So Good It’s Bad

According to the perverse aesthetics of artistic guilty pleasure, certain books and movies are so bad — so crudely conceived, despicably motivated and atrociously executed — that they’re actually rather good. 'Solar,' the new novel by Ian McEwan, is just the opposite: a book so good — so ingeniously designed, irreproachably high-minded and skillfully brought off — that it’s actually quite bad…. The performance is an exquisite bore, with all the overchoreographed dullness of a touring ice ballet cast with off-season Olympic skaters.

That's Walter Kirn reviewing Ian McEwan's new book. There is a whole category of art and people who fall into the "so excellent it's dull" category. "She's too nice," was a complaint Jerry had about one of his girlfriends in Seinfeld.


In Jeremy Denk's review of Netherland, he referred to "a sentence so stupefyingly boring that I fell asleep three times while typing it into my computer and had to wipe the drool thrice lovingly off my mousepad."

7 comments on “So Good It’s Bad
  • Do you buy this argument, Ben?

    Would you say, about your favorite book, “fortunately, it’s not SO good that it’s actually bad”?

    I think poor Walter Kirn found himself in the uncomfortable position of having to give a bad review to his friend Ian McEwan. But as he makes clear — “boring,” “numbing,” “little that’s lifelike,” “preposterously artificial,” “an exquisite bore” — he doesn’t actually think the book is at all good.

    I’m a big fan of both these writers, (“On Chesil Beach” is perhaps the best novella I’ve read since “Legends of the Fall”), but there’s an intellectual dishonesty to McKirn’s introduction to what is really a brutal attack that left me feeling embarrassed for both men.

  • I’ve discussed this theory before, specifically pertaining to films that fall in the 10% range and below on Rotten Tomatoes. Their badness actually is what makes them so memorable / funny. This includes Freddy Got Fingered, Nothing But Trouble, etc.

  • Jeremy Denk unashamedly tells us a parable that reveals his life’s real motivation– to foreswear everything that makes it worth living and to revel masochistically in small miseries.

    Here he is in his parable, “lying on the beach in South Beach, on a glittering cloudless day”, like a sad porpoise stranded on a shore full of ‘beautiful, beautiful people’, thinking dour thoughts, when if his libido was set at anything above 2, he’d be upright, chatting with some of those “perfectly cooked steaks” he complains about.

    No, he’d rather lie there thinking such gloomy defeatist thoughts than to jump up and get friendly with some of those nice hunks of meat. After all, they’re “just” bodies. (Damn, I could have sworn that’s what healthy (as opposed to simply carnivorous) people actually have sex with).

    He’d rather write about reading a book he hates.

    And what else would any sane person expect a book about a Dutchman who takes up cricket (apparently with descriptive passages of cricket matches no less) to be but a colossal sleepfest, almost as tragically boring as George-Costanza-style nebbishy anti-braggadocio?;-)

  • To put it another way: there’s a difference between “well executed” and “worth doing”.

    McEwan’s “Saturday” left me cold for the same reasons: it was very well-observed, everything in it rang true, but I felt there was an underlying lack of life in it.

Leave A Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *