The value of reading awful books

Earlier this week I was flattened by a particularly nasty case of the flu. My fever-addled mind couldn’t handle anything strenuous, so I decided to re-read The Sword of Shannara by Terry Brooks. If you aren’t familiar with it, this was one of the first fantasy books that came out during the 1970s in the wake of the great J.R.R. Tolkien hysteria. It is remarkably terrible.

The Sword of Shannara

The book gets no points for originality. It is a retelling of The Lord of the Rings, and I mean that literally. Shannara includes the same characters, the same plot and the same adventures, but mixed up and hidden under new hats and fake moustaches. While Tolkien spent years dreaming up names and their etymology, by all appearances Brooks invented his names on a very short bus ride. The themes are heavy-handed and preachy. Characterisation is non-existent. Tension and excitement are expressed by exclamation points. The prose is as clumsy and awkward as a fifteen year-old trying to make out with his girlfriend for the first time.

Speaking of teenagers, The Sword of Shannara was written, apparently, for a target market of somewhat slow teenaged boys. When I originally read it as a somewhat slow teenaged boy I was distinctly unimpressed. I still think it is an awful book, but I like it a bit more now than I did then. This is because reading such literary disasters can be particularly useful.

Of course, some of the best value of reading Shannara is to learn what not to do. Don’t be too derivative of other works. Make your characters evolve. Be aware of your limitations. There are many such lessons here. Whenever I read a book I like to keep a notebook handy, so I can write down thoughts and ideas. I point out mistakes, heap praise and note interesting phrases, and my notes after re-reading Shannara are quite voluminous.

Yet this book also teaches something about the book market. The Sword of Shannara sold extremely well, despite the appalling quality. Readers were clamouring for more Tolkien, so Brooks gave it to them. He provided them what they wanted, and he should be lauded for that. In fact, he was one of the very first authors to take advantage of new genres. This is very common today. Stephenie Meyer wrote Twilight, but it took the hundreds of clones to really create the paranormal romance category. The same thing happened with Stieg Larsson and Nordic crime. But this didn’t really happen prior to Brooks, or, at least, not to such an extent. So as a way to become a successful author – when it comes to sales, not quality – Brooks has much to teach.

There is something else about the book that needs to be mentioned. It has a particular charm, similar to what you get with B movies. This charm can’t be manufactured, but comes out organically in plucky underdog works that try to be serious despite constant missteps. I have no doubt Brooks was completely genuine in his desire to tell an interesting story, and this earnestness comes out in an endearing appeal under the surface of the text. This is probably the best lesson to be learned from The Sword of Shannara: be serious in telling your story.

One comment on “The value of reading awful books
  1. Marcho Blackwood says:

    I remember reading this in college. And was left feeling much the same way. A thinly veiled duplicate of Tolkien’s story. I couldn’t remember a single character’s name to safe my life right now!

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