Good Bad Books by Alma Boykin
George Orwell talked about good-bad poetry, most notably Rudyard Kipling’s works. According to Orwell, the poems were memorable, well-written, and enjoyable to read and recite. Alas (for Orwell), the poems supported the Empire and King, failed to teach the proper social message, and distracted people from the real problems of the empire and of society as a whole.
In history we occasionally talk about good bad books. Now, these are not “well-written books with a bad message,” pace Orwell. Nor are they the books you sneak-read when no one is looking, adult Westerns or steamy romances, Aga sagas (a British sub-genre), or those books that used to arrive “tastefully packaged in plain wrappers for your privacy” according to the ads in the back of the magazines. Nor are they the so-bad-they’re-funny. No, these are the books that are so strikingly shockingly appalling that a herd of historians rear back on their hind legs and say “oh h-ll no! I’ll show you,” and a surge of really useful, good, insightful literature appears.
NOTE: THE FOLLOWING IS NOT AN EXCUSE TO BRING UP THE AMERICAN CIVIL WAR/WAR BETWEEN THE STATES/WHATEVER. IT IS AN EXAMPLE THAT I HAVE BOOKS FOR.
One of the clearest examples of this is the historiography of the history of chattel slavery in the US. In 1908 U.B. Phillips wrote a book, American Negro Slavery arguing that slavery was not an entirely bad thing, that it had problems, but it was a civilizing force and that the Yankees had done terrible things by the way in which they eliminated it. It developed a regional following and some rebuttals, but lingered in the background for a while, until WWII exploded, bringing about a new generation of historians. In 1956 Kenneth Stampp argued that slavery was evil and that it was not paternalistic at all, but was all about economic control and domination. And then Stanley Elkins published, Slavery: A Problem in American Institutional and Intellectual Life in 1959 and everyone went, “whoah. That can’t be right.” Elkins argued from a psycho-historical standpoint, comparing slaves to Holocaust survivors, and introducing the idea of “sambos,” of African-Americans infantilized by the brutality of slavery, making them all immature victims. Yeah, you know what’s coming next.
1976, Eugene Genovese published Roll Jordan Roll: The World the Slaves Made and showed that slaves had been actors in their own right. Not infantilized, not made voiceless, the slaves created a rich culture with regional variations, one that encouraged strong family and community ties and that provided a foundation for the freedmen communities that followed. (And it’s a really well-written book, too. Highly recommend all his stuff.) Peter Kolchin looked past the Atlantic to compare American slavery with Russian serfdom and demonstrating the complexities of both. In 2000 Ira Berlin’s book Many Thousands Gone covers the entire experience of slavery in North America, looking at how it varied in place and time. Phillips and Elkins two books, by now completely discredited, spurred a flurry of very good and useful research that added a great deal of personal story to the field of Southern History and slavery history.
How do you spot good-bad history? Well, for one, is the author proclaiming some new thesis that no one has ever considered, or applying a new technique in a way that perhaps doesn’t make sense. I consider John Demos’s book Entertaining Satan an example of this. He used Freudian analysis on the girls involved in the Salem, MA witchcraft trials. Now, there’s a big problem with trying to get inside the minds of people who left no written records. And a bigger problem with trying Freudian analysis on pre-modern minds. Yes, some things are pretty universal through the ages. Some, on the other hand, are not. Where Demos uses maps and demographic and economic studies he’s pretty good, but Freud doesn’t fit. And several books have come out that do a better job of discussing and describing the events, the whys and wherefores.
I also look for sources. There is a well known popular historian of religion who produces a number of books about different major faiths, including a recent comparison volume. This author never uses original sources. And some of the claims made really need primary-source support that the author does not provide. That sets my “bad history” needle twitching – a claim that lacks supporting evidence. “Trust me” is not a good historical argument. If I pick up a new environmental history, I go to the bibliography and start reading. If certain books and sources are not there, even just as passing mentions like “in contrast to So-and-So, my work shows that,” I get concerned.
I suspect we can find similar stories in fiction. Someone ventures forth with a horrible treatment of an original or useful idea, and a bunch of other writers go, “hey, I can do that, but better.” I know John C. Wright took the key scene of the award-winning dinosaur short story and produced one far better written, and more thought-provoking, using a very similar starting point. I’m not certain what one could do with Empress T, although the idea of someone being anointed by a mysterious force to be ruler of the galaxy has been used a few times. And IIRC it usually ends poorly for the galaxy. You could have some fun with the original Glittery Hoo Hah ™ trope, wherein, say, a spaceport workin’ gal has a fling with an alien and to her chagrin discovers that he’s fallen deeply in love with her and wants to be with her for the rest of their lives. She just wants to get the money so she can move on to her next client and pay her bills.
There are some historical (pre-historical novels, really) that took Jane M. Auel’s work, applied archaeology and serious anthropology, and came up with more plausible versions. Minus the naughty bits, or at least the most explicit naughty bits.
I’ve looked at the blurbs for a few feminist pacifist sci fi or fantasy books and thought, “Hmm, there’s an interesting idea there, but not worth my paying $35 and a lecture about the evils of war and how One Good Woman can bring Everlasting Peace and Harmony by the strength of her . . . ahem, moving right along.” But the idea that places do not exist until they are mapped has a lot of possibilities.
Something I’m exploring in the current free draft, Language of the Land, is what would happen if women really did run everything, a world where feminists run the show and men are legal minors all their lives, unless they are able to purchase manumission. And even then their rights are curtailed. The idea came in part from skimming a chapter of a really, really bad fantasy that I’m not going to bother naming, where this was presented as a good thing. I added an element of magic that levels the ground (literally) between men and women.
There are people who love any book. I’m sure somewhere, someone thinks Empress T. is a wonderful story with a fantastic plot. There are people who think Elkins had something in his hypothesis, even if he didn’t approach it correctly. I know Kris Rusch’s blog generated a heated discussion of “good and bad books,” with some useful ideas batted back-and-forth. There are also badly written books that are their author’s pride and joy. But those are not good-bad books, by Orwell’s definition or by mine.
[The inestimable Mizz Boykin has a non-bad book out. Strangely Familiar: A Familiar Tales Novella. Go and give it a try. – SAH]