Books That Make You Cringe

My Monday morning amusement was an article at The Awl, asking various writers and editors to share books they read as teenagers or twentysomethings that now make them cringe. Revelations included New Yorker writer Ariel Levy’s obsession with Sweet Valley High, and various abandoned affections for the likes of Ayn Rand, Ann Rice and the Beats.

We’ve asked some Australian writers and editors to reveal their own books that they once loved, but now make them cringe. The results of our ad-hoc survey are fascinating, with lots of schlock horror – and, though it’s not reflected here, many off-the-record confessions of an early love of Sweet Valley High. Please, enter our confessional booth and share your own now-embarrassing former literary loves in our comments below.

Kirsten Tranter

This makes me wonder if I might actually be a bit shameless. I find myself quite fascinated by this idea of repudiating or mocking our own immature tastes, however affectionately. I loved the Famous Five, the Secret Seven, the Naughtiest Girls, the Girls Crystal girls, and Trixie Belden, girl detective, with equal ardour – and even enjoyed some Sweet Valley High books, and see no reason to disavow any of that. I adored Anais Nin and while I’m not at all ashamed of that, I’d probably be ashamed now if I read back over my ‘dear diary’ attempts to imitate her.

Kirsten Tranter will be in conversation with Jeanette Winterson on Friday 18 May. Kirsten’s latest book is A Common Loss.**

Jenny Niven

I grew up in a very small rural Scottish town. Our house was right next to the library where my next door neighbour was one of the two librarians. By the time I was about 11, I’d read everything in the kids' section about a hundred times and spent the next couple of years skulking around the teen books, simultaneously horrified and transfixed by the tales of Judy Blume’s ‘sanitary belts’ and R.L. Stine’s Point Horror books (which are all ultimately about teenagers making out in the back of cars while being stalked by their murderous friends). There was only the tiniest hint of sex in any of them, but I could only take them out of the library when the ‘other’ librarian was on in case she told my mum. Looking back, they’re all actually deeply conservative books. It’s all so unbelievably tame in comparison– God knows what I would have done if Gossip Girl had been available then.

Jenny Niven is associate director of the Wheeler Centre. She will be in conversation with Chad Harbach on Friday 18 May.

Ronnie Scott

Michael Crichton! Nowadays I’m not a big re-reader, but in my early teens I must have done Sphere, Disclosure, Congo, Rising Sun, Jurassic Park, The Lost World, and The Andromeda Strain at least a dozen times. (My phase culminated with Airframe in 1996, so let’s say a half dozen for that.) Although Crichton later revealed himself as a climate change denier, I could never bring myself to mind; his version of the nineties was a deadly, salacious place, and he’ll always be the man who taught me that hippos are the most dangerous animals in the jungle. Vale.

Ronnie Scott is outgoing editor of The Lifted Brow.

Michaela McGuire

I, like the rest of my Year Five class, was completely obsessed with the Fear Street series. Once we’d blitzed through all of Goosebumps, myself and the other girls in my class started reading R. L. Stine’s infinitely more grown-up series about a bunch of attractive cheerleaders who all get horribly murdered. Unfortunately this obsession coincided with a school project wherein we had to write our own short novel, and I produced a mortifyingly obvious tribute to Fear Street of my own. I think I even called it ‘Scary Street’. After handing my teacher’s report on this marvel of literary fiction to my mother, she promptly banned me from reading any horror novels, and I spent the remainder of my primary school years as a social outcast, reading Bryce Courtenay novels by myself each lunch. Which, come to think of it, is a probably more embarrassing confession.

Michaela McGuire runs Women of Letters, with Marieke Hardy. She is the author of Apply Within.

Monica Dux

During the school holidays when I was 12 my older brother started reading the first two books in the Rambo: First Blood series (by David Morrell). I wasn’t allowed to read such unladylike material, so I used to sneak them from his room when he was out, and read them in secret. These were movie tie-in editions, with Sylvester Stallone on the cover, and I developed an intense crush on Sly and identified strongly with his psychic pain, ignoring some of the carnage he left whilst exploring said pain. I remember fantasising that we would one day join forces to liberate an oppressed village deep in South East Asia. Early puberty can do some strange things to the young girl’s mind.

