Why “Bad” Literature Matters (and How We Should use It)

By Jan Baetens

Contrary to film or sports, for instance, literature is a part of culture in which there are still heated debates on what is “good” and what is “bad”. One may prefer Messi to Ronaldo, even after the Panama Papers, but nobody will deny that both are great players. One may like Ed Wood and dislike Hitchcock, but the merits of both directors will never be put on the same level. In literature, however, things are less clear. There exists of course a canon, but most readers, even professional readers, agree on the fact that this canon is often horribly boring and not really worth reading. On the other hand, many books that are avidly read will not really be defended by those who read them, as if they were ashamed of enjoying “silly” books or authors.

The situation is schizophrenic, but also complex. It is too easy for instance to frame it in terms of cultural snootiness (on the side of those sophisticated but “camp” readers who are proud of reading bad literature, while never trying to make a case for it as “good” literature) or inferiority (on the side of the many unsophisticated readers who are not always proud of what they actually like to read). Above all, the situation is sad, for it maintains social and ideological barriers that eventually harm both reading and writing.

One of the problems of “bad” reading is not only the persistent hatred that it provokes, not to speak of the psychological damage done to those who cannot love it as they would like, but also the negative effects in the long run on writing and literary culture in general. Just as some forms of “illegal”, that is illegally copied literature (see the recent essay by David S. Roh on this topic and my review on Leonardo[1]) can have tremendously positive effects on the creativity of a given community, “bad” reading should be considered a basic condition of literary invention. However, in order to make this point, one needs examples to demonstrate how this works in practice.

Here is where Robert Walser comes in. An important and even avant-garde Swiss author of the first half of the 20th Century, Walser was fond of “bad” literature, more particularly of cheap French romance novels of the twenties, infamous examples of what is called in French “industrial literature” (the term goes back to the 19th Century but it clearly anticipates Adorno’s distaste of the culture industry). Badly written, badly printed, totally ignored by serious readers, worse than all that one could imagine in all possible senses of the words, these books, actually more brochures than books which were sold in newsstands, not in bookshops, were read by audiences “good” readers have always been happy to mock (one of Walser’s examples is a novel by Sim – pseudonym of Georges Simenon –, Le Semeur de larmes, 1928).


While working as a journalist, Walser happened to review once in a while this kind of “bad” literature, and the way he did so offers an amazing demonstration of what one can actually do with this allegedly inferior literature. For reviewing meant rewriting, not just paraphrasing or summarizing and judging. Walser reinvents completely new stories, which often go totally against the grain of the original works, and this rewriting offers the possibility to deploy a stylistic firework that clearly demonstrates the springboard function of both the reading and the review. Yet what Walser is about is not to “save” the worthless books he is not supposed to read as a serious author, but to demonstrate how literary creativity works and how it can make use of any material whatsoever.

graf_walserSo please read the short essay by Marion Graf on Walser as a romance-reader, and try to do yourself with your bad readings what can be discovered in the examples in the second half of the book, a brief anthology of Walser’s creative reviews. It’s a small and inexpensive book, so you can keep it away from the eyes of those who want you to read Middlemarch or the complete works of Milton.

Marion Graf. Robert Walser. Lecteur de petits romans sentimentaux français. Editions Zoé : Carouge-Genève, 2015.

[1] http://leonardo.info/reviews/apr2016/roh-baetens.php