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Books With Awful Taste, But Great Execution

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Vivienne Woodward


Vivienne Woodward lives in Philly and works as the events coordinator for an indie bookstore. She can often be found drinking too much coffee in the sunny spot on her couch and over-identifying with fictional characters. She enjoys collecting hobbies, dancing to radio pop, and rearranging the book stacks on her side tables.

There is a Reddit thread in the r/books channel that poses the question “What is a book that fits r/ATBGE (Awful Taste But Great Execution)?” Before perusing the thread, I wondered what “awful taste” meant in this context. I thought about what books I might put in this category before I scrolled to see what others had suggested. Some put forth certain books because they have distasteful or reprehensible sex acts or scenes — we’re talking Lolita, Child of God, It, Naked Lunch. There are others who suggest books whose politics are either downright horrific or offensive a la Gone with the Wind and Ayn Rand’s books. 

When I embarked on this assignment, the books that came to my mind when I thought “awful taste, but great execution” were books whose plots shouldn’t work, but do. Or whose plots sound so subversive that it seems unlikely the author will pull it off, but then manages to nonetheless. The books that first came to mind are satire, but that in any hands other than those of these specific authors, could be an absolute trainwreck.

Take the plot summaries of Welcome to Braggsville, The Sellout, and Lightning Rods. In order: a civil war reenactment in a predominantly white town that is going to be subject to a performative protest by a group of liberal arts college kids who call themselves “4 Little Indians.” A Black man who initiates reinstating slavery in the local high school and brings it to the Supreme Court. A workplace that offers “sexual release” to its male employees via hired women. If not written by comic geniuses, the plots of these three books could well be considered awful taste. You might add Super Sad True Love Story to that list in that it’s very much about a middle-aged white man falling in love with a young Korean American girl via a website called “GlobalTeens.” But with his satiric and comic prowess, Shteyngart pulls it off. 

The books above are all pushing boundaries on two of the topics many of us are nervous to talk about: race and sex. I think this is why they came to mind for me, because, done wrong, they would be in very poor taste. But ultimately, their satirical/comic nature exempts them from the sort of “awful taste” category that Redditors are debating.

The r/books thread originally came from the channel r/ATBGE, a channel devoted to things that fall under the category of “awful taste but great execution.” Think weird but very believable cakes, a highly realistic braid tattooed down someone’s back, crocs that are crocs (the reptile). When we go back to the origin of ATBGE, are there any books that truly fall into this category? I am not sure that even any of the suggestions mentioned in the book-specific thread capture quite the level of fully committed cringe that the original thread does. 

I have heard that there is a scene in 50 Shades of Grey where the main character takes a tampon out of the other main character in a way that’s supposed to be sexy. Maybe that is the closest thing we have. The original thread is not highbrow cringe here; it’s croc crocs. Maybe Twilight-tampon-vampire-sex-fan-fiction is the closest we can come to r/ATBGE. I mean…the book has sold more than 150 million copies worldwide, so plenty of people think that it is well-executed. When the category is Twilight-tampon-vampire-sex-fan-fiction, maybe that is great execution. 

Anyway. I appreciate you following along with me on this spiritual journey as I try to figure out whether and which books could be categorized as ATBGE. I didn’t think I would find myself so conflicted when I set out to write this piece, but as it turns out, the first books that came to my mind don’t really align with the original spirit of ATBGE. Subversive does not mean awful taste, and can it even be “awful taste” if the author fully intends to shock their audience with the premise? I feel more confident sticking with Twilight-tampon-vampire-sex-fan-fiction as my final answer.