Oh, no, this isn’t a post about the Hugos.  It feeds into it, sort of, but it’s not, not really.

I have for sometime now been meaning to write a series of posts about what constitutes “Good” fiction.  You see, it’s a much abused term, and a much abused idea, and most of the time what people perceive as “good” is somewhat of a positional good.

I once found myself in a panel on YA literature at a con, and one of the authors, to be prepared, had put up a question on her blog as to what the YA readers were reading.  The answers had surprised her.  She brought forth, as proof that we had YA taste all wrong things like The Handmaiden’s Tale and Chronicle of a Death Foretold.

My colleague, I am afraid, had no kids in K-12.  She was surprised, but didn’t change course when I told her that those were ASSIGNED books.  Her attitude was “Well, but they must like them, or why would they mention them?”

Unless these kids are very different from those — mine, friends’, their circles — whom I heard talk about these turkeys (yeah, it’s a turkey, sorry.  The Handmaiden’s Tale is passable world building if you don’t actually know very much about people. As for Chronicle of a Death Foretold, bah.  Borges is a tough act to follow and people so soul dead as to be personal friends with Fidel Castro have issues with the “magic” part of magic realism.  They are — or this one is — however really good with PR and con artistry.) no, uh, not so much.

The kids mentioned them because these are the books approved of.  In fact the books the teachers approve of, and teachers are the greatest authority and hold the most power in kids’ lives.  Even if the kids’ are a contrary sort (me, me, me — or okay, younger son) who like scratching up freshly painted walls, they are conscious of a need to pass the class.  Or, as happened whenever younger son ran his mouth “to play the game” as more than one teacher enjoined him to.

And in fact, that’s what it boils down to.  Humans are social apes, and as such we are always looking for ways to ‘play the game’.  The reading preferences expressed in public have the same issue.

This doesn’t extend just to what people read but the format.  When I attended Superstars Writing Seminar, I listened to a researcher telling us people overwhelmingly prefer paper over ebooks.   He didn’t seem aware that this is the “prestige” answer, the answer pushed by “taste leaders” ranging from tv talking heads to “intellectuals.”  And if ti’s true of the man on the street, my readers must be a very odd lot, as I sell 100 ebooks for every print one.  (Though because it’s a status thing, it’s still important to have a print one for sale, to lend it gravitas.)

As you can see, then, it becomes pretty hard to think of “good” fiction.

Oh, we could go with what sells and sells well, but everyone I know is very much sure that that is no indication of quality.

I think part of this is poppycock.  We were all of us raised on the idea of true genius ignored and living in a garret.  Part of this is that some writers/artists/painters did have that trajectory, though that’s usually predicated more on the writers/etc failings of personality or sheer insanity than on no one appreciating their art.  When you dig into their history you find people were trying to buy them, but the creator was too nuts to make a thriving business.  Because — to my chagrin, since I suck at it — the side of selling your art is still a business.

The other part is that in recent years at least we all had the experience in things like books and music of being totally turned off by mega million sellers and then finding something no one ever heard of that knocks your socks off.

That is a result of top down marketing and Dave has talked about it extensively in his posts. When people in NYC decide what gets all the publicity, they might not get to set everyone’s tastes, but they can markedly affect a lot of purchasing.

Not that much, though.  Consider in my field, right now, iirc to make a “bestseller” in hard cover you need less than 20k books.  Now consider all the people who watch and play sf and think of the potential market of even 10% of that who also like to read.  You’re looking more at a million or so.

And that’s part of it, not only does from-above push marketing bring about a distortion in what people buy, but it makes people think this is “the most popular” and when they read it “not good.”  Which means they discount popular taste.

What I’ve found is that discounting for the push a book got, looked at just in terms of who found it and liked it, bestsellers are not any worse than any other books.  Take Larry Correia’s stuff — he’s sneaky with it and will probably laugh at me for pointing it out in public — but he is a master craftsman who knows his tools and evokes emotion with his words as well or better than most “literary darlings.”

Also I found that my taste is not that different from most people.  Take Barry Hughart.  Never sold much.  Lousy marketing.  BUT everyone who finds him and reads him agrees it’s top notch stuff, even if there’s no social benes to admitting it.

