Bad, Bad Books

WHEN I FIRST READ Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe, I was torn between two feelings. On the one hand, I knew it was an essential piece of American literature, written in the service of a sacred cause. President Lincoln called it the book that started the war to end slavery. As I began to read it, though, I immediately rebelled at how terrible the writing was. It was a tissue of melodrama, stereotypes and cliché. Why, I asked, did this “great” novel have to be assembled from literary junk? My dislike for it felt sacrilegious.

uncle-toms-cabin.jpgI was very pleasantly surprised then, several years later, when I read Orwell’s essay “Good Bad Books,” which named Uncle Tom’s Cabin as the prime example of a book one can admire for its noble intent even while recoiling from its horrible style. It was a good-bad book. No longer did I feel like Uncle Tom had me sideways. Orwell’s distinction between a book’s purpose and its execution was a saving one.

This distinction also had more mischievous consequences. If there is a category of good-bad books, the graph of criticism must also encompass three other quadrants. There must also be bad-good books, books well executed but for a bad purpose. Then there are bad-bad books, execrable in both style and intent. Of course, there are good-good books, too, but they can hardly stir controversy, at least not the kind that matters to me. We all have our favorite books, and I have either discussed mine extensively or plan to do so. Presumably, most of one’s reading life is devoted to good-good books. For now, though, I’m more interested in the space Orwell opens up for appreciating disagreeable books or for abhorring reactionary trash with proper relish.

Bad-Good Books

Evelyn Waugh in 1960

For me, Evelyn Waugh thoroughly dominates the bad-good quadrant. Never has an author’s oeuvre been so grievously backwards in purpose but sublime in execution. His writing is simply angelic. Behold this passage, seemingly a mere throwaway of a paragraph from Scoop. William Boot, the main character, is a first-time passenger in an airplane. He is taking off for Paris from a grass airstrip in London, circa 1935:

The machine moved forward, gathered speed, hurtled and bumped across the rough turf, ceased to bump, floated clear of the earth, mounted and wheeled above the smoke and traffic and very soon hung, it seemed motionless, above the channel, where the track of a steamer, far below them, lay in the bright water like a line of smoke on a still morning.

With these sixty-odd words Waugh ever so lightly conveys three things that would force most other writers into a longer, more laborious effort: (1) the simple poetry of a good takeoff in grand weather, (2) the freshness of Boot’s first experience of flight, and (3) the picturesque connection of the scene to southern England.

I could multiply examples of such writerly miracles, but I won’t. Suffice it to say that when I discovered Waugh, I binge-read half his catalogue in two weeks. It was much like discovering that P.G. Wodehouse had a serious side, and I couldn’t wait to hear what he would say next.

Except that Waugh doesn’t just have a serious side. He is an unreformed reactionary who believes and promotes some of the ugliest, most insidious myths in western culture. Not only does he believe (famously) in original sin—the doctrine that man is created sick and commanded by his creator to be well—he also believes in the same repellant corallary to this dogma that Dostoevsky occasionally flirted with—the idea that sin’s status as an apprenticeship to grace licenses one’s luxuriating in large-scale wrongdoing. Sin boldly, if you’re going to sin! The victory of Grace will be the larger for it. Waugh’s masterpiece Brideshead Revisited is filled with words to this effect, in asides about God’s special love for drunkards, lechers,  and other chronic “sinners.” Well, if wallowing in filth is such a transcendent form of worship, why bother reforming? Waugh never comes to this point.

It is also in Brideshead Revisited that Waugh puts the ultimate pious hypocrisy into the mouths of the faithful. The book’s heroine, Lady Marchmain, a staunchly Catholic aristocrat, offers this comfort to wealthy folk who might be suffering pangs of guilty conscience:

When I married I became very rich. It used to worry me, and I thought it was wrong to have so many beautiful things when others had nothing. Now I realize that it is possible for the rich to sin by coveting the privileges of the poor. The poor have always been the favorites of God and his saints, but I believe that it is one of the special achievements of Grace to sanctify the whole of life, riches included.

How nice for her. It must comfort the rich to know they need not envy the “privileges” of the poor. I am glad to have read as much of Waugh as I did in a short time, as I was able to distill his genuine principles from the literary themes he merely vented. His worship of the moneyed class and his fetishization of original sin were, sad to say, instances of the former, not the latter.

Of course lots of us shrug our shoulders when it comes to helping the poor rather than just pitying them. There are insuprable  “structural” barriers to parity, we tell ourselves. How wicked can it be that Waugh uses his religion to dress up the same determinism we all accept under other guises?

If Waugh’s grinding the face of the poor does not trouble you, please note his special dislike for children. Time and again he creates characters who despise children even while advocating having lots of them, voluntarily, one presumes. (A dogmatic Catholic, Waugh opposed birth control.) Like his other blemishes, this one appears in his novels just sporadically enough to make the reader wonder whether it was Waugh’s real stance. The facts of his biography, though, make the truth painfully clear. He did not even like his own children. This knowledge somewhat darkens the light humor his (adult) characters occasionally exhibit when rejoicing that their children are soon to return to boarding school. It is one thing to wish one’s children were not under foot, I think, but quite another to wish them to have separate lives and to loath their temerity for occasionally reappearing on the family scene.

