At the Back Fence Issue #302

May 5, 2008

From the Desk of Anne Marble:

Six of One…Half Dozen of the Other

I noticed an intriguing topic on our Potpourri Forum not long ago: What is Worse To You, a C or F? At first glance, my thought was an F. Two seconds later it was, no…a C. Then, uhm, an F, of course. I eventually determined it’s not such an easy question to answer. We think it should be, but for some readers, it’s not as obvious as it looks.

Let’s start with Laurie, who has no definitive answer. For her, C, D, and F books all present problems. A C read is boring, a D is deadly dull, and an F is a wallbanger…and she’d prefer not to be bored, not to read a book more dull than watching paint dry, and she surely has no wish to read books so bad she wants to hurl them across the room. A C read isn’t a bad one, though; it’s just not good. D and F books, on the other hand, are bad books; they make her angry because of the waste of trees. On the other hand, an F book can sometimes be fun. When Laurie reads a book she loves or likes a whole lot, she bookmarks pages she wants to return to because of a scene, a paragraph, or even a line of text. Certain books – like Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal – ended up twice as fat because of all the paper stuffed into it. An F book can be like that, only in reverse; it can end up twice as fat after she bookmarks all of the stuff she thinks sucks or is funny in a way the author hadn’t intended it to be (mostly so she can read it aloud to her husband). Right now she’s entering all of the books from her various book databases onto her Shelfari shelf; it’s the Fs that draw her attention every time. She still remembers all of them, whereas many of her C reads are long since forgotten (Laurie, btw, encourages you to join AAR at Shelfari).

Maggie B realized that all her F reads are memorable, but she has a hard time remembering her C books because they’re just average. On the other hand, at least she can whip out an F read as a reminder of how not to write a novel. Tee agrees that an F read is at least memorable. There’s a connection between an A and an F – both types of books stick in your mind.

For very different reasons, of course. A C book, on the other hand, tends to be forgotten. Linda in sw va finds that while a C read might be forgettable, at least she enjoyed it. F books can be more memorable, but she remembers them only because they’re so rotten. These are not good memories. So memorable isn’t always a good thing. Varina also finds that F books can stay in her mind more than C’s, but that’s because they generated such a strong response that she dwelled on the book was was angry that she wasted her time. For example, she still remembers “all the icky supporting characters in Catherine Coulter’s The Duke that mostly dodged their proper comeuppances.” She also remembers the last book of a Christian historical series that had a gushy style, a weak storyline, and lesson-driven plot. She enjoyed the earlier installments of the series, but simply decided to pretend the last book doesn’t exist for her. And yet, when a C book is frustrating for Linda, it’s “because it’s neither great nor perfectly awful but somewhere in the middle.” The C book will have more redeeming qualities than the F. Yes, it’s frustrating that it’s not a B, but at least she didn’t waste time reading a failure.

Like those readers, I remember my F’s. My latest F was something I never expected to be an F at all – a “how to write” book called Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing. I pre-ordered the ebook edition the day it became available. Elmore Leonard? How could it go wrong? I thought it would be an expansion of an article he’d written earlier on the same subject. Nope. It was the article, in book form, with a few cartoons added, one I can read for free, I might add, on the New York Times web site.

Not only was I disappointed, but I felt ripped off. Sure, the article was great, but it’s just an article. As a book, it should have been expanded. The rules could have included more explanations, more examples, even more exceptions. (There are always exceptions to writing rules.) Isn’t it funny how we feel so passionate about our Fs? When I looked at my F reviews at AAR, I remembered something about each other. “Oh, that was the book with the evil lesbian killer nun! And there was the rapefest bodice ripper. And that one had the stupid heroine and the foreign servant who thought he was Howard Dean (he kept saying “Aieee!”). Annoying as can be. Yet there are times I’d rather read a really bad book that engages me than trudge through an average novel. Maybe that’s why I’ve gotten rid of so many “middle of the road” romance novels lately, but I refuse to get rid of the infamous Stormfire or even Rosemary Rogers’ Wicked Loving Lies. And why I sometimes read old Harlequin Presents even when I know I’ll hate the heroes. Because at least I’ll care enough to hate them.

When Laurie asked me about my recent F’s, I thought of Leonard’s book. But when she asked me about my latest C’s, that was harder. Finally, I thought of The Faerie Path, a YA fantasy novel by Frewin Jones. This book tells the story of Anita, a girl in modern day London who is told she is really Tania, the long-lost daughter of Oberon and Titania, the King and Queen of Faerie. The book was lyrically written, and the details of the faerie court were incredible. But… as far as the people went, it was missing something. The romantic angle was undeveloped – talk about a cardinal sin. The good characters were nice, except for the ones I just knew would turn out to be bad. Compare that to Wicked Lovely by Melissa Marr, which spent less time in the faerie court but had a more mysterious plot and more conflicted characters and came across as, well, more mature. That’s not to say Jones’ book was dull or typical or that I’ll never pick up another book by her…I’ll just wait for the paperback.

