In Praise of Not Finishing Books

As a writer, the idea of people starting to read a book but not finishing it intuitively honks me off. After all, the author went through the trouble to create an entire package that, at least on some level, appealed to you – give them a chance to redeem whatever fault you’ve found in the end! But if I’m honest, as a reader, I’d push back against that – hard.

I wouldn’t be alone. A few years ago eBook platform Kobo (on which all my books are available, by the way), released some data that compared their best seller list with the list of books that readers most often finished. Not surprisingly, some of the best sellers were also some of the least finished. I love the cynical take on this from The Guardian, with respect to Donna Tart’s The Goldfinch (2014’s Pulitzer Prize winner: 37th best selling, only finished by 44% of readers):

Most-unfinished book of the year isn’t a title anyone would hope to win. But her core fans probably read the book to the end, as did a whole raft of new readers, which propelled her up the bestseller charts. And those readers who didn’t finish it still paid for it, so Donna Tartt can mop up those tears with crisp tenners, which will surely ease the pain.

Still, it’s a bit disheartening to know that so many people couldn’t even finish what you’ve written.

Alas, I occasionally find myself in that category as a reader. Even though I see every book I read (or listen to) as a learning experience when it comes to writing, sometimes I still can’t stick it out to the end (witness my “unfinished” shelf at Goodreads, to which I just had to add Jim Butcher’s The Aeronaut’s Windlass, alas). Thus I’m on board with this piece over at Electric Literature that, without shame, promotes non finishing books:

There are many factors that go into whether or when a reader finishes a book. I imagine many people’s reading habits are, like mine, scattered. I have at least a dozen in-progress books on my nightstand — and several more on my phone and e-reader. Readers stop reading a book they enjoy when they put it down and forget to come back. Readers finish books they hate when they are assigned it for book clubs or else they want to hate-read and laugh about with their friends. (Certainly a large percentage of Fifty Shades readers fall into that second category.) Just as a half-read book isn’t necessarily a failure, a completed book is not necessarily a success.

This makes a lot of sense. I said before, in other contexts, that reaction to art is inherently personal. What rocks one person to the core of the their soul will make another yawn. That’s neither right nor wrong, it’s just the way things work. So there’s really no reason to expect everybody to love a book so much that everyone who starts it finishes it. As the saying (attributed to James Joyce) goes:


Ultimately, the job of keeping a reader engaged with a book is the author’s. It’s a responsibility we should take seriously. But we shouldn’t forget that readers come to our works in all kinds of ways and for all sorts of reasons. No book is going to connect with all of them, just like some books you’ve read didn’t connect with you. We have to accept that sometimes saying “this isn’t for me” and moving on is best for everybody involved.

Remember the lesson of the WOPR:


It applies to books, too.


Homeland Is Through the 49-State Looking Glass, People!

For its first couple of seasons, Homeland was among the best TV on the planet. Tense and twisty as any good thriller, it had the overlay of asking interesting questions about what drives people (in this case the lily-white costar) to terrorism? Things have slipped considerably since then, but it’s still an entertaining, and occasionally thrilling, show.

The further it’s gone, however, the further Homeland has moved into its own alternate universe. That’s only natural – any fiction is building its own world, after all. But after six plus seasons, Homeland’s America doesn’t look quite like ours does, and not just because President Trump was too wild a plot twist for a show like that.

In its current season, Homeland is charting the fall out of a presidential election that ended with an attempted assassination. One of the newer characters, O’Keefe, is an Alex Jones style radio/internet personality who starts the season on the run from the new president’s henchpersons. He hides out with numerous sympathizers and broadcasts screeds of resistance.

Which brings us to West Virginia.

In the second episode of this season O’Keefe makes his way to a farm in a rural area that becomes his final safe house. When the family who lives there (and some of their neighbors) welcome him, it’s with a story about a site nearby where the first battle of the Civil War was fought. It’s made clear that the site is Philippi, which places the action in West Virginia.

