Actively reading great works of fiction is like taking a class from the masters. You learn the tools and techniques that are available to writers and the variety of ways that they can be used. Actively reading means you ask questions of the work to understand the writer’s choices. For example, why did F. Scott Fitzgerald choose to tell The Great Gatsby from the perspective of Gatsby’s neighbor, Nick Carraway? What makes Russell Banks’ long, languid sentences in The Sweet Hereafter flow so smoothly? How does Maxine Kumin create such a distinct sense of loss in her poem “Splitting Wood at Six Above”?
So, why bother reading “bad” writing? There are a few reasons this might be useful. First, if you can learn from what works, you can also learn from what doesn’t. For example, if you find yourself laughing or rolling your eyes at what should be a tender moment, figure out why that’s happening. What choices did the author make that elicits a response so different from what was intended? It’s often easier to recognize these kinds of cringe-worthy moments in other writers’ work. Once you identify what’s happening, you can avoid it in your own writing.
Also, the reading experience is subjective. Not everyone agrees on exactly what’s “good” and “bad” when it comes to literature. You may find an often celebrated work off putting. If you chalk it up as a “bad” book, you’re losing an opportunity to see what others value in it. Ask yourself why it might appeal to some readers. You may still think it’s bad, but at least you’ve taken the opportunity to learn something from it.
Lastly, great ideas can come out of writing that’s not great literature. We probably won’t be reading the tabloids published today in decades to come, but they can certainly spark some interesting character ideas. The sing song poems on the back of the children’s cereal box may not be brilliantly written, but the one about the monkey might make you consider a setting or an interaction that you wouldn’t otherwise.