Monica Dux will be in conversation with Kathy Lette at the Wheeler Centre on Wednesday 9 May.

Rebecca Starford

The master of adolescent pseudo-horror/thrillers, Christopher Pike brought me into a seductive world in which a bunch of good-looking, preppy American high schoolers have to figure out who among them is a murderer. What a formula for a nerdy 12-year-old! Flicking through the novels today, I shudder at the pedestrian prose, woeful characterisation, cheesy dialogue and cringe-worthy sex scenes – Pike was always good for a bit of clandestine nookie …

Rebecca Starford is managing editor of Kill Your Darlings.

Jessica Au

When I was younger, I was a total sci-fi/fantasy genre geek (and to be honest, I suspect part of me still is). Some of this was great – books like Victor Kelleher’s era-spanning Parkland series, Brian Caswell’s eerily telepathic Cage of Butterflies, Gillian Rubenstein’s heart-stopping Galax Arena and Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising. However, I have to admit that I also ran with my fair share of Eddings and Jordan and co. I think I read something like 11 of the Wheel of Time books, before giving up – Robert Jordan dying plus all the plots congealing to mush in my head meant it was just too much to handle. I suspect I still have a box of these somewhere in my garage, which I hope never to reveal to the light of day.

Jessica Au is the author of Cargo.

Penni Russon

When I was 16, my boyfriend, let’s call him Anthony (because that is his name), introduced me to his favourite author: Richard Bach. Jonathon Livingstone Seagull is Bach’s most famous book (about a seagull who rises above the pettiness of material existence through the power of flight). But I read more: Illusions, The Bridge Across Forever, One. I read and re-read them in his bedroom (while Anthony built a sailboat in his garage or tinkered with his cars), in fact my memory is that Anthony only owned these books and Douglas Adams’ entire oeuvre, which is probably false. Bridge Across Forever is about soulmates, but it didn’t stop us from breaking up. And I have just discovered through the power of Google, that Bach and his soulmate (all his books were semi-autobiographical) didn’t last the distance either.

Penni Russon is a YA author whose latest novel is Only Ever Always.

Angela Meyer

In Year Three, my teacher read Say Cheese and Die of R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps series to the class. I was enthralled. I remember that actually being the moment where something clicked: so this is what reading is all about. I read many of the spooky, exciting tales after that. Welcome to Camp Nightmare and A Night in Terror Tower were stand-outs. I had a hardcover four-in-one book that screamed when you opened it. I also had a Goosebumps reading lamp. Soon I moved onto his ‘teen’ horror series Fear Street. Years later I picked up one of the Goosebumps books and was amazed to find the story was tame (and lame) and the writing simplistic!

Angela Meyer blogs at Literary Minded and reviews for various publications, including the Australian.

P.M. Newton

I was a horse-mad kid, so read anything and everything I could lay my hands on. This meant my reading was a little undiscriminating and with the exception of Elyne Mitchell’s Silver Brumby books, an unrelenting diet of English kiddies going fox hunting – I wasn’t a fan of the fox hunt. One series really stuck out. I loved it – they were the ‘Jill’ books by Ruby Ferguson. We followed our heroine Jill as she grew up, but I remember feeling totally cheated by the last book. Jill finished school and was trying to make a career working with horses, but at the end of the book she made a very ‘sensible’ and ‘grown-up’ decision to keep her horses as a hobby and go and become a secretary. Jill sold out. I never forgave her.

P.M. Newton is the author of The Old School. She blogs at The Concrete Midden.

Benjamin Law

My parents kept a copy of The Joy of Sex in their study which, even now, I think has aged pretty well. (Look: they have pubes back then!) When I wasn’t covertly reading that, I was reading my copy of Everything A Teenage Boy Should Know, by Dr John F. Knight. At that age, you want to know everything about sex there is, but looking back, I’m pretty sure Dr Knight was a billion years old and probably not the best authority on sexual development.

Benjamin Law is the author of The Family Law.