Another book that I consider a C was a YA novel by Amy Goldman Koss called Poison Ivy. Unlike the Jones book, the characterizations and their interactions were strong. The book delves into the psychology of both bullies and the victim. The victim isn’t a perfect girl, and she isn’t even likable; she’s a girl who has been bullied for years, so she has become distant. The teacher decides to put the bullies on trial as a lesson. But it backfires on the teacher. The trial doesn’t go the way she wants. And eventually, the result is tragic. And though some liked the tragic ending and thought it inevitable, I thought the author was pushing it. It reminded me of the endings people used to write in that creative writing class I took in high school. We had an unwritten rule. If you weren’t sure how to end the story, kill someone off. Sometimes that works for a story, but sometimes it reminds me of stories from creative writing class. On the other hand, I was horribly disappointed in the famous Go Ask Alice by Anonymous (although I think of it as almost a D). Part of what upset me about it was that it’s long since been revealed that it is not the diary of a real teen, yet remains taught as “nonfiction.” I was also annoyed that the whole thing was created as a “scare tactic” to persuade teens to avoid drugs. (Scare tactics often backfire because kids can see past them.) Many other YA novels deal with controversial topics without smacking you across the head with their messages or with their endings. For example, I loved Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson, which gave me an outcast heroine dealing with a recent tragedy in her own way.

My F and C books do have one thing in common. When I remember them, I remember my problems with them. In the case of an F book, it’s a problem that turned the book into a failure. In the case of a C book, it’s something that kept it from being a B or even an A. For example, a silly big misunderstanding or a stupid character in an otherwise good book. (Near the end of The Faerie Path, Tania made an incredibly stupid decision, putting her trust in the wrong sister.)

For similar reasons, Dolly finds that C books are more frustrating, partly because she no longer finishes every book she starts; she can tell an F book right away, and she knows to stop reading it. On the other hand, for her a C book is frustrating because it isn’t terrible, but it never reaches its full potential. “So you keep reading … another page, another chapter … hoping that the book will suddenly liven up, the heroine will stop being a twit or the hero stop being an ass. But in a C book, that doesn’t happen.” While many people find C reads boring, Dolly finds them frustrating.

Author Sarah Bell is also frustrated by C books. She finds F books easy to write off. After all, maybe she simply didn’t like the style, but the C books…not so much. “Most of the time I want so desperately to like them I end up over-investing myself and by the time I’m done searching for a reason to really enjoy it, I end up being left flat.” Sarah writes in a controversial genre and reads many books in that genre. There’s one author she believes should knock her socks off because of her great plots, and yet she finds herself buying this author’s books over and over again, “hoping each time for a winner only to be disappointed and out five bucks.” It’s not that the author is bad, but Sarah thinks the author takes the easy way out with her plots. Still, she keeps reading her books, hoping to come across that home run.

Not everyone wants to remember the F books. (You mean we have a choice?!) alisha_j says “Well, they do say that the opposite of love isn’t hate, it’s indifference, so maybe that holds true with a C being indifference and an F being hate. But I would have to say that I’d take a C over an F anytime. For me, an F book is so awful I can’t even finish it, with no redeeming qualities whatsoever.” Kass would also rather read a C book than an F. A C book can be a solid read, something “‘good but average’ like a solid but not spectacular Krentz.” An F? Not at all. tirlittan also regrets those F reads because they aren’t worth the time and money she put into reading it. For her, an F is something without any redeeming value. Like tirlittan, xina sees an F book as one with “no redeeming qualities whatsoever.” F books are a waste of time, and with lots of better books out there, she has no time to waste on F’s. A C, on the other hand, will at least be entertaining at the time, even if she forgets it later.

I compare a C book to a lot of the suspense and horror movies I’ve seen lately. While I’m watching the movie, I’m entertained. People in the movie scream or gasp. Isn’t that the point? At the same time, I keep asking myself, “Why did they climb the ruins without supplies? Why did they send someone down on that rope without making sure the rope wasn’t frayed?!” Part of the fun is trying to predict what will happen, but part of the frustration is learning that you outguessed the filmmakers. The same is true of books.

This is why the biggest complaint most people have about C reads is that they’re predictable. While I had fun watching these movies, in most cases, I wouldn’t bother seeing them again. Not just because I know what will happen but because they don’t make me care enough. This is how I feel about many of my C reads as well. Sure, it was a nice trip, but I don’t want to take that journey again. Those trips can be like long commutes – seeing the same trees over and over again. On the other hand, some truly wretched movies, like Deathstalker and Barbarian Queen were tacky and exploitative, but they are more likely to use their imagination, even if they tended to use that imagination to think up new ways to get the heroine naked. These movies should make me angry, but I have too much fun enjoying them, as long as I approach them on the right level. Like re-reading old bodice rippers and getting into them as swashbuckling adventures instead of thinking of them as romances.

