Two Thoughts About What Makes A Novel “So Bad That It’s Good”

Well, for today, I thought that I’d take a quick look at fiction that is “so bad that it’s good”. I’m not sure if I’ve covered this topic before, but it was something that I thought about whilst reading the next novel that I plan to review (a modern novelisation of a 1970s horror film) and it is an absolutely fascinating topic.

After all, this type of fiction differs a lot from “bad” fiction, because it is still very entertaining to read – despite containing qualities that would normally ruin a story.

So, here are a couple of quick thoughts about what can make a story “so bad that it’s good”:

1) Quality distribution and contrast: One of the major differences between a bad novel and a “so bad that it’s good” novel is how the story’s quality is distributed.

In short, a bad novel will be uniformly terrible – with the writing, characters, plot etc… all being terrible in some way or another. On the other hand, a “so bad that it’s good” novel will excel in one area, but fail in another – and the contrast between these two things lends the story an unusual quality that makes it genuinely fun to read.

For example, Matthew Reilly’s 2001 thriller novel “Area 7” is technically speaking, a “badly written” novel. But, just try putting it down after you’ve read the first hundred pages. Although the writing style is very simplistic and breaks numerous stylistic rules, it is paired with the kind of ultra fast-paced, extremely gripping, suspense-filled, action-packed plot that is more spectacular than even modern Hollywood movies can dream of achieving. Because of the unusual contrast between the “terrible” writing style and the gripping, well-planned plot, this novel is quite literally “so bad that it is good” πŸ™‚

To give another example, Shaun Hutson’s 2011 horror novel “Twins Of Evil” is technically speaking very well-written – with a narrative style that is both fast-paced and yet descriptive/formal enough to evoke the novel’s 19th century setting. It makes the novel very readable, creating a gothic horror atmosphere without the slow pacing typically associated with the genre. The actual writing in this novel is brilliant πŸ™‚ Yet, the novel’s plot – based on an actual 1970s horror movie – is filled with corny horror tropes, ridiculous amounts of sleaze, over-wrought melodrama and other sources of unintentional comedy. But, because the novel’s corny and dated plot is contrasted with really good writing, it lends the novel this wonderfully weird “so bad that it’s good” quality πŸ™‚

So, one of the hallmarks of “so bad that it’s good” fiction is a dramatic contrast in quality between two elements of the story. Whether it is a badly-written story with an excellent plot or vice versa, the contrast between these things makes the story “brilliantly terrible” in a really cool way πŸ™‚

2) Earnestness: This one is a bit counter-intuitive, but “so bad that it’s good” novels are never deliberately meant to be like this. When this type of story is at it’s best, it isn’t some kind of ironic parody.

It is someone making something imperfect – but with passion, care and enthusiasm. It is someone really wanting to make something good, even though they have technically failed to do so. It is someone trying. It is someone having fun and following their dreams. This feeling of passion, this enthusiastic desire to create something awesome is something you can always sense in proper “so bad that it’s good” novels, and it is really endearing and heartwarming πŸ™‚

For example, when reading Reilly’s “Area 7”, you really get the sense that he was trying to write the best thriller novel ever – a novel that was faster-paced and more spectacular than anything else ever written before it. And – despite the technical imperfections – this dream shines through. You really get the sense that he loves the thriller genre and wants to make something truly great, despite any technical shortcomings in how it is done. And such passion is an absolute joy to behold. Seriously, it is pretty much the ultimate “feel good” experience.

Likewise, in Hutson’s “Twins Of Evil”, the novel’s foreword points out that old Hammer Horror movies were one of the author’s earliest experiences of the horror genre and that he has been a fan of them ever since. He shows knowledge and interest in the subject matter he is writing about, bringing years of finely-honed writing experience (And if you haven’t read some of his novels from the 1980s, like “Deathday” or “Erebus“, then you’re missing out!) to the film that he is adapting. The fact that the source material hasn’t aged well doesn’t seem to matter quite as much when you can quite literally feel how much he cares about the story – via the quality of the writing, the atmosphere etc… It isn’t a parody of a cheesy old movie, it is a love letter to it – an expression of nostalgia. And this makes what would otherwise be a very “corny” novel strangely endearing to read.

So, this type of fiction is never ironic or deliberate. It is a valiant attempt at something great. It is someone caring so much about something that they are willing to ignore any technical shortcomings because it matters too much. And it is heartwarming to see in the best possible way πŸ™‚


Sorry for the short article, but I hope that it was interesting πŸ™‚

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