One of the key movers in the Balkanisation of the stand-up scene, which means there’s now a comedy night to suit every taste, was Robin Ince’s Bad Book Club. Every so often the bibliophilic grouch would – and occasionally still does – bring together a gathering of like-minded souls to read extracts from comically bad literature and offer a wryly sarcastic commentary.
Now those countless rummages through charity shop shelves, and the occasional skip, have born literary fruit, with this guide to the books that should never have been published, from What Would Jesus Eat to Night Of The Crabs. Ince has come up with his own decimal system to categorise these crimes against publishing, from cloying romance (and yes, Mills and Boon does feature heavily) to cringe-inducingly unselfaware celebrity autobiography; from new age guff to trashy horror.
There is, however, a substantial obstacle in this attempt to ridicule such nonsense – and that’s the law of copyright. So rather publishing sizeable extracts to let each literary abomination damn itself, we have to be content with Ince’s second-hand, and frequently sneery, descriptions of the tomes under consideration, with only a few verbatim sentences to hint at the true depth of clunky prose lying between the covers.
In short doses, there’s some pleasure – not to mention a feeling of smug superiority – to be had from the withering descriptions. But consuming all 327 pages in a few sittings is more soul-sapping, with a relentless onslaught of negativity, peppered with isolated examples of bad writing. It’s not Ince’s intention but the tone comes across as supercilious, the knowing swipes at the nerdiness of his consuming hobby and his admission of taking pulp writing far too seriously not providing quite enough balance to the putdowns.
Ince has most fun with the gloriously obscure. How To Pick Up Sexy Girls, for example, sounds like a magnificently misogynistic manual for the socially inept... though again we have to rely on ‘sounds like’ for want of chunky extracts. Somehow Amazon doesn’t seem to have it in its catalogue.
On the other hand, when discussing more polemically charged books by newspaper columnists such as the rabid religious right-winer Ann Coulter – diametrically opposed to Ince’s cardigan-wearing liberalism – or homegrown rabble-rouser Richard Littlejohn, the scorn is so heavy and voluminous that you’d need an industrial concrete-mixer to poor it. Here, the spirit isn’t so funny.
Erich von Daniken comes in for particular scrutiny, with a whole chapter dedicated to the Swiss ‘philosopher’ who believes aliens came to earth to give us an evolutionary bump-start, as well as some practical help on pyramid construction. This is, by accepted scientific standards, obviously silly made-up rubbish for the gullible, but his books such as Chariot Of The Gods have become extremely lucrative bestsellers. The problem is that rationalists drawn to Ince will immediately see the theories as silly made-up rubbish, and won’t need to have them debunked.
Robin Ince’s Bad Book Club isn’t, therefore, so much of a bad book in itself – raising the possibility of a whole meta-category of bad books about bad books – but a rather futile one, preaching empiricism and tolerance to existing adherents, while sneering at little-known bad books we’re not permitted to experience first-hand. It's not a patch on the live shows.
- Robin Ince's Bad Book Club is published on Thursday by Little, Brown, priced £11.99. Click here to buy from Amazon at £7.99