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THE NEW YORK TIMES

May 6, 2007

Essay

Why Not the Worst?

By JOE QUEENAN

Last year, I stumbled upon a remarkable book called "The Talisman of Troy." Written by Valerio
Massimo Manfredi, "The Talisman of Troy" chronicled the adventures of Diomedes, a second-
tier hero in the "Iliad," after the fall of Troy. Bristling with sentences like "Anchialus shuddered:
in that boy was the awesome power of the son of Peleus, but not a crumb of his father's piety,
nor his hospitable manners," the novel advanced the theory that Helen of Troy had not really
been abducted by Paris, son of Priam, but had deliberately gone to Asia Minor in order to get
her hands on a sacred totem — the talisman of Troy — that would enable women to rule the
world. The book is thus one of life's unalloyed pleasures: an uncompromisingly stupid novel in a
world filled with stupid novels that do make compromises. And, by virtue of its faux Hellenic
inanity and all-purpose Delphic hootiness, it is also a powerful weapon in the hands of those of
us who work night and day to resist the tyranny of the good.

Most of us are familiar with people who make a fetish out of quality: They read only good books,
they see only good movies, they listen only to good music, they discuss politics only with good
people, and they're not shy about letting you know it. They think this makes them smarter and
better than everybody else, but it doesn't. It makes them mean and overly judgmental and
miserly, as if taking 15 minutes to flip through "The Da Vinci Code" is a crime so monstrous, an
offense in such flagrant violation of the sacred laws of intellectual time-management, that they
will be cast out into the darkness by the Keepers of the Cultural Flame. In these people's view,
any time spent reading a bad book can never be recovered. They also act as if the rest of
humanity is watching their time sheets.

Such prissy attitudes are neurotic and self-defeating. Bad books are an essential part of life, as
entertaining and indispensable as bad clothing (ironic polyester shirts), bad music (John Tesh
at Red Rocks, Phil Collins anywhere), bad trends (metrosexuality, not using toilet paper for a
year in order to "help" the environment) and bad politicians (take your pick). I started reading
extremely bad books as a boy, when my beloved but slightly unhinged Uncle Jerry lent me the
classic Reds-under-the- beds screed "None Dare Call It Treason," and have been reading them
ever since.

Indeed, one of the reasons I became a book reviewer is because it gives me the opportunity to
read a steady stream of hopelessly awful books under the pretense of work. One of my first
assignments was Wess Roberts's peerlessly idiotic "Leadership Secrets of Attila the Hun." I can
well remember my breathless reaction when I was handed this assignment by my editor: "Let me
get this straight; I'm going to get to read sentences like `Being a leader of the Huns is often a
lonely job' and you're going to pay me for it?" To be perfectly honest, "Leadership Secrets of
Attila the Hun" was so bad I would have read it for free.

Those who read only good books cannot understand such a mentality. "Why would you read
Kim Harrison's vampire bounty hunter classic "The Good, the Bad and the Undead" when you
could read `The Savage Detectives' by Roberto Bolaño?" they ask. The answer is: I would not
rather read "The Good, the Bad and the Undead" by Kim Harrison than "The Savage
Detectives" by Roberto Bolaño. But I would rather read "The Good, the Bad and the Undead" by
Kim Harrison than one more novel about an enigmatic woman in a famous painting or one more
book where the main character suffers from Asperger's syndrome or Tourette's and just annoys
everybody for 350 pages. Anyway, I already read "The Savage Detectives" and need a night off.

Bad books have an important place in our lives, because they keep the brain active. We spend
so much time wondering what incredibly dumb thing the author will say a few pages down the
road. One caveat: As with bad movies, a book that is merely bad but not exquisitely bad is a
waste of time, while a genuinely terrible book is a sheer delight. This is what made the late,
great Mickey Spillane so memorable: he never tried to write poor man's Raymond Chandler
books like Robert Parker; he wrote pure trash. I feel the same way about those "Loins of
Telemachus" or "Cuirass of the Myrmidons" books that retell famous stories from the point of
view of a marginal character. The dumber, the merrier.

Let me stress that I am not making a case for camp. "Camp" is an intellectually duplicitous
posture derived from the idea that something indisputably bad can be transmuted into
something good by virtue of the reader's knowing, "ironic" perspective. At no point do I ever
lose sight of the fact that bad books are truly bad. But it is their very badness that reminds us of
the good books of which they are pallid copies. "The Bridges of Madison County" is a corn-
shucker' s "Madame Bovary," "The Talisman of Troy" is the "Odyssey" without Odysseus. Newt
Gingrich and William R. Forstchen's "1945," a reimagining of the 20th century if the Nazis had
won the war in Europe, is a Bizarro World precursor of Philip Roth's "Plot Against America," in
which the great novelist imagines what America would be like if Charles Lindbergh had become
president in 1940. Sometimes you feel like a nut; sometimes you don't.

Bad books fall into three broad categories: the stupid, the meta-stupid and the immoral. Each
has its own inimitable charms. Stupid books range from anything with the word "rapture" in the
title to investment guides linking the yield curve with the teachings of Nostradamus. Meta-stupid
books try to explain how to hold better meetings or motivate slackers by imitating the doomed
but well-organized Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton. Immoral books include titles like O. J.
Simpson's "I Want to Tell You: My Response to Your Letters, Your Messages, Your Questions,"
in which Simpson, imprisoned at the time, said this of his wife, who perished under mysterious
circumstances that still leave the experts baffled: "Like every person, Nicole had her faults. She
blamed other people for her problems when she was unhappy. But the way she treated our kids
when they were born, that made up for all the rest of it."

I am certainly not suggesting that all bad books are as boundlessly entertaining as these.
Despite being one of the worst books ever written, "Atlas Shrugged" is no fun at all, and the
uninterrupted stream of lifeless prose that flows from Jimmy Carter's pen is even less
entertaining than his presidency. This is because famous people tend to write bad books in a
predictable, tastefully bad style, or to have run-of-the-mill bad books written for them by bad
ghostwriters, whereas amateurs go for the brass ring. Jimmy Carter couldn't write a book as bad
as O. J. Simpson's if he tried.

One of the main reasons we bad-book lovers go out of our way to make our sentiments known
is because it is a way of resisting the hegemony of good taste. If slaves to quality had their way,
there would be no thrillers by Marilyn Quayle ("Embrace the Serpent"), no children's books by
Madonna ("Lotsa de Casha"), no autobiographies by Geraldo Rivera ("Exposing Myself"). If
goodness fetishists were in control of the publishing industry, nothing more hair-raising than Bill
Bradley's last book of homilies would ever make it into print. That's right, no books by Shaq, no
memoirs by Rue McClanahan, no collections of ruminations and aperçus by Dinesh D'Souza.
Sound like a world you'd want to live in?

With customary insight, Garrison Keillor once wrote: "A good newspaper is never quite good
enough, but a lousy newspaper is a joy forever." I agree. Some people would identify a passion
for bad books as a guilty pleasure, but I prefer to think of it as a pleasure I do not feel guilty
about, even though I probably should. Bad movies, bad hairdos, bad relationships and bad
Supreme Court rulings merely make me chuckle. Bad books make me laugh. And if they ever
stop writing books with lines like "Being a leader of the Huns is often a lonely job," I want to stop
breathing on the spot.

Joe Queenan is author of "Queenan Country: A Reluctant Anglophile's Pilgrimage to the Mother
Country."