At the risk of sounding like Grandpa Simpson, I am not making this up. See this write up of the fourth episode:

With the FBI surrounding his West Virginia hideout, O’Keefe and his loyal listeners settle in for a long siege with power generators, jugs of water — and lots and lots of guns.

Or this article from a Virginia newspaper about the actual location where those scenes were shot:

Landon Graham said he was approached in September 2017 about using his rural property to serve as the location for the hideout, which in the show is supposed to be somewhere in West Virginia.

‘They wanted something that looked like West Virginia because that is where the scene was supposed to be. But getting to West Virginia is a nightmare so it’s better to be near Richmond,’ he said.

And still, in this week’s episode, which takes place in the aftermath of a deadly raid on at the safe house, O’Keefe is taken into custody and taken to . . . Richmond, Virginia. This shift of location is odd for a couple of reasons.

First, assuming O’Keefe is being charged with a federal crime (which he surely is), he’d need to be taken to a court in the district in which he was arrested – that being the Northern District of West Virginia (I chuckled imagining my colleagues dealing with the guy). Clarksburg is surely closer to the fictional Lucasville than Richmond, which is in the wrong district, anyway.

Second, there’s later a memorial service organized for those who died in the shootout, which is also organized in Richmond. Again, why have such an event several hours away from where the event occurred? It would be like having a memorial for the Parkland shooting students in Georgia. It took place in a church, not a huge stadium or something. Let me assure you, there’s no shortage of churches in north central West Virginia.

So what’s up? Is this just sloppy storytelling on the part of Homeland? Did they suddenly forget that West Virginia is, in fact, its own state and has been for 155 years? Surely the writers of a critically praised, major network TV series wouldn’t so cavalierly wipe an entire state off the map by sheer negligence.

No, I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt. Instead, I’ll choose to believe that in the land of Homeland, West Virginia never actually existed. All those references earlier this season were really to “west Virginia.” Yeah, yeah, that’s it! It has to be. What other explanation is there? They’re playing with the very fabric of existence, people! Millhouse was right!



Author Interview – Gerald Swick

We’re back with Gerald Swick, who wants to take you on a trip through West Virginia history.

Who are you? Where are you? What kind of stuff do you write?

I’m the love child of Joseph Heller and Carol Burnett. No, wait—I’m a native of Clarksburg, West Virginia, now living in Nashville. I’m an incorrigible punster, a master of one-liners, and a serious researcher who was half of the research team that solved the 70-year mystery of why the eldest child of Abraham Lincoln was not buried with the rest of the family. Most of all, I’m a writer drawing inspiration and techniques from such disparate sources as academic journals, novels of all types, comic books, songwriting, screenwriting and poetry, and I’ve been fortunate enough to have had experienced, successful writers in most of those fields share their knowledge with me.

I fell in love with the printed word at a very early age when my mother and my older siblings would read to me, so I started teaching myself to identify words as they read when I was three or four years old. I don’t remember Dad reading to me, but there was an auctioneer named Paul Bastin who could always unload a box of books by saying, “Swick, you’ll bid a quarter, won’t you?” Dad would grin and nod, and we’d be bringing another box of books home. The writing grew out of all that, plus the stories of family history Mom and Dad told.

How did you get involved with research into Abraham Lincoln’s family?

Actually, my research has primarily been into Lincoln’s in-laws, the Todds. A friend and I were thinking of writing an article about why the position known as The Hornet’s Nest at the Battle of Shiloh collapsed suddenly after holding out for hours.

A different friend went with me to walk the ground at Shiloh National Battlefield Park. She happened to be reading a biography of Mary Lincoln and asked if I was aware Mary had a half-brother who was killed fighting for the Confederacy at Shiloh. I got to looking into that and realized the Todds weren’t a family, they were a soap opera, and I started researching them seriously. I’ve never written the book about them, but it is a project I want to finish. Finding the letter about why the Lincolns’ eldest son isn’t buried with the rest of the family was a coincidence of Todd research.

Tell us about your most recent book, story, or other project.

The first two books in my West Virginia Histories series were published by Grave Distractions Publications in late 2017. This series collects most of the 800-plus articles I wrote over 16 years that appeared as a weekly column of West Virginia history in the Clarksburg Exponent Telegram. The columns were very popular and received an Associated Press excellence in journalism award for Lifestyles writing. They were also a factor in the state Humanities Council awarding me a literary fellowship in nonfiction writing.

Over the years a number of readers recommended I put them into a book. When I finally sat down to do that I realized, with over 800 articles to draw from, I needed to do a series of books.

I spent part of 2016 and most of 2017 organizing the columns into themes such as West Virginia women, the Civil War, sports, ethnic history, politics, crime and so on, then divvying them up into eight books based on those themes. Each book in the series will contain 100 articles, including some never-before-published ones written specifically for this series.

Volume 1, Unique People, Unusual Events and the Occasional Ghost, is an introduction to and sampler of the series. Volume 2, Days of Slavery * Civil War and Aftermath * Statehood and Beyond provides readers with background on Western Virginia’s separation from Virginia, incidents of the Civil War within its borders, and the political struggle to be admitted to the Union as a state of its own. There’s also information on the state’s 50th and 100th anniversary celebrations.

Putting the former columns into book format allowed me to include addendums in cases where I found additional information after the columns were published, and this format also gave me a way to index names and places to help genealogists and other researchers find what they are looking for.

Vol. 1 cover

How many books will be in the West Virginia Histories series? Will you be adding new articles to it as you go along?

The publisher and I are planning for eight books, each covering multiple themes, but the series may expand if we feel a given book tries to cover too many themes. That doesn’t apply to Volume 1, of course, because it is an introduction to and sampler of the series, so it contains four or more samples from each of the themes.

I am researching and writing some new material for each theme, e.g., Social Change, Labor, Education, etc., so that each book will contain several never-before-published stories among its 100 articles.

How I originally came to write these columns?

I had been doing other freelance work for the Exponent Telegram and its weekly publications, the Marion Xtra and Taylor Xtra. I conceived the idea for the column and asked the managing editor if he would be interested in publishing it; his eyes lit up like a man who’d just drawn his fourth ace.

I knew people who are interested in history would read the columns, but I wanted to appeal to people who wouldn’t normally read history because they regard it as boring. I wanted to share with those readers how much fun history can be. I regard historical research as a never-ending Easter egg hunt; you never know what you’re going to find when you look behind the next bush. So I wrote in the storytelling style a fiction writer might use, while still sticking to the known facts, and I frequently incorporated editorializing, humor, puns and other wordplay, and occasionally a dose of snark.

For example, I wrote a column on West Virginia’s concerns over pollution throughout the 20th century. Not exactly the stuff for a ripping good yarn, so I enlivened it with comments like, “Mess with the fish, Bubba, and we send in the Marines,” after explaining that in 1913 the U.S. War Department had control over what was dumped in the Ohio River. Later in that same article I cited the 1970 “Kanawha Valley Air Pollution Study” and added parenthetically, “Soon to be a major motion picture starring George Clooney and Catherine Zeta Jones.”

In my research I primarily look for stories my readers likely wouldn’t know about, mostly drawn from old newspapers and supplemented by additional research to put the story in context: the feud between William Jennings Bryant and a WVU professor over evolution, for example, or the tornado that destroyed a church during Easter services in Wellsburg; the attempt Kanawha County’s Jews made to have the county chosen as the site of America’s first rabbinical college; the heroic tale of Jim Brown, a black man in Welch who risked his life trying to save two little white girls from an oncoming train, and the story of Minnie Martin, a young woman who saved a passenger train from derailing in Wetzel County. There’s the personal account of the infamous serial killer known as H.H. Holmes concerning what he claimed was his first murder, a man in Morgantown, and the story of a fraud ring comprised of Lincoln County housewives who scammed a soap company—and no, they didn’t get away clean.

