Judging whether a book is good or bad is a difficult task. One problem is that all judgment on a creative work is subjective, and no two person will have the same opinion. But this isn’t the problem I want to address in this essay, it is another frequent problem that I find glaring but hasn’t been adequately discussed by other people. It is that the judgment most people give tend to be one-dimensional. Websites such as Amazon and Goodreads often rate a work on a scale of 1 to 5. This is useful because it tells people whether a work is good enough to read or watch, but it sometimes ignore other dimensions of the work. A book can be surprisingly entertaining despite being objectively terrible.
Sometimes it can be useful to introduce another dimension into rating a book. I have created a chart, and the X-axis ranks a work as “bad/good”, the usual way we judge books. Then, the Y-axis ranks a work as “boring/entertaining”, a dimension most people assume coincide with the “bad/good” dimension. However, I found that in practice the two dimensions can be independent of one another, and a good work can be boring as well as interesting. I have rated a few works based on this new system to illustrate how it will work out. These ratings are from my point-of-view and therefore subjective, and I haven’t read some of these works in their entirety. Despite these drawbacks, I hope you’ll find my musings entertaining and my system useful.
In the upper right quadrant are books that are both entertaining and good, and are usually the books we read. These books are good because they express interesting ideas, are well written, but also manage to be entertaining at the same time. For example, the book Notes from Underground is about a man who is undergoing (or has underwent) an existential crisis, but somehow Dostoyevsky makes his situation funny. Seldom will you have a work that embodies both philosophical ideas and is at the same time engaging and entertaining. The same can be said of Candide, which criticizes religious bigotry, social injustice, gender inequality, but all in a satirical way that makes the heavy-handed morality tale tolerable. I also put the works of Beverly Cleary and Mark Twain in here, because they created interesting and realistic characters that are enjoyable to read.
In the lower right quadrant are books that are good but boring. I consider most of the works of Jane Austen and and Charles Dickens to be in this category, as well as Moby Dick. These books were all well written, express interesting ideas, but have fallen short at being an interesting enough to make you excited and enthusiastic about the work. I remember reading Pride and Prejudice, and while I was impressed with the elegant language Jane Austen used, I found all the characters to be stiff and wooden. None of them appeared to have any personality at all, they were merely talking heads spouting perfectly composed sentences. It was like reading a romance novel written by an autistic person. Everything I like about Beverly Cleary is absent from Pride and Prejudice, and for this I am disappointed in that novel. Unfortunately these are also the works of literature most likely to be taught in high school and college.
In the lower left quadrant are books that are both bad and boring. Works in this quadrant tend to be ignored by most people (for obvious reasons), therefore there aren’t many works I can call off the top of my head that belongs here. The only reason these works tend to hang around is when they promote some popular ideology, so the works of Ayn Rand and most of the Bible belongs here. While I like (and dislike) certain aspects of Judeo-Christian doctrine, I find most of the Bible terrible as a work of literature. The Bible is supposed to be a grand epic narrative about the creation of the world, the falling of man into sin and final redemption. Therefore, the literature style you would expect the writers of the Bible to use would be similarly epic. However, when I read the Bible I was disappointed. Many of the stories were written in a dry, matter-of-fact style. It was as if it was written by Ernest Hemingway on his bad days. (Oddly enough God looks just like Ernest Hemingway when he’s having a bad day, so it may not be entirely a coincidence.) Never before have I been bored by reading murder and rape scenes, but the Bible somehow manages to do that.
The upper left quadrant is the most interesting, because it includes books that are both bad and entertaining. Few books fall into this category, because it is difficult for a bad writer to produce entertaining works, but when they do the results are often spectacular and memorable. My Immortal is the epitome of this category of books. It manages to make suicide, rape and torture funny, a grand achievement for someone who does not have a grasp of English grammar or spelling. Due to the ease of self-publishing and the Internet, more and more amateurs are putting their ill-conceived books on the market. Fifty Shades of Grey, which like My Immortal, was a work of fan-fiction, was originally posted on the Internet and then self-published. Will this eventually become the future of literature? I hope not, but if it does at least literature will not be dull anymore, the way it currently is.