Is There Such a Thing as Bad Literature?

Woody Allen once quipped, “I took a speed-reading course and read War and Peace in twenty minutes. It involves Russia.” In The Modern Epic, a ...

Feb 14, 2015

Woody Allen once quipped, “I took a speed-reading course and read War and Peace in twenty minutes. It involves Russia.”
In The Modern Epic, a literature elective offered this semester, our pace with the book has been far more luxurious. After three weeks, we’ve covered 850 pages of this weighty tome that bears the label of “the most daunting of Russian novels, as vast as Russia itself.” We’ve spent several class hours dissecting various scenes, discussing the historical context of the Napoleonic wars and analysing the gradual development of each of Tolstoy’s intricately complex characters.
I read Confessions of a Shopaholic, on the other hand, in a feverish three hours while sitting in the East Dining Hall — without having taken any speed-reading courses — and felt no less immersed in the shopping-fuelled world of Rebecca Bloomwood as when reading the domestic strife and war-torn scenes of 1800s Russia.
One book concerns itself with the trials and tribulations of two Russian aristocratic families; the other is about the trials and tribulations of a woman in London with a shopping addiction. Is it possible to pin down anything in particular that makes one book better than the other?
In a famous scene from War and Peace, Natasha Rostov — a female figure central to the book — prepares for her first ball, fluttering from nervousness at the thought of the male suitors present. Taking us inside Natasha’s head, Tolstoy writes:
She had one thought: “Can it be that no one will come up to me, can it be that I won’t dance among the first, can it be that all these men won’t notice me, who now don’t even seem to see me, and if they look at me, it’s with such an expression as if they were saying, ‘Ah! it’s not her, there’s no point in looking!’ No, it can’t be!”
Compare this to a scene from Confessions of a Shopaholic, in which we follow a heady financial journalist called Rebecca Bloomwood through her complicated career changes and love encounters. Receiving a letter from a colleague, Rebecca prevaricates:
Is this card just a polite thank-you? Or is it something else? And if so…what? Oh God, that’s it. He’s just pulling my leg to embarrass me. But then…would he go to all the trouble of buying a card, writing in it, and sending it, just to pull my leg?
The image of a person, struggling over the expression of his or her sexual desire, is a universal theme that transfers seamlessly across cultures and generations. Nothing jumps out to suggest, as it is, that these two passages are separated by a period of one hundred and fifty years.
When I was reading Confessions of a Shopaholic, I was taken by the light frivolity of the prose, by the clear motive for entertainment rather than seriousness and by the humorous tone of the narrator that made her vices almost loveable. But I couldn’t help but feel somewhat embarrassed that I was reading a book about a woman deciding whether or not she should buy a grey or a white cardigan, at the same time that I was reading a book about whether or not Russia should ally with Austria to defeat the French army.
Perhaps my embarrassment stems from the fact that, without much debate, Confessions of a Shopaholic is less likely to be considered as a canonical text than War and Peace. On the other hand, there’s something to be said about whether or not a book succeeds at capturing the grip of the public imagination, garrulous heroines or not; on GoodReads, Confessions of a Shopaholic has 439,890 ratings while War and Peace has 128,580.
In his 1884 essay, The Art of Fiction, Henry James distinguishes between a good and bad novel on the basis of its popularity.
There is as much difference as there ever was between a good novel and a bad one: the bad is swept, with all the daubed canvases and spoiled marble, into some unvisited limbo or infinite rubbish-yard, beneath the back-windows of the world, and the good subsists and emits its light and stimulates our desire for perfection.
Popularity, it would seem though, is not a singularly reliable measure; James, incidentally, also referred to War and Peace as a “large loose baggy monster.” Number of ratings aside, the average score of Confessions on GoodReads is 3.57 while the average score of War and Peace is 4.09.
One might venture to bring forth some criteria of aesthetic judgment by looking at the style of prose, plausibility of characters and novelistic cohesion, which certainly coalesce to create a distinct flavor and authorial imprint. Tolstoy’s prose is carefully weaved, replete with perceptive details and not, as one might initially think, particularly impenetrable. Take, for example, the description of a scene in which Nikolai Rostov goes on a hunt:
That moment, when Nikolai saw the dogs swarming over the wolf in the ditch, saw under them the wolf’s gray fur, his outstretched hind leg, and his frightened and gasping head with its ears laid back (Karai had him by the throat) — that moment when Nikolai saw that was the happiest moment of his life.
Yet in Confessions of a Shopaholic, Rebecca has a similarly joyful experience, albeit with a completely different object of obsession.
That moment. That instant when your fingers curl round the handles of a shiny, uncreased bag — and all the gorgeous new things inside it become yours. What’s it like? It’s like going hungry for days, then cramming your mouth full of warm buttered toast. It’s like waking up and realising it’s the weekend. It’s like the better moments of sex. Everything else is blocked out of your mind. It’s pure, selfish pleasure.
One description is about the death of a wolf, and one is about a shopping bag. Kinsella’s similes are unpolished compared to Tolstoy’s precise imagery, but the differences in the structure and style of the prose are not completely clear-cut — except that one is darker, more ponderous, more serious than the other.
Length of the book aside, pink covers aside — I read Confessions on my Kindle — reading these books together brings me finally to a nagging question. Is serious art… better art?
WAR AND PEACE by Leo Tolstoy 1273pp. Vintage Classics 2008.
CONFESSIONS OF A SHOPAHOLIC by Sophie Kinsella 223pp. Random House 2001.
Mohit Mandal is a contributing writer. Contact him at
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