6.27.2007

Good bad books

I've been trying to track down the origin of the "good bad books" construction, which seems to go back to G. K. Chesterton, and was then amplified a bit later by Orwell in his essay Good Bad Books. I wish I could find the exact Chesterton quote—it may be paraphrased from his essay A Defence of Detective Stories, which opens with this very funny paragraph:

In attempting to reach the genuine psychological reason for the popularity of detective stories, it is necessary to rid ourselves of many mere phrases. It is not true, for example, that the populace prefer bad literature to good, and accept detective stories because they are bad literature. The mere absence of artistic subtlety does not make a book popular. Bradshaw's Railway Guide contains few gleams of psychological comedy, yet it is not read aloud uproariously on winter
evenings. If detective stories are read with more exuberance than railway guides, it is certainly because they are more artistic. Many good books have fortunately been popular; many bad books, still more fortunately, have been unpopular. A good detective story would probably be even more popular than a bad one. The trouble in this matter is that many people do not realize that there is such a thing as a good
detective story; it is to them like speaking of a good devil. To write a story about a burglary is, in their eyes, a sort of spiritual manner of committing it. To persons of somewhat weak sensibility this is natural enough; it must be confessed that many detective stories are as full of sensational crime as one of Shakespeare's plays.


No doubt Presto Shang will be able to provide the actual provenance. In any case, the basic idea is that there are four kinds of books: Good good books, bad good books, good bad books, and bad bad books. The only kinds worth writing (and reading) are good good books and good bad books. The distinction falls along the high art/low art faultline that my father used to talk about: "good" books are literary fiction, "bad" books are everything else. Examples of good good books are easy to come by, of course, and bad good books are numerous and quickly forgotten, though not quite as numerous or quickly forgotten as bad bad books. Good bad books are the great guilty pleasure (the best kind, as we all know): Chandler and Wodehouse and other such brilliant "entertainments," as Graham Greene used to call them. I may, at some point, consider writing a literary novel (I've got a few literary short stories under way, God help me), but at the moment I can think of no higher (or guiltier, or more pleasurable) calling than to become a writer of good bad books. Suits me right down to the ground.

One note of caution: if you're ever in a gathering of crime writers, actual or virtual, don't talk about mysteries as "bad books." The whole G. K. Chesterton thing won't cut a whole lot of ice in that company, most likely.

Slight update: it's worth noting that Orwell thought Uncle Tom's Cabin would "outlive" the work of both Virginia Woolf and George Moore. He was half right, anyway. His interest in the notion of the good bad book may also tell us something about his view of himself as a writer, and the place he imagined his own work held in the literary hierarchy.

Further update: And the fact that I'm thinking about this ought to tell you something about where I see myself in the pantheon. Which is to say, several blocks away, in a good bar with Elmore James on the jukebox.

2 comments:

Presto Shang said...

Try as I might, I'm unable to improve on this version - that it's somewhere in Chesterton, and that I don't know where. It's possible that Orwell remembered Chesterton as having explicitly said those three words in sequence, when in fact Chesterton set up the context for the inevitable remembered phrasing without ever phrasing it himself - like Bogart's "Play it again, Sam."

In other words, I'm offering my second favorite answer: "Beats me."

Jon Loomis said...

Beats me, too. I Googled the tar out of it, and read a number of Chesterton's little critical essays (a pleasure--very funny guy), but couldn't find the money quote, if indeed it exists.