I realize I have dropped over the ledge to pure ad-hominemism, but what is one to say of a man who preached the sanctity of aristocracy and who advocated what we would today call the emotional abuse of children? Personally I cannot quite close Waugh’s case right there, at the foot of those damning facts. It is also true that he was a very tough, unbelievably brave soldier in World War Two, despite being over the hill. (He was 37 when he became an officer in the Royal Marines Commandoes in 1940.) This testimony, for me, stands in a class by itself. Bravery in battle is a virtue that few are called to and very few answer. A chair-bound, cigar-smoking alcoholic who loved the country-house life of endless luncheons above all else, Waugh was hardly cut out to be a soldier, yet he roused himself when he was called and rose far above his pampered background. While I am not quite comfortable saying bravery in war covers up a multitude of sins, it does warrant some forbearance for Waugh. I would have a hard time looking any combat veteran of a liberal democratic country in the eye and telling him his beliefs are despicable. Despicable they might be, but I’m just not the man to lay the accusation. I am too keenly aware of where and how my freedoms are ultimately defended.

I leave my judgment of Waugh exactly where Orwell left his: Waugh is “about the best novelist one can possibly be while holding untenable beliefs.” I will go on detesting his ideas lustily (this is half the joy of reading), but I will also thoroughly enjoy devouring the rest of his beautifully written novels.

Come to think of it, my bad-good list is dominated by Catholic novelists. Walker Percy is my favorite. A southern existentialist who blends Aquinas with Kierkegaard and Faulkner, Percy somehow makes this alchemy of Gothic nouveau work, but in a way I simply don’t have time to explain. The Moviegoer, of 1961, was his big success, but my favorite is The Second Coming, a meaning-of-life novel that pivots on a dreamlike retelling of the Abaraham-Isaac story set in 1970s North Carolina. I also have a smallish soft spot for one of Percy’s influences, Flannery O’Connor. It would be stating the obvious to call O’Connor a master of irony, but the obviousness itself begs certain questions about the compatibility of her rock-solid faith with the indeterminacy of the literary world she creates. Why the gap? Interestingly, O’Connor has the same sadistic flair as Waugh when it comes to torturing arbitrarily-chosen characters. Christopher Hitchens once pointed out that when Waugh decided to mess with a character, that character stayed messed with. O’Connor turns such divine fucking-around with unsuspecting mortals into a singular art form. It can be fun, but very wicked fun.

Bad-bad books

One of the standouts in the bad-bad quadrant has got to be A Pilgrim’s Pogress by John Bunyan—page after dreary page of Hallmark-worthy platitudes about guarding your virtue and staying true to your goal, which is, of course, to slip the surlies and go to Heaven. What’s so bad about all that?, you ask. More than any other book, A Pilgrim’s Progress tranlsated the Bible’s confused and occasionally atrocious ethics into a comprehensive cultural code that literate Europeans adopted as slavishly as if they had been Monty Python’s unlettered mud-and-straw covered peasants. Somehow, educated elites walked right into Bunyan’s world, where every human circumstance worth contemplating had been lifted from a Bible story.

Whether The_Pilgrim's_Progresswe know it or not, almost all English speakers who have ever cracked a book default to moral terms immortalized by Bunyan. The popularity of his book put a near-permanent stamp of approval on the embrace of supernaturalism and the rejection of reason as the best faculty for judging right and wrong. Literature is always propaganda, as Orwell pointed out, but Bunyan’s was particularly harmful. In aiding intelligent, reflective Europeans to turn so decisively way from classical values, it fought back mightily against the advance of the Enlightenment, just in its birth pangs when Pilgrim came out in 1678. We can only guess as to how many years its fatuous “moralizing” delayed the Enlightenment’s full onset.

This is not to say A Pilgrim’s Progress is utterly worthless. Quite the contrary. Bunyan must come in third place after the Bible and Shakespeare for gifting us with memorable phrases for describing the human condition. Ever felt stuck on the Slough of Despond? You were in Bunyan-land. If you have ever waxed poetic about sticking to a job that felt like hill-climbing (Barry Manilow did—I couldn’t resist), or if you have ever propounded the “hard right” over the “easy wrong,” you may have this widely quoted passage to thank:

This hill, though high, I covet to ascend;
The difficulty will not me offend.
For I perceive the way to life lies here.
Come, pluck up, heart; let’s neither faint nor fear.
Better, though difficult, the right way to go,
Than wrong, though easy, where the end is woe

Without all this earnest pabulum, and much more, by Bunyan, Thackeray would have lacked both a title and theme for his materpiece Vanity Fair. A Pilgrim’s Progress is a bad, bad book, but its deep cultural relevance makes it one that the thinking person can’t ignore.

