The Value of a Truly Terrible Book

I have a lot of books crammed into my little office at home and I’d estimate that I’ve only read about two-thirds of them. The rest are books that I just haven’t gotten around to yet. I’ve spent years collecting these books and dragging them halfway across the country on the off chance that on some rainy day, I’ll pull one off the shelf. This is the story of one of those books.

Ten years ago, I saw the film Sahara. It was an action-adventure about Dirk Pitt, a marine engineer and adventurer who saves the day and discovers a missing Civil War ironclad in the sands of Africa. It was thrilling stuff and despite being universally panned by critics, I liked it. So, I went down to Bookman’s and picked up a copy of one of novels the move was based on, Valhalla Rising.

And it sat on my shelf for the next ten years. Unread.

Then, about a month ago, I picked it up. I remembered liking the film and I liked that there was a viking ship on the cover, so I started to read. And it was awful. What the movie version of Dirk Pitt glossed over, the book revealed in agonizing detail. Pitt in the novel can do no wrong. Everyone around him worships him. Women fling themselves at him and he refuses their advances with long, sexist soliloquies about how he likes to have women cook and clean for him.

The plot is worse: full of impossible twists and turns, leaping from one world-ending crisis to the next (along with some unfortunate villainous plans that are eerily reminiscent of 9/11 — the book was published in August 2001 and features both planes crashing in Manhattan and a separate plot to destroy the World Trade Center). It is completely ridiculous from beginning to end. It’s also not about vikings.

I really didn’t like Valhalla Rising. I didn’t like the characters, the plot or the dialogue. Even the descriptions were poorly written, spending paragraphs explaining the horsepower of a WWII transport plane’s engine or the exact chiseling of Pitt’s face.

Still, I think there is something to be learned from this book. As a writer, I am often tempted to read the greats. When I read the masters of literature, I am struck by the complexity of their masterpieces. It can be hard to deconstruct an excellent work, because all the pieces are so carefully laid into place that I can’t see how they fit together.

On the other hand, when I read a really bad book, I can see the gaps. I see where the author tried something that didn’t quite work; where a line of dialogue fell flat; where a plot line was left dangling. Sometimes, I learn more from failure than from success.

Every writer should read a truly terrible book from time to time. It’s a good gut check of your own sense. You can critique as you go and you will be amazed by how many lessons you learn.

So, go ahead, grab that trashy paperback. You’ll probably learn a few things about the craft. Even if you don’t, let it motivate you. If that person can write a crappy manuscript and get it published, you can, too.

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Jonny Eberle is a writer and avid reader of books both good and bad. You can follow him on Twitter. Apologies to Clive Cussler (even though he did appear as a fictionalized version of himself in his own book, which is weird).

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