The stories are drawn from all parts of the state and cover people and events from the 18th century through the 1960s, the decade in which West Virginia marked its statehood centennial.

In what genre do you primarily write? Why did you choose that one?

As noted, mostly I write nonfiction, history in particular. My first book was a coffee-table book, Historic Photos of West Virginia, from Turner Publishing in Nashville. I’d been one of Turner’s editors but had moved on to being web editor for the magazines of the Weider History Group when Turner called and asked me to author the West Virginia project. I’ve written for America’s Civil War, American History, Blue Ridge Country, Lincoln Lore, Wonderful West Virginia and other magazines, as well as the new West Virginia Encyclopedia published by the state Humanities Council in 2006and ABC-CLIO’s Encyclopedia of World War II: A Political, Social and Military History. With a life-long love of both history and writing, it’s not surprising this is how things turned out, even though I started out wanting to write fiction.

I have had some short fiction published in literary journals and a fantasy anthology. I worked in the game field for years and authored or co-authored short fiction for roleplaying games, like “A Day in the Life of Dennis-O-VCH” and “The New, Improved Fear and Ignorance” for the Paranoia game. If you go to my website,, you’ll see how checkered my writing past is. Presently, in addition to future volumes in the West Virginia Histories series, I am working on a novel of alternative history, but I generally don’t like to talk about works in progress. Somehow, talking about what I’m working on takes away some of the impetus to get it down on paper.

Vol 2 cover

Do you have any training or background in historical research or are you self-taught? What made you dive in to that field in the first place?

Primarily self-taught. I’ve buried myself in researching the Todds at archives and libraries from South Carolina to San Francisco, and that experience taught me a very great deal about doing historical research. It also made me skeptical of anything I can’t effectively cross-reference. I’m amazed at how much has been written about the Todds in secondary sources that turns out to be untrue when compared to original source material and cross-referenced.

As for the origins of my interest in things past, it developed at the same time I was falling in love with the written word. My parents, who had me late enough in their lives that they almost named me R. U. Joking, often talked in the evenings about their childhoods and early lives, providing a window into a world that had already vanished. Also, growing up in the 1950s and ‘60s there were television programs, comic books, games, and movies about historical events. They weren’t necessarily accurate, but they made history fun and inspired me to read more of it. I have a T-shirt I was given that says, “History Buff. I’d find you more interesting if you were dead.”

I wanted to major in history, but a high school guidance counselor talked me out of it. Like one of my favorite nonfiction authors, John C. Waugh, my training is in journalism, not historical research. Both require fact-checking and multiple sources, but the nature of those sources usually aren’t the same. As things turned out, I’m a man with two mistresses: writing and historical research.

Tell us briefly about your writing process, from once you’ve got an idea down to having a finished product ready for publication.

Coming up with viable ideas is one of the most difficult things for me. My magazine and encyclopedia articles were assigned to me by editors. Even most of my published fiction came from assignments in which I was given a worldview to set a story in, but it was up to me to come up with a story and characters that fit within that worldview.

I mull over the assignment, think about the audience it is aimed at and what they might want to read, do preliminary research—even my fiction usually has historical elements to it—and then do some “clustering,” in which I write the basic premise in the center of a page, circle it, and then outside that circle I write any ideas that come to me, no matter how outrageous. A hit songwriter and music publisher, Ralph Murphy, once told me to never quit writing the cluster until I have over a dozen ideas jotted down, because the first ones will be obvious, but by the time I get to the thirteenth or fourteenth idea I’m probably breaking into fresh approaches.

As an example, the editor of America’s Civil War magazine asked me to write about the “First Land Battle of the Civil War” at Philippi. The question I faced was, “Okay, I can relate the events, but what does it all mean?” I concluded that the Confederacy’s epitaph was already written at Philippi: “Too few trying to defend too much with too little, against a people in whom the bonds of Union had become too strong to be severed.” Based on that conclusion, the article was published as “Omen at Philippi.” Anyone interested in reading it can find a link under Nonfiction on my website.

Who is the favorite character you’ve created? Why?

