Today’s sermon: In praise of the fave writer’s least good book

I’ve been enjoying the #bookaday posts on Twitter – originated by The Borough Press, and good for them for coming up with a genuinely fun, community-spirited project that – important, this – has a natural life span, and so won’t get stale.

But I was surprised to find people actually shying away from the Day 4 Challenge: “Least favourite book by favourite author” , because I thought it was a brilliant question. One, because it’s teasingly cruel, delivering a slap and a kiss in the same breath, if that’s not a horrendously mixed metaphor (it is), but also because it might be a question you’ve never actually consciously asked yourself. I know I hadn’t.

We so often think about our favourite things – favourite author, favourite author’s best book – whereas negatives are more general and nebulous: don’t like, end of.

And picking a least favourite book by a favourite author is a very good way of establishing what it is about them that we actually do like and admire. It can teach us something not only about them as a writer, but about us as a reader. Looking through the #bookaday tweets for today, each entry tells me two things about the tweeter. That’s a very neat and efficient way of learning about someone, and of expressing yourself. I like it.

But the worries about the ‘nastiness’ of the challenge makes me nervous in another way. Great and loved authors should have least good books. One, because if you can’t have a worst, then you’re not allowed to have a best, and – reductive though it is – bests and worsts are an at least interesting way into the great big conversation of literature and the world.

But, more than that, a writer whose books are all equal is a writer who isn’t experimenting. It’s the old saw about the ‘right to fail’, or ‘duty to fail’. If Iain Banks hadn’t written a Canal Dreams, c.f. @amandaqwriter

or Margaret Atwood a Year of the Flood, c.f. @Tracy_Chevalier

then perhaps they wouldn’t have written a Complicity or a… something great she hasn’t written yet.

If the writer that you choose as your favourite hasn’t got a worst book, then maybe they’re not doing something right. Maybe they shouldn’t be your favourite!

Of course, the etiquette of the whole thing is a separate question, but, I think, a secondary one. Writers have thin skins, it is well known, as Jenny Colgan and Antonia Honeywell – no doubt with an element of irony – have demonstrated

but we all have a duty, as readers, to have least favourites as well as favourites, to temper the sometimes relentless positivity of Twitter. Twitter is a conversation, and it conversations about books is one of the things it does best, and although I’m no fan of snarking, it would be daft to allow some shade as well as light into the garden.

(Oh, and my selection? He’s not on Twitter, which does make things easier, I admit, though it’s something I posted in a blog comment before, which he read and replied to, so I doubt his heart will break to hear it, but I did feel rather let down by Geoff Dyer’s Yoga For People Who Can’t Be Bothered To Do It. Although the individual pieces are often excellent, it would have been so much better if he had not simply strung them together, but had taken on the ‘travel book’ as a form, as he’s taken on the biography, the monograph and the art book elsewhere. A missed opportunity.)

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3 comments

  1. Steve

    I think pinpointing what writers do badly, or at least identifying what we don’t like so much, is just as important as working out what they do well/acknowledging the reasons why we like them. It gives us a more rounded view of that author and probably does say something about us and our tastes too – just because we don’t like a book doesn’t make it a bad book. An author’s ‘wrong turns’ might tell us more about them than their big successes.

    This particular prompt is far more thought-provoking and has generated more interesting responses than a ‘favourite’ prompt might. I’m glad the question is in there, it stops the whole exercise descending into self-congratulation and Isn’t Everything Wonderful-ness.

  2. Jonathan Gibbs

    Spot on. Good Twitter work is all about finding a balance between Isn’t Everything Wonderfulness (acronym? IEW) and snarkiness. I think this particular question does that in a really thought-provoking, rather than provocative way.

  3. Pingback: Least Favourite Book by Your Favourite Writer | Eiger, Mönch & Jungfrau

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