But also read books that you think are bad. Read Twilight. Read children’s books. Read cookie-cutter romance and cheesy mysteries outside of your usual range. Read the first chapter, scoff at the poor plot, swallow your pride and read on.
Reading “terrible” books by your standards can actually help you, and I learned this the hard way. During one class, I had to read Treasure Island!! by Sara Levine and write an essay about it. It was one of my professor’s favorite books, and as discussions went on my classmates seemed to enjoy it too. I was the only one in my class that absolutely hated the book, and butchered it in my essay review. It was all about how I loathed the main character, an asinine woman who was obsessed with the classic book, Treasure Island.
I was terrified to turn it in. My professor left comments on the pages, and I was sure my grade was a goner, but in the end he gave me an A because it had stirred such high emotions in me that I argued to the ends of the Earth about why I hated the narrator so much. I’ll forever keep what he wrote in his final verdict, and it changed the way I look at the books I read, whether willingly or not:
“It’s okay to dislike a book, particularly if you have good reasons that you can back up. And it helps if you’re funny, too…I think, however, that you are falling short on one thing here, which is simply that you are acting like the very people the character interacts with, which is that you are sick of her, pity her, can’t imagine ever acting like her, and thus her actions seem over the top – not that they aren’t – which is pretty visceral reaction to a fictional creation, which means Sara Levine has done something pretty pivotal with her writing, something you can learn from, really: she makes you hate someone. That’s different than hating someone because they are poorly written, or because they are, you know, rapists or killers or something, you hate her personally which is pretty hard to achieve. You don’t empathize with her, which is okay, but what you do do is you take pity on her, which is a complex reaction in and of itself.” – the Prof
And he was right. It was the first time in my life, out of all the hundreds of books that I’d read, that I had truly hated a character. Not because they were the villain or were poorly written, as he said, but because she was written for that exact reaction. I admit now that Sara Levine was kind of brilliant in that.
So that’s why I encourage fellow writers to read terribly. Ignore the ratings on Amazon, on Goodreads. Read books that you think are terrible. Read bad fanfiction. And then ask yourself why they’re terrible: is it the writing style? Is the character’s personality? Is the world that they’ve built? Take everything you hate and pour your writing through that filter, and you’ll come out the other side understanding what can and what doesn’t work for you and your characters.
Below, I’ve included my essay itself, so you can see exactly why I loathed this character so much. SPOILER ALERT though, I do talk about the ending.
If you’re interested in reading Treasure Island!!! and want to discover it for yourself, read no further.
For twelve dollars you can probably buy lunch, spend a little while at a Nickel City arcade, or get a cheap pair of sunglasses. For twelve dollars you can buy alcohol at the grocery store for that party on Saturday, or go see a matinee film (without popcorn). You can spend it on gas to go see your Grandma across town, or finally try that new burger joint that your significant other has been raving about.
Or, if you must, you can spend twelve dollars on Treasure Island!!! by Sara Levine.
Now, don’t get me wrong: Treasure Island!!! is a well-crafted story, with an amazing mastery of point of view. But the problem lies with whose point of view it was in: a woman slipping down the slope from crazy to just plain delusional. Most might think a ‘crazy chick’ would be funny to read about. Sadly, I found her character to be dull, pathetic, and unrelatable, which caused me to struggle through the rest of the book. The only thing that spurned me on was the fact that it was a short novel, and I could move on to the next book on my class reading list when I was done.
One of the unnamed narrator’s life issues is her inability to find a path or goals, as a post-grad with a liberal arts degree. Whenever she refers to her higher education schooling, she reverts to a childish attitude:
“English majors never failed…But I ask you reader, where had all that paper writing got me?…O Nowhere!” – Chapter 1
As a humanities major myself, I felt like I was expected to sympathize with the “woe-is-me-I-don’t-have-a-job-because-of-my-vague-major” type of crisis, but I didn’t. Then again, I may have been unable to sympathize because I do have a job and I’m pretty okay and can manage at the moment. The narrator, unfortunately, does not…or is it all an act? Sara Levine has expertly designed her character to be the most unreliable narrator to grace the pages of a book, as the woman has essentially ostracized herself from the world and substituted her own reality.
Some may think of the crazy actions of the narrator as charming, with an anticipation of “what-will-she-do-next?” attitude. I would never want to spend a single lunch date with a person like her. Her obsession with Treasure Island is fine, and to find a working mantra from it, is fine.
“‘Okay,’ I said, ‘Of course, I’m not going to force this down your throat,’ and refrained from pointing out the passages I deemed most important… ‘I’m tempted to read it aloud to you, but I don’t want to be a control freak.’” – Chapter 2
When she tries to foist that enthusiasm on others in her life, that’s when she goes from quirky person to read about, to an unwanted Jehovah’s Witness at your door.
The narrator’s behavior becomes more outlandish as her circumstances worsen, both in reality and in her mind. It begins when she has no choice but to move back into her parent’s home. While financial circumstances were the reason this came to be, it also is a reminder about another flaw in her character: her stunning ability to bring out the worst in everyone, to the point where they dislike being around her. And what makes it more stunning? She never acknowledges the consequences of her presence in other people’s problems.
“‘Because you have boundary issues. Because you’re mean-spirited and unsentimental about other people’s affections. Because if young love was a flower growing on your lawn, you would crush it under your heel.’” – Adrianna to narrator, Chapter 14
Again, while some may have found her perspective of interactions with other characters amusing, I didn’t find it humorous or beneficial to the story at all. I was constantly asking myself, why am I reading about this person? Am I supposed to feel like I’m slipping into insanity with her? While her carefully-crafted character was impressive, from thought to voice, I was still unable to relate.
When she stabbed a knife through her sister’s hand, I was not surprised, but merely annoyed that it took so long for something significant to happen. If anything, I found her parents’ backstory with the sister’s lover to be more compelling than the narrator’s latest mishap.
The narrator’s circumstances in the resolution of the novel were equally disappointing. I was proud that her sister told her what’s what, but the possibility that her sister was oh-so-forgiving after the stabbing was too ludicrous to believe. I wondered if the narrator had truly gone off the deep end and that the whole ending chapter was just a frivolous dream to justify herself, and she would wake up wrapped in a padded cell. But alas, this was not how it ended. Her mother drew her a map to the hospital (which I fervently hoped was an asylum) and it ends with an out-of-character monologue, like the moral at the end of an Aesop Fable.
“There was a big red X on the drawing of the hospital…There was a star on our house, next to which my mother had written: You Are Here.” – The last line of the book, Chapter 25
That’s the frustrating bit: there is no resolution and the narrator has no change.
Twelve dollars is nothing to cry over, certainly. But like a bad movie, if you finish a book feeling like you’ve just been cheated and haven’t learned anything, then it’s time to reflect on what you detested about it. While the other characters and situations were amusing, the narrator, on whom this novel is built and wrapped around, was nothing short of pathetic to me. When your main character is unrelatable, it casts a sour pall over the rest of the book, especially if it’s in first person. Not all books are for everyone, but clearly this one was not for me.