After Mein Kampf, Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead lead the bad-bad book category. (They are not just bad-bad books; they are bad, bad ones.) They achieve such despicability because, in them Rand succeeds so improbably in foisting off naked propaganda as real literature. The books still sell well, and people refer to them as novels. Apparently some of our notable politicians are excited by them, which should rouse suspicion.

who-was-ayn-randOrdinarily a novelist succeeds—and feels obligated to succeed—in putting at least a micron of ironic distance between herself and her message, but Rand apparently felt no such comptunctions. With her, it was real, existing capitalism all the way, and if you felt a limp-wristed need to make literary allowances for the potential imperfections of the market (a la, say, E.M. Forster), you might as well just cease your labors and wait for the Government to come and euthanize you. They plan to do it, and you asked for it anyway, just by paying taxes.

One might muster some symathy for Rand’s inability as a writer to evoke anything like a human feeling if she had only got behind a decent cause or found a less clod-hopping way to advocate for her idea of “objectivism.” As things stand, though, she can’t reasonably be forgiven for building her career on crafting ideological cover for vulgar narcisissism and praising free markets to high heaven while deliberately leaving out the Invisible Hand. Wealth is good in and of itself for Rand, with our without trickle-down. Her arch contempt for government seems like a fine way to say thank you to the only institution able to actuate and safeguard the generation of wealth—by printing money, enforcing contracts, protecting patents, and so forth—but I suppose her hands had been burned by the authoritarian overreach of “government” in her native USSR. In any case, Rand’s flaws have been done to death, even with charitable feeling. Better reviewers than I have dealt with them.

I feel like my contribution to the discussion of Rand lies in the qualms I feel about taking her works all the way to the wall. As bad as she is, I can’t quite go whole hog against her. First, I confess that my thoughts about Rand are offered in bad faith. Although I have read large portions of her books, I have never been able to finish them. (I have never finished Mein Kampf either.) They are so relentlessly bad, and they cause  such a desperate feeling of need to get on to better books, that I simply cannot take the time to read them all the way through. I have, however, viewed a fair sample of Rand’s writing, and I feel vindicated in relying on reviewers as accomplished as Martin Amis and Christopher Hitchens to provide a better informed opinion. Aware of my mortal horizon, I mete out my reading time with extreme jealously; if I am persuaded I would find no reversals in Rand’s ideas by reading the full version of her books, I refuse to take time away from Pamuk, Kundera, Conrad and others to do so.

Still, a still, small voice reproaches me. As a general policy, I don’t make more than passing reference to a book in this blog if I haven’t read it in full. If I am to set up as a reviewer of Rand, then, and, even more, to brand her books as the worst of literature‘s worst, it would seem the decent gesture to stick to my principles and give her a full reading. Maybe someday.

Rand also deserves an iota of credit for putting her ideas in narrative form at all. Obviously she had an idea to sell, and the obvious thing might have been just to start from Hayek and expand his ideas into a “tract” about Objectivism. The only reason I am writing this review today, though, is because Rand beat the odds and attained a readership. Had she gone the path of real, professional philosophers, she would have stayed inside the ivory tower and joined permanent battle with her peers by trading blows in the form of unreadable articles and books. Does anyone actually try to “live by” Heidegger’s Being and Time? I didn’t think so. Instead Rand tried to make herself useful to the masses. I admire this trait in two of my favorite philosophers, William James and A.C. Grayling, and it would be stingy of me to withold praise for Rand for the same virtue.

Finally—and perhaps along the same lines—it must be said that Rand has achieved success in the form of staying power. Orwell himself identified longevity as a  potential mark of a book’s quality, whatever the critics say, in his essay on good bad books. If a hundred clever book reviewers take time to deplore a book in the wickedest, most delicious terms, but that book survives after the reviews have faded to the far reaches of the archive, guess who has the last laugh? Orwell would have hated Rand’s books and would have inveighed against them heroically, but he would have been the first to admit that Rand’s longevity, for better or worse, is an undebiable sign of her achievement, no matter what the chatterers say about it.

A final note about bad-bad books in general: they are not entirely bad. They should not be burned or banned. Far from it. Even the worst book imaginable can be useful, especially if it has readers. It is helpful to know what others think, and bad-bad books alert us to the worst thoughts afoot. Furthermore I think the best hope for curing people of bad-bad books is to let them read them. I might never have picked up the habit of reading good books had I not, one day in the 1970s, browsed a copy of Hal Lindsay’s Late Great Planet Earth and discovered the existence, and comforting attraction, of intellectual schlock. Although I did not know it at the time, my desire to read great books, the kind that Don Quixote thirsted for on his deathbed because they are a light to the soul, was possibly born in that moment, when a rebellion against bad, bad books started stirring within me. So I tell myself.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s