Elizabeth O’Cleary, a teenage Irish girl with Down Syndrome who develops a magical power when magic returns to modern Ireland. I created her for the story “Warriors of Destiny” in the Dragons Over England anthology. This was one of the situations in which I was given a worldview and a deadline, then left to my own devices. The stories in the anthology were based on the Torg roleplaying game from West End Games, in which Earth is invaded from several parallel dimensions simultaneously, each invader setting up a reality based on his or her own dimension. In the British Isles, it was a reality like that of traditional Northern European fantasy stories, while in France the Cyberpapacy had won the Great Schism of the Catholic Church and the Inquisition never ended. I envisioned an initial attempt by the Cyberpapacy to convert all those good Roman Catholics in Ireland to this new papacy. Elizabeth and her recently awakened new friend, a leprechaun named Letitia Blossomwalker, thwart the bad guys but at terrible cost.

The characters formed in my mind after I contracted to write a story for the anthology. I kept resisting the idea of Elizabeth having cognitive disability due to Down Syndrome, but she refused to be written any other way. I never said this in the story, but in my mind she was descended from the Tuatha De Danann, the legendary race with magical powers who some people have said came to Ireland from Atlantis. I imagined that when magic went away, their descendants still had the ability within them but no way to use it; in Elizabeth’s case, that produced the extra chromosome that resulted in Down Syndrome and a blockage in her mind that ultimately she breaks through.

Coming up with character names is another toughie for me. Ironically, shortly after I sent the “Warriors of Destiny” story off to West End, I visited the Presidio cemetery in San Francisco to pay my respects at the grave of a woman I was researching, the Great Western, Sarah Borginnis Bowman, a heroine of the Mexican-American war and later proprietor of some of the finest bordellos in the Southwest. As I was walking away from her grave I noticed a headstone a couple of graves away. The name on it was Elizabeth O’Cleary, the same as my fictional Irish girl, and a chill went up my spine. Odd coincidences like that seem to occur when I write fictional stories about Ireland.

What’s the weirdest subject you’ve had to research as a writer that you never would have otherwise?

Well, for “Warriors of Destiny” I had to research Irish history, folklore and fauna, plus the Great Schism of the Catholic Church and Belgian machine pistols. In nonfiction, I’d have to say the five articles I was asked to write about Romania in World War II and one about South Africa’s role in the conflict for ABC-CLIO’s WWII encyclopedia. I knew virtually nothing about either country, so I had to do some serious research and do it quickly, since I also had three other articles assigned for the same publication. A decade later I reused some of the information while writing “Romanian Nightmare at Stalingrad” for Armchair General magazine. That’s why I’m loathe to throw away old research materials.

What’s the one thing you’ve learned, the hard way, as a writer that you’d share to help others avoid?

Oh, man, that’s like asking what the most import lesson is that I’ve learned in life. I’m going to name two: First, rewriting doesn’t mean just tweaking; it may mean finding the kernel of the story that is worth keeping, discarding everything else and starting over. Second, despite all we are taught about finding our writer’s voice, staying true to our vision, etc., ultimately writing isn’t about the writer: it’s about the reader. In genre fiction that means staying true to the conventions of your genre, because readers expect them, but finding fresh ways to present those conventions. In nonfiction it means not cramming everything you’ve learned about a topic into a single article or book; that’s oh, so tempting, but data dumps stink as badly as garbage dumps.

If you won $1 million (tax free, to keep the numbers round and juicy), how would it change your writing life?

I wouldn’t have to work at anything else to meet bills. I could just research and write six to ten hours a day. So if any patrons of the arts out there are looking for someone to sponsor, you can contact me through my website!

What’s the last great book you read or new author you discovered?

I read Susan Orleans’s Rin Tin Tin The Life and the Legend in 2012, and I still find myself thinking about it occasionally. She did incredible research and a great job of telling a story both uplifting and tragic. More recently the Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children series impressed me because the author created a compelling narrative inspired by old, strange photographs of children.

