The worst books of 2018

The worst books of 2018

Of a normal January, I will write a list of the best books I read during the year just gone.  2017’s was published here, for instance.  This year it felt more appropriate to do the exact opposite.

In 2018, I had committed myself to working away at the bottom of my “to read” pile, and to pick up the books that had waited so long on the shelves, dusty and unread, in some cases for more than a decade.

Well, it might be an unrelated statistical blip, but I did read an enormous amount of total shite this year.  If a book has missed hundreds of opportunities to be picked up in the last decade, it might be for a good reason…

Here are the worst five.

5.

Lindsay Clarke – The Chymical Wedding (1989)

Amazingly, this novel won the Whitbread Prize for best novel back in 1989.  In the same year that Remains of the Day and London Fields were published, somebody was – with a straight face – able to argue that this was the best thing they’d read all year.

To be fair to the judges, the 1989 prize was riddled with controversy – as Alexander Stuart’s The War Zone (a novel about incest and sexual abuse) was first awarded, and then retracted amidst a sudden outbreak of moral hysteria.  “The solution”, thought the judges, “is to replace The War Zone with the most unadventurous, Little Britain book we can find.”  Enter The Chymical Wedding.

The poor book didn’t deserve this level of scrutiny.  Imagine The Vicar of Dibley, without a sense of humour, and where the Church of England is replaced with some quasi-spiritual guff about esoteric knowledge and hermeticism.

It’s a novel for a certain type of old English reader, whose idea of “edgy” is a 1970’s CND rally, and whose core values are a mix of English Heritage and that shop that sells crystals and tarot cards at Glastonbury.  At one point, with no sense of irony, a character leaves a scene because he simply mustn’t miss the Parish Council meeting.

To be fair, it’s well-written, and the story is competently told – but it’s altogether simply too credulous, and never asks the most interesting question of its subject (for instance: “what if this is all just total bollocks?”).  A book that desperately needed to laugh at itself.

The Feathered Serpent Edgar Wallace4.

Edgar Wallace – The Feathered Serpent (1928)

Fancy throwing a dinner party with a twist?  Why not spend twenty notes on a Murder Mystery party game: invite your friends around to read about a devilish crime, become one of the characters, and solve the clues to figure out which of you… is the murderer…  Available from many respectable retailers.

Hugely popular, they’re usually set in either the roaring 1920’s or Victorian 1890’s, and invariably feature an Agatha Christie/Sherlock Holmes mashup style story.  An almost guaranteed good night.

And despite the fact that most of them are probably written by underpaid and anonymous English graduates, I’m certain that every one of them is more enjoyable than Edgar Wallace’s tedious and shallow “detective classic” The Feathered Serpent.  If nothing else, in Murder Mystery stories, you won’t spend the whole time secretly hoping all the other characters will die – unless you really hate your friends.

(To give Edgar Wallace his due: he was one of the busiest writers of all time.  He published 9 novels in the same year as this book, and 12 the following.  Some of them had to be stinkers.)

Fat Pig Neil Labute

3.

Neil LaBute – Fat Pig (2004)

Boy has this one aged badly.  Neil LaBute is a well-respected playwright and has since turned his hand to mainly directing films and writing TV shows.  He’s won awards for sweeping narratives like In the Company of Men and plays like The Mercy Seat. 

And this play is about… a guy with a fat girlfriend.  And… that’s it.  A man has a new fat girlfriend.  His friends tease him.  Because she’s fat, you see.  He’s in a major quandary, because actually he quite likes this girl, but just doesn’t see how it’s going to work out.  At the end of the day: she’s fat.

Post fat-acceptance movement, this topic has at least been slightly nuanced, and I suppose it is theoretically possible to write an interesting story based solely on the premise of “guy has a fat girlfriend”.  But this isn’t it.

Full of total caricatures, we’re clumsily lectured on why you shouldn’t judge people just because they’re fat, whilst simultaneously invited to completely accept the underlying supposition that one cannot fall in love with a fat person.  Because, don’t you see, they’re fat.

This script needed a bit more meat on the bones.

Albion English Imagination Peter Ackroyd2.

Peter Ackroyd – Albion: The Origins of the English Imagination (2002)

This a great example of why commissioning editors should fully scrutinise an idea before green-lighting it to publication, even if the writer happens to be a well-known historian.  Some of the questions that should have been asked of Peter Ackroyd during the pitch for this book include:

  • How are you defining English?
  • How are you defining imagination?
  • How are you going to prove any of this?
  • That sounds like a big topic, are you sure you can cover all of that?

Having read the book, I doubt those questions were asked and I’m certain they weren’t answered.

It is infinitely more enjoyable to read Christopher Hitchens’ review of this book, rather than the book itself.  I will contain myself to only quoting one line from that excellent critique:

“”Ackroyd’s unresolved difficulty […] is his frequent inability to identify as “English” anything that could not be attributed as well to other nations.”

Which means that this is essentially a random jumble of not-especially-insightful essays on art history, confusingly written, with the occasionally daredevil leap into Pseud’s Corner by using word association to claim that this is all somehow uniquely English, without anything so tiring as actual evidence.  Some nice pictures though.

Scruton Guide to Modern Culture1.

Roger Scruton – An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Modern Culture (2004)

And finally, by some margin, the worst book I read this year.  In fact, the worst I’ve read in many years; a crown it will probably wear for some time.

I was prompted to pick this up after Scruton was – utterly bizarrely – appointed to lead a UK Government commission on architectural design.  In an absurd year for British politics generally, this was very much on trend.

Scruton has somehow developed a reputation as a serious academic.  Perhaps because – implying no disrespect to the subject of Philosophy – he works in a field where evidence is scant, and value is sometimes erroneously attached to wordy bullshit-merchants with an ability to shock.

Only in this field could Scruton have thrived, when his basic USP appears to be espousing the sort of vaguely-racist, meandering, better-in-the-olden-days grumble that you can hear in rural pubs up and down the country.  The central premise is that western culture is uniquely precious, under attack, and everything since about 1910 is awful.  One chapter (titled “Yoofanasia” – geddit?) dedicated to the “pop groups” Nirvana and Oasis is particularly ludicrous.

This book should be subtitled “grumpy old bigot rages against modern life and thinks he’s Plato.”  In any other field, this sort of unevidenced, opinionated claptrap wouldn’t make it out of peer review, but for some reason you can get away with publishing one long extended “booo”, call it philosophy, and the Housing Minister of the United Kingdom might offer you a job.

It’s mostly harmless, but in the book’s conclusion he briefly raises “feminism and gay liberation” as the spectre against which western culture should defend, and you begin to see what this is really all about.  Spluttering old dinosaurs like Scruton belong in the bin.

***

Just to prove it wasn’t all awful, here were the ten best books I read in 2018:

  1. William Dalrymple – Return of a King
  2. Dag Solstad – Professor Andersen’s Night
  3. John Betjeman – Selected Poems
  4. Robert Macfarlane – Mountains of the Mind
  5. Julian Barnes – Arthur & George
  6. Borislav Pekic – Houses
  7. Augusto Monterrroso – Complete Works and Other Stories
  8. Zadie Smith – NW
  9. Slavenka Drakulic – Stories from the Other Side of War
  10. John Ruskin – Unto This Last and Other Essays