In Defence of Bad Books

The parts of the internet I frequent hate the film of 50 Shades of Grey.

I don’t mean they dislike it. I don’t mean they suggest its not for them. I mean, they suggest that supporting the makers of the film by buying a ticket is immoral. The message is quite clear: good people should not watch this movie. Let’s consider for example the film review on The Mary Sue:  Review: I Sat Through Fifty Shades of Grey, And Now I Thirst for Male Tears

At the same time, it seems to be making a lot of money, and I sense that most of that money is coming from women. I’m really interested in how a book which did enormous volume for us, and which is pulling serious box office, can have so poor a reputation. How can it so vocally (and it seems, almost universally) be loathed, and yet generate such a volume of interest?

Now, I have not read 50 Shades of Grey. I know, in the broadest sense, what it is about and I’m just not interested. The film being out, we’ve put up a little display of books we call ‘Expanding horizons” which is basically “If you liked 50 Shades, you may well like this.” We have previously published a reader’s guide for similar authors.That being noted, I’d like to suggest a defense of “bad” books, and more broadly bad art.

Librarianship had a long, historical tradition of excluding bad books, or including them but pretending we do it merely to sate the undifferentiated appetites of people who don’t know what proper literature is. The poor, basically. Thankfully, we have emerged from that period, in most countries. The key thought now is that you, reader, are a fully realized person.

You are different to the rest of our readers. Now, you will share similarities to some of them. Your patterns of thought may conform to a general series of similar patterns. All that being said, the book which is right for you, right now, is not defined by an outside force. Once it was thought that if you came to the library our job was to give you the right biblical commentary. Then it was thought we needed to give you the right secular but improving book. Now the thinking is that we can guide you through our books to the ones which are most likely to matter to you. That connection, the reader for that book, the book for that reader, has been the touchstone of our profession for slightly over a hundred years now.

For a surprising number of you, the book that was right for you, at a particular moment, was 50 Shades of Grey. We loaned it to you, because for us, beyond certain obvious legal barriers, there is no standard that judges your choice as wrong. You know you. You know what sort of thing is right for you, even if you need help to find it.

Your reading, of your copy, is yours. How you interact with that piece of art is your choice. You don’t need to apologize for what’s right for you.

Previously, librarians did stand on the other side of this debate. our ancestors really did tell people not to read various books, because we knew what you needed better than you did. I don’t just mean books we now know as classics. I also mean books which people had the audacity to like despite them not being enduring expressions of the nature of humanity at their time. There are books whose names you only know if you are interested in the history of reading, which ancient librarians did their very best to crush. Most of them are by women, which is one of the reasons female authors used to have male aliases.

I’d like to suggest a second string to this defense: deriding bad art prevents the creation of good art. We run book clinics at the libraries, and so we are a venue for formative artists. We can’t be on the side of the weight of the internet, which is  that all art can be trivially and quickly run through a metric and if bad, pilloried. Most artists begin with exercises that fail. Established artists who experiment often fail. Art need not be “good” to be worthwhile: to think otherwise is to demand genius rather than craft, and that’s not how real art, by real professional artists, works. Similarly, artists who make money aren’t sullied by that money. Art isn’t better just because it is obscure.