What do you think you’re next project will be?

Bringing out volume 3 in the West Virginia History series, which will be titled Crime, Politics, and Other Disasters. It will probably be released in late summer or early autumn 2018. And continuing to work on the alternate history novel.

Learn more about Gerald at his website, or check out excerpts from Volume 1 and Volume 2 of his West Virginia History series.

People Are Dopes

As the song says, “you can’t get something for nothing”, but that doesn’t keep businesses from trying. Think about the free advertising your local car dealer gets from those plastic license plate brackets they put on before you drive off the lot. Or the self check out at the local grocery store. Or even the increasing trend of replacing actual human customer service with detailed FAQs and AI. In all of these situations businesses are asking (well, requiring) you to do something extra for them without any compensation.

Hotels may be the worst. You’ve no doubt seen the cards in most hotel rooms these days explaining how you can avoid the hassle of housekeeping – fresh towels, new sheets – by putting them in a specific place or whatever. Framed as paeans to the environment, make no mistake – the main motivation is the bottom line. If enough guests forego services, it costs the company less. Voila.

Now they’re being really brazen about it. A recent New York Times article explores how various hotels and resorts are beginning to ask up front if guest want to skip the housekeeping by offering incentives. Piddling small incentives, if you ask me – $5 credits for food and drinks or at the spa or fitness center, rewards points for their loyalty programs, those sorts of things. My favorite, however, is this one:

Starwood launched its initiative at the Sheraton Seattle in 2008. Guests who declined housekeeping service for up to three consecutive days received a choice of either 500 Starpoints (in its Starwood Preferred Guests program) or a $5 food and beverage gift card.

Wow – three whole days without a service built into the room rate and you get five entire bucks for it!

I don’t object to the basic practice here – I’ve cancelled housekeeping services before when I’ve been on the road. But that’s a variance from the norm that I’m requesting as a customer. I’ve got no reason to expect compensation. But if the offer flows the other way, there should be some real compensation involved. Want to offer me a lower level of service? Drop the price of the room.

But people, generally, are dopes when it comes to such things. So programs like this will likely spread through the industry and companies will exploit this new way to help pad the bottom line.

To put it another way, when one of my financial management companies sends me a mailing telling me I could opt for electronic delivery, because “we’re fond of paper . . . in its original form,” I don’t think they’re really talking about the environment. Although, I guess green is the color of healthy trees. See how sneaky they are?

Don’t be a dope!

Kermit Fuck

Si, Mauricio

In many ways it was typical FA Cup fare. Third-tier Rochdale (of England’s League One) hosted top-tier Tottenham and held the biggies to a 1-1 draw. Since the FA Cup revels in tradition, rather than finishing things off right there with extra time or a penalty shootout, the teams met again 10 days later for a replay at Tottenham’s temporary home at Wembley Stadium. As often happens, the biggies didn’t slouch the at the second chance and throttled the plucky upstarts 6-1. It was not a game for the ages.

Nor was it a game where the Video Assistant Referee (“VAR”) should have come in for much scrutiny. After all, Tottenham was clearly the superior side and deserved to advance. This wasn’t a game decided on a bad call. Alas, with VAR, it’s never that clean:

Its influence on Wednesday’s game at Wembley cannot be overstated.

At times, fans had no idea what was going on as the referee waited for instructions in his earpiece and the half-time whistle was greeted by a chorus of boos from home supporters.

Lamela’s early goal was disallowed after the VAR ruled Llorente had pulled Harrison McGahey’s shirt – but it took about a minute for the officials to reach their decision, by which time both teams had lined up for the game to restart.

After Son had fired Spurs ahead from 12 yards when he was afforded too much space, the hosts were awarded a penalty when Trippier was fouled by Matt Done. At first, the referee gave a free-kick on the edge of the area before pointing to the spot after another VAR delay.

Son scored from the spot but the celebrations were cut short when Tierney ruled it out without allowing it to be retaken because the South Korea forward, who was booked, had stopped in his run-up.

