant patches in one's memory, quiet corners where the mind can browse at odd moments, but they hardly pretend to have anything to do with real life. There is another kind of good bad book which is more seriously intended, and which tells us, I think, something about the nature of the novel and the reasons for its present decadence. During the last fifty years there has been a whole series of writers — some of them are still writing — whom it is quite impossible to call “good” by any strictly literary standard, but who are natural novelists and who seem to attain sincerity partly because they are not inhibited by good taste.After some examples, citing among others Ernest Raymond's We, the accused, Orwell notes that "art is not the same thing as cerebration", comparing Carlyle and Trollope to illustrate his point:
I imagine that by any test that could be devised, Carlyle would be found to be a more intelligent man than Trollope. Yet Trollope has remained readable and Carlyle has not: with all his cleverness he had not even the wit to write in plain straightforward English.
What exactly, though, is the test of a "good" book? Unable, really, to answer he goes on to give some more rather controversial examples:
Perhaps the supreme example of the “good bad” book is Uncle Tom's cabin. It is an unintentionally ludicrous book, full of preposterous melodramatic incidents; it is also deeply moving and essentially true; it is hard to say which quality outweighs the other. But Uncle Tom's cabin, after all, is trying to be serious and to deal with the real world. How about the frankly escapist writers, the purveyors of thrills and “light” humour? How about Sherlock Holmes, Vice Versa, Dracula, Helen's babies or King Solomon's mines? All of these are definitely absurd books, books which one is more inclined to laugh at than with, and which were hardly taken seriously even by their authors; yet they have survived, and will probably continue to do so. All one can say is that, while civilisation remains such that one needs distraction from time to time, “light” literature has its appointed place; also that there is such a thing as sheer skill, or native grace, which may have more survival value than erudition or intellectual power.
I would far rather have written either of those than, say, “The Blessed Damozel” or “Love in the Valley”. And by the same token I would back Uncle Tom's cabin to outlive the complete works of Virginia Woolf or George Moore, though I know of no strictly literary test which would show where the superiority lies.
It's a great little essay (it can be read in full here), and, naturally, it got me thinking of good bad books. My ultimate: The Devil Wears Prada by Lauren Weisberger. I know it's bad, but I can't help but love it. Also, one can't help but think of the bad good books. I like The Faerie Queene by Edmund Spenser, but though it's 'officially' a 'good' book it is pretty close to the border into unreadable. That, I think, would come close to a bad good book, of which I'm sure I could come up with more examples if I had the time. Good bad books, though - there's plenty of them!
That was my 24th title for the Deal Me In Challenge. Next week: Rumpel-Stilts-kin by Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm.