Tuesday, January 09, 2007


Here's material for a meme, no doubt: what was the worst book you ever read, and why?

A quick search around the web, however, turns up several lists of notoriously bad films (e.g. Wikipedia's "Films considered the worst ever"), and indeed there's an annual award for bad films, the Razzies, but I can't immediately find anything similar for fiction.

There is the Bad Sex in Fiction Award; and also the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction contest, "wretched writers welcome." But nothing for entire books, so far as I can see.

[Update: I now see that The Observer started such a discussion a couple of years ago, though even in starting the debate Stephanie Merrick (who picks Wuthering Heights) notes that "if favourite books are subjective, nominating the 'worst' books is even more so". The ensuing comments, over 1100 of them, can be found here.]

Of course, a document such as the Vatican's Index librorum prohibitorum tried to establish some theologically-validated consensus on what makes a bad book. But not only is the question of moral danger rather different (if not altogether so) than the issue of aesthetic failure; also even the Vatican eventually gave up any attempt to distinguish between bad and good when it comes to literature.

Perhaps that's because there are just so many more books--and therefore so many more bad books than bad films. There are too many contenders. But perhaps it's because there's much less unanimity on what makes for a bad book than on what makes for a bad film.

Here's my contender for at least one of the worst books I've ever read... and what makes it even worse is that it's a trilogy.

Many years ago a co-worker and friend lent me Robertson Davies's The Cornish Trilogy (which consists of The Rebel Angels, What's Bred In The Bone, and The Lyre of Orpheus), telling me I must read them. And read them, I did; every word. Perhaps my effort to continue through these three thick tomes indicates some kind of masochism. Because almost every sentence I found ponderous, overwrought, and yet strangely banal.

I'm really not sure why I persevered in the effort. Maybe I thought that at some point Davies simply must turn the corner, that things had to improve. But no: the oh so slow trainwreck of language and plot continued inexorably, each sentence and each page as poor as the previous one. The trilogy was long; it was tedious; it was pretentious. And it gave no pay-off whatsoever.

Fortunately, I have repressed almost all memory of the books themselves. I only have the memory of the execrable experience I spent reading them. An experience I would be loath to repeat.

Meanwhile, I now find myself in a land in which Robertson Davies is a literary hero. The Canadian Encyclopedia declares that he is "acknowledged as an outstanding essayist and brilliant novelist". And I should admit that a couple of my other contenders for worst books also emanate from the Great White North--not least Elizabeth Smart's By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, though that at least has the benefit of a decent title and a commendable brevity.

But I should assure my Canuck hosts that there's no Canada-bashing here: I love the novels of Leonard Cohen and Michael Ondaatje, for instance. But Robertson Davies? Forget about it.

Crossposted to Long Sunday.

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