"Would you rather have bad sex or bad pizza?" This was the popular late night question posed by the boys in my dorm when I was in college. The general consensus among a group of horny 18-year-old boys, mostly virgins? Bad sex -- any sex had to be better than no sex.
I admit that for many years I subscribed to this philosophy when it came to books. A book, any book, was always better than no book. Finding myself in various situations, sans book, I have read: a parenting manifesto (I don't have children), a Volkswagen manual (I don't own a Volkswagen), and a how-to book on alien abductions -- how to get abducted by aliens in six easy steps.
In recent years though, I have come to believe that it is the dirty little secret of the bookselling world that some books just suck. I'm not talking about the not great -- but entertaining, or the mind candy distraction, or even the somewhat-clichéd-but-somehow-forgivable. I'm talking about the "There goes four hours of my life I'll never get back, how the hell did this get published, I should have taken the bad pizza" books.
In my 20 years of bookselling, and 40 years of reading, I have only fallen victim to a truly bad book three times.
In 1992, Batman Returns was the summer blockbuster. "Achy Breaky Heart" was the song you couldn't escape. And everyone at the beach, the subway, and the airport, was reading... I'll call it, "The Bestseller." I wanted to know what all the hype was about. Thank god it was short -- a 200 page unforgivable cliché. Money lost: $9. Time lost: Two hours. Lesson Learned: Don't trust the masses.
The second book was 12 years ago. I was asked by a now defunct magazine to write a review of... I'll call it, "The Media Darling." The book was horrible. If I didn't have a deadline looming and a paycheck waiting, I would never have finished reading the book at all. But I did finish it, and I wrote a scalding review. I then wrote a more tepid version that was fair I thought, but still very critical. The review never ran. My editor called to say that the book's publisher advertised with the magazine and the review might upset them. "Can't you find something nice to say about the book?" he asked. The answer was no. In the end, the magazine ran someone else's review of the book. Based on that review, you may have read the book and for that I am truly sorry. Money Lost: $0 (free review copy). Time lost: Four hours. Lesson Learned: Don't trust reviews.
The third was nine years ago. A trusted publishing colleague handed me an advance copy of a new novel by one of my favorite writers. I was so excited, and then I read... let's just call it, "The Favorite." When I called Sam to tell him how bad the book was, it turned out he knew. Or he suspected anyway. He figured he'd test it on a fan and if I didn't like it, it must be as bad as he thought. Money Lost: $0 (free copy). Time wasted: Three hours. Lesson Learned: Don't trust Sam.
It is dangerous for a bookseller to declare any book "bad." I recall an instance when I was working the book information desk and a customer came to the counter and asked my colleague whether we had a book. The bookseller groaned: "Trust me, you don't want that book. I read it and it was really awful." The customer's response: "I'm the author."
I realize that some may argue that "good" and "bad" are subjective. That it's not about whether a book is "good," but rather, "Was it good for you ?" Consider the Shades of Grey series. The author herself declared on national television, "I'm not that great a writer," but millions of people read the first book and went back for the rest of the series -- forty million books sold! Somebody was satisfied.
In the end, I still conclude that there are no shades of grey. Some books are just bad. And if there's one thing I've learned since my days in Metcalf Hall, it's that life is too short to settle for bad pizza, bad sex, or a bad book.