That sparked more jeers from fans as Spurs boss Mauricio Pochettino looked on in disbelief.

Fortunately for the home side, it did not ruin their night.

In other words, VAR did precisely the thing that its detractors, me included (and don’t get my wife started!), have said from the very beginning – that it destroys the flow of the game, the constant action, for very little reward.

For Pochettino, it was all too much:

the first half was a little bit embarrassing for everyone. I think it’s difficult to keep focus on playing football. I am not sure that that system is going to help. I love the football as football was born. That is why we love the game that we know.

I think football, we are talking about emotion, the context of emotion. If we are going to kill the emotion then the fans, the people who love football, I don’t think are so happy about what they saw today.

He’s not wrong (hence the title of this post). The comeback to soccer’s detractors when they complain that there aren’t enough goals and such is that precisely because they’re so rare the actual moment of scoring (or being scored upon) is a rush. VAR detracts from that for precisely the reasons Pochettino lays out. It’s one thing to have an apparent goal waved off instantly because somebody was offside. To have to wait a few minutes to figure out what’s going on just sucks.

That’s the real problem with VAR (or replay in American football) – it makes some fundamental changes to the game in pursuit of something it can’t deliver: mistake-free officiating. There’s no VAR in the Premier League (yet), but during a game this weekend the announcers – all former players – poured over replays of a potential penalty and, amusingly but not surprisingly, came up with three different opinions on the correct call. It’s one thing to use technology to aid goal-line decisions, as it’s a bright line test. But most other decisions in the beautiful game are, to some extent, subjective and there are no right answers. Stopping the flow of the game cold to go in search of them is a fool’s errand.

But, not of this seems to matter much, as the momentum for VAR rolls on. This past weekend, The International Football Association Board, the folks responsible for crafting the Laws of the Game officially embraced VAR. It’s here to stay, unfortunately (starting with this summer’s World Cup).

Rethinking The Room?

A few months ago I wrote a post where I explained why The Room – or, more particular, the fandom that’s grown up around it – drove me nuts. I wrote:

But from what I’ve read from people who have made The Room a cult favorite it’s not because they see it as an undervalued gem. Nor does it appear to fall into the “so bad its good” category, as everybody involved takes the thing completely seriously. No, it seems that people just really enjoy watching an artist fail, enjoy watching a horrible product because it’s horrible.

I’m not about to join the fan club, but I’ve had a rethink about it, thanks to this piece over at Electric Literature. Called “Why We Love Bad Art,” John Sherman, riffing on Susan Sontag, goes straight to The Room and makes an interesting case:

Not all failure is equal, and the nature of artistic failure depends on the nature of the attempt.


The Room is an awful movie, but it’s trying to be a great film, and this generates its basic charm. By extension, Wiseau is an awful filmmaker trying to be a great one, and his blindness to his own deficiencies is what allows him to be canonized in the so-bad-it’s-good tradition. Whether due to narcissism or a lack of taste, or both, pure Camp cannot fathom its own shortcomings.

I can see that. Art that fails, but does so nobly with great passion, has something in it to be admired. By contrast, something that’s a cold and calculated attempt to make something popular or financially lucrative that fails is just shit. I get that. I’m not sure I really get that vibe from most of the people I’ve heard talk (or read about) The Room.

Sherman mentions Mystery Science Theater 3000 and how it made a whole thing out of taking pot shots at bad movies. I’m not sure the analogy works, however, as most of what MST3K (in any variant) took on were only worth watching because of the jokes being made at its expense. Sure, in at least some instances the folks involved had a soft spot for one of those movies, but for the most part they savaged them because they sucked. There’s a difference between “so bad it’s good” and “so bad we can enjoy making fun of it.”

And so we return to the distinction I made in the original post, between loving something even though common opinion is that it’s bad versus not admitting you love it because it’s bad. Art doesn’t always find the audience the creator intended, but maybe it always, eventually, finds an audience of some kind? Perhaps people should just let themselves love it and not think too much about it.

Like I’ve been doing!