One of the main things I wanted to fix during the first year of my degree was my tendency to gravitate towards books that I was embarrassed to read. I’m talking trashy YA books with insanely problematic characters combined with edgy, quotable lines. At the start of the year, I berated myself for spending so much time on those books when I was so uncultured in great literature.
However, I’ve actually learned a lot more from those books than the critically acclaimed novels studied at uni. Don’t get me wrong – reading those books is definitely important and helpful, but not the only way to learn from others.
Allow me to illustrate my point with a suitably cheesy quote:
Yup, I like to learn the hard way, and the best way to do this is to watch mistakes go horribly wrong.
Before we begin, I should probably define “bad”. The reason this comes with quotation marks is that quality is subjective, and what I’m talking about is probably best described as “unpolished”. Books with typos, plot holes, problematic characters. A lot of the examples that I use are books that I enjoyed immensely at the time, and some of them I’ll have mentioned before. Some even appear on our reading list.
Lesson #1: Prince of Wolves by Quinn Loftis
I used to obsess over these books with friends when I was about twelve, and it’s easy to see why. Sassy characters, a variety of love stories and a (then) super trendy supernatural element made this series catnip for preteens.
However, its strength was also its downfall. By the fourth book, there were so many couples and so many main characters that chapters became quite repetitive for the sake of giving everyone equal airtime. Paragraph after paragraph would just be various couples exchanging emotional goodbyes, completely unnecessary.
Moral: Too many main characters can be tedious and confusing
Lesson #2: The Girl In Between by Laekan Zea Kemp
This book has some pretty creative elements, but these were overshadowed somewhat by flaws in what I want to call stage direction; the small movements made by the characters.
On multiple occasions, actions were missed out, leaving me disoriented and preventing me from being immersed in the plot. Characters would go from lying down to standing on the other side of the room with no explanation, leaving me rereading paragraphs to check what I’d missed. his was such a shame when the world building was so imaginative.
Moral: Pay attention to the little details
Lesson #3: Twilight by Stephenie Meyer
Given how much hate these books have got over the years, it’s probably no surprise that they appear here. However, they’re just a popular example of a common issue in YA lit; problematic relationships. I read the Twilight Saga when I was 10, which wasn’t uncommon at the time. In such formative years, this warped view of a codependent, be-all-and-end-all relationship inevitably impacted my expectations for the real world.
Moral: Consider the message your work could be sending
Lesson #4: Bitten by Kelley Armstrong
This book started so well with an exploration of being a werewolf in a modern city, and as a fan of Armstrong I had high hopes.
It was unfortunately full of gratuitous sex. I get that some people might enjoy that element, but for me it was just too much. Not to mention that a lot of the sex scenes were at least partly non-consensual, which I found very yikes. I get that it may have been an attempt at displaying animalistic elements of being a werewolf, but it was just so needless and kept interrupting the plot.
Moral: Consider whether your sex scenes are really necessary
Lesson #5: Zelah Green by Vanessa Curtis
With mental health being a trendy theme, a lot of books venture into mentally unwell territory. Unfortunately, a fair few of these miss the mark, and seem to be only characterized by the fact that they are about mental health. Nothing really seems to happen other than watching mentally ill characters struggle, like some strange zoo.
Moral: A theme on it’s own doesn’t constitute a book
Lesson #6: Life After Theft by Aprilynne Pike
You know those memes about men being terrible at writing female characters? It turns out it works both ways. I’ve been working on a more extensive post about this with Lydia, but the bottom line is that either I dislike men more than I thought, or Jeff is poorly written. Shameless stereotyping, rampant hormones and an unsettling amount of self awareness all make this a concerning read.
Moral: Be careful when writing from the perspective of another gender
Lesson #7: Shatter Me by Tahereh Mafi
Yet another book that started strongly and then disappointed me, I reviewed this book a while back. While Mafi’s poetic style is to die for, the handling of romance is as problematic as Twilight. I’m talking insta-love, ‘everyone falls at my feet and I can’t imagine why’, codependency, the lot.
Moral: Give your romantic relationships some backbone
Lesson #8: Replica by Lauren Oliver
I’ve mentioned before how this book used the confusing gimmick of letting you choose what order you read it in, which for me just made it confusing and repetitive.
It also had issues with lesson #3, as there was a lot of harmful perpetuating of stigmas surrounding the appearance of some of the women in the book.
Moral: Consider whether any gimmicks actually improve your work
Lesson #9: Everything, Everything by Nicola Yoon
This is another one that annoyed me so much that I made a post about it. It deals with severe allergies in a dangerously unrealistic way, contributing to mainstream ignorance and misunderstanding.
Moral: If you’re writing about an issue that doesn’t affect you, check in with people that it does impact
Lesson #10: John Green
With a few exceptions, every John Green book that I’ve read follows a very specific formula; the unattainable dysfunctional female love interest, the sassy minority best friend, mishaps that teenagers would never realistically get away with and oh-so quotable lines, all soaked in an aesthetic of edgy teen misery. Needless to say, I lost patience.
Moral: Variety is important
All of this just goes to show that there is in fact something to be gained from reading unpolished books. So long as you can explain what you’ve learned, you’ve got grounds to fight anyone that tells you otherwise.