And an F is often something that makes us angry. F books make Lynne Connolly angry. Those failed books (the ones everyone hates, not the books that are merely controversial) make her think of the great books she’s read on crit groups that never get published, while bad books do. To her, those really bad books stopped those good books from reaching the market. Lynne sees this happen when authors write to the market, and publishers buy up mediocre books in a popular genre. For retrograde, however, a C book is worse because a C bores her to tears. On the other hand, an F book is so bad that it might be entertaining. “If I dislike a book that much, at least it isn’t boring me.” Similarly, ladynaava thinks that Fs are sometimes so bad they can be amusing.

This is a common thread. Some F books are utter failures, yet some are so bad they’re good. Hilary compares Fs to really bad movies. When her TV listings give a movie one star, she knows that can call over a friend and make popcorn because they’ll be laughing at the movie, maybe even making fun of it for years to come. If you want to make a movie geek laugh, don’t quote a line from a famous comedy. Say something like “Plan 9? Ah, yes. Plan 9 deals with the resurrection of the dead. Long distance electrodes shot into the pineal and pituitary gland of the recently dead.” Can you remember any lines from the last three-star movie you star? Uhm, maybe. But you can probably remember the lines from the last uproariously bad movie you saw. An F book can be like that, except that with a book, you don’t get to watch it with friends.

Hilary finds that she has to amuse herself by marking it up with a red pen. I only succumbed to that temptation once – again frustration with a predictable plot twist. In a thriller I read, the characters were sure they had killed someone in a hit and run accident, but it was obvious that their friend was guilty. When the heroine finally figured out he was the killer, I wrote “DUH” in the margin. It was the book equivalent of throwing popcorn at the screen.

On the other hand, Susan/DC thinks F books can’t be as fun as bad movies. Bad movies can be fun because you watch them in groups. But books are read alone, except for reading aloud purple prose now and then. Most of the time, F books are “a lonely, boring slog.” This is why she has DNFs (Did Not Finish) instead of Fs. A bad movie can be 90 minutes or two hours, but you spend that time with your family or friends, and you can joke about that movie years later. It generally takes longer to read a bad book, so she feels that the time spent on a bad book is truly wasted. kassiana agrees that F books are always worse. She compares them to The Eye of Argon, notorious for being one of the worst stories ever written.

But I have a confession to make. The Eye of Argon is dreadful, but parts of me made me laugh, just like watching a bad movie. How can you not laugh at the “many-fauceted” scarlet emerald (and, no, that’s not a typo)? Or at burly warriors who insult each other in the middle of a battle by calling each other “Slut”? Or at a hero with a name like Grignr? Of course, part of the fun of a truly bad book is making it a communal activity, like watching a wretched movie with friends, by sharing passages like this:

A elmwoven board leaped from collapsed flooring, clashing against the jagged flooring and spewing a shower of orange and yellow sparks over Grignr’s startled face. Rising uneasily to his feet, the half stunned Ecordian glared down at the grusome arm of death he had unwittingly sprung. “Mrifk!”

Mrifk indeed! Yes, sometimes an F book can be so bad it’s good. Some are just bad. And some are bad enough to be compelling – those special F books that somehow manage to be as riveting as they are repellent. The C books are always better, but the F books are sometimes more engaging. There are those books you simply must keep reading, even as you hate every character and every plot twist. So that’s not exactly enjoyment. Engaging? Sure, they engaged me because of the train wreck factor. They often made me angry in a sort of “Why was this published?” way.

Yet as memorable as a book like And Gold Was Ours, or a movie like Plan 9 from Outer Space, can be, when it comes down to it, I’d rather read another A or B rather than be disappointed in a C book or angered by a total failure. But part of the risk (and joy) of reading is that you never know which will be which for you. Sometimes that book you expect to be a C or even an F turns out to be a B, or even an A. That’s part of why we keep trying new authors. That book someone else hated might hit the right chord with you, just as that book every loves might be your wallbanger, or your predictable C read.

Questions to Consider:

Do you read everything you start, or do you have a DNF category? If you used to finish everything you read but no longer do, what changed your mind? If you continue to read everything you start, why do you suppose that is?

Whether you do so mentally or in actually, do you grade or rank your reads? If so, what are your criterion for a one star or three star or F or C book? If you don’t grade/rank your reads, either in your head or on paper/computer, is there some sort of mental assessment you go through after closing a book, and if so, what is it?

What do you think is worse to read, a C or an F, and why? Is reading an F the same as watching a horrible movie, or is it different because you can watch a movie communally? Does that even out, though, by being able to share an F reading experience through talking or writing about it with friends and/or online?

Share – or at the very least, consider some of your most memorable Fs, and why they remain in your memory. Now do the same with some C reads…which group of books, if any, did you find it easier or more fun to write about?

What are your clunkers from this year? What are your Cs from this year? Do you think you’ll remember any of them a year…or two…or five from now?

Anne Marble

(AAR uses BYRON for its romance reference needs)

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