The world's worst books
I posted a couple of my thoughts about Ready Player One earlier; short version - I wasn't a fan. But there was a silver lining to having read it - I got to experience the immense satisfaction of listening to 372 Pages We'll Never Get Back, a podcast that critiques and dissects Cline's book. It was a joy to listen to the hosts' growing frustration with the book's determination to subvert any tension it manages to accidentally build, the tortured prose, the sociopathic protagonist and cardboard supporting characters. If you've read the book, whether you liked it or not, the podcast is worth a listen. (Okay, especially if you didn't like the book.)
But their in-depth analysis of just why the book didn't work made me think of another critique that I enjoyed immensely, of a book series that's also quite bad. And the more I thought about it, the more I realized that the failings of these two books had a lot in common.
The other series I'm thinking of is Left Behind, a smash hit in the evangelical Christian literature world from the 90's. I was not yet fully extracted from that world when the series started, so I actually read the first couple volumes. At the time, I knew they weren't good, but I wasn't really equipped to articulate why. Christians everywhere were raving about them; I figured I must just be missing something.
Then I found someone who was not only equipped to discuss what was wrong with the series, but was able to do so in a precise and very entertaining manner.
Fred Clark's page-by-page analysis was a revelation (hah!) to me when I found it. (If you've read the books, these posts are absolutely worth your time. They're also available on Amazon if you won't feel like reading them in a web browser.) It covers all the failures you'd expect from a terrible book - wooden dialog, Mary Sue main characters who are constantly referred to as heroes despite never doing anything heroic, lazy and shallow world-building, a villain who captivates the world by reciting the members of the United Nations in alphabetical order. (No, I am not kidding.) But what I really appreciated about Clark's perspective is that it goes beyond a takedown of the way the message was delivered; he also shows why the authors have the basic message of Christianity wrong.
Which, oddly, is what reminded me of Ready Player One.
Clark does a great job highlighting the thirst for retribution that's baked into Left Behind. The characters in the book say (some of) the right things about trying to "save" others by bringing them to Jesus, which of course is supposed to be the Great Calling for Christians, and evangelicals especially. But the authors of the book are not good enough writers to conceal the need that really fuels them: not converting nonbelievers, but seeing them punished. Their fantasy is not to see souls saved and sent to heaven; it's to see everyone who doubted them, who called them crazy, who told them they were wrong, all of them, punished forever while they and all the other Real True Christians are vindicated and lauded for their faithfulness in the face of the world's judgment.
A tribal persecution complex runs strong through American evangelical Christianity, and of course it's the reason these books sold so well. Nobody read them for the prose, or the characters, or the plot, which are pedestrian, wooden, and predictable. They read them because they wanted to read a book where their tribe was right.
And I think a version of that same desire is what powered the sales of Ready Player One. Again, nobody was reading it for the prose, characters or plot (juvenile, unlikeable, incoherent); they were reading because they wanted to see their tribe win. The tribe is different (nerds), but the underlying need is the same - a desire to see my kind be proven right and the other side to be punished for being wrong. The main character has a strange lack of empathy for anyone who isn't a "gunter" like himself - the family who raises him, the other residents of his neighborhood, the other workers at his customer support gig. Part of what makes the main character unlikable is the disdain he constantly displays for anyone who hasn't spent every waking moment memorizing episodes of Family Ties and playing perfect games of Pac-Man. (It is not the only reason he's unlikable; if lack of empathy doesn't move the needle for you, there's plenty more to choose from.) In a lovely touch, the main character even takes a couple baffling digressions from the actual story to explain why anyone who's religious is just a sucker. This does nothing to advance the plot or round out the character; it's just there to confirm to the audience that they are in the smart tribe.
Someone smarter than me could probably trace the parallel strains of the "culture of persecution" that run through American evangelicalism and nerddom; both groups are accepted in the mainstream today but refuse to see themselves as anything other than scrawny weaklings who are being picked on, as martyrs who are being fed to lions in the Colosseum.
The lesson for authors, of course, is this: if you can't write a great book, write a book that confirms your audience's suspicion that the world is looking down on them, and then give them what they really want: righteous victory over their oppressors.