However, even in a conservative-libertarian group, if you ask for recommendations for good literature, what you get is the same names that make the college/high school reading lists, most of these set up by cultural Marxists with an agenda.  (No, trust me.)

I mean, if you look at the Hugos in recent years from the perspective of cultural Marxism, or even of dialectical Marxist literary analysis (what?  This is my degree, guys) then you think the best won.

But that’s sort of like saying if you look at hammers from the perspective of confectioners, then a chocolate hammer is your best bet.

The game, in other words, is rigged, and you need to reject the rigging and the phony standards that yield the expected answers.

Unfortunately that leaves us, after 100 years or so of Marxism being a positional good (mostly because it’s a self-coherent, seemingly logical system.  Intellectuals love those even when they have relation to reality.  It’s the same thing that made a lot of Catholic theology — the more convoluted medieval kind — so popular with the educated classes of the time) with no way to judge what is good.

At which point we must return to the fundamentals.

What is art?  It seems as though our species has always had art.  Story and carving, painting and acting.  Perhaps that is the thing that distinguishes us most from our closest cousins in the animal world.

So what is it?  Why do we have it?

Go back and look at the earliest stories we have.  Or even the best cave paintings.  You’ll feel something, if you allow yourself to.  Across the eons, and past countless changes not just in the society around us but in what IS man, you’ll sense an echo of what people felt about this.

And that leads to my theory: good art and good literature is that which allows you to port living emotion to another person’s brain.

I understand that people mourned for Romeo and Juliet. Beyond the message, beyond what the author tried to say, they felt the tragedy.  I know there are books that have bared me to the core and left me shaking with joy or grief.

The subject is too long for one post, and I will not presume to close it here.

But for now I’ll propose — ignore the sales or lack thereof.  Ignore the buzz.  Ignore the approval of the elites.  Most of all, ignore the feeling that to be good you have to WORK at it.

Instead view “good books” as those that allowed you for a moment to live the experiences of the characters, to be the characters, and to port their lived experience and emotion into your own mind and being as a sort of experience that took place outside that space behind your eyes.

Now, what are some good books?

50 thoughts on “Quality

  1. When you dig into their history you find people were trying to buy them, but the creator was too nuts to make a thriving business.

    Good example of this: H. P. Lovecraft, who was mostly sane by the standards of mad horror writers, but whose specific emotional problems included the need to imagine himself as an amateur literary gentleman. He drove his friends (and wife) to distraction with his refusal to aggressively market his writing, or to take a job as editor of a weird fiction magazine when he was actually a very good editor as well as writer. In the end he died of a condition almost certainly brought on in part by poverty — his relatively-wealthy divorced wife (who still loved him and periodically assisted and visited him) might have been able to save him, if his pride hadn’t prevented him from letting on how serious was his illness.

    His early death was a tragedy for the whole field — Lovecraft was still improving as a writer in the mid-1930’s, and he might have easily lived another quarter-century.

  2. John Ringo was at Lunacon a while back, along with Howard Taylor. Both those guys are wonderful marketers as well as great writers. I learned a LOT at that con from them.

    1. Ringo is gripping, even to one who never liked military very much. March Upcountry via Baen Library was the first taste of his writing. Too violent, but what a read!

  3. Another thing. I was reading “Our Times” by Sullivan, which is a five volume set of books of the political and popular history from the turn of the last century to just before the great Depression. I was hoping to get a feel for literature alternatives that might exist. Unfortunately Sullivan was more Progressive than I remembered or literature was more “artsy fartsy” than it is now because all the notable books were the same books that are the hate books in High School, with some exceptions. There must have been SOME alternative stuff published, but it’s as if it was quickly dumped down the memory whole by the establishment as quickly as possible. All we’re left with is Sinclair, Fitzgerald, Hemingway and the like.

    1. Then Sullivan was working off a list from some twit in the English department.

      Just before the Great Depression, mysteries were starting to take off again in a big way; it was the Golden Age of mysteries. Pulp magazines had been popular since the previous century, and even a relatively “literary” magazine like Argosy or the Saturday Evening Post had good stories from every genre.

      I mentioned A. Merritt yesterday, and he was a bestselling author who got literary props for his sf/f novels. Christopher Morley was very literary, but his novels are charming.

      If you want reading suggestions, look through digitized bound volumes of The Bookman, a magazine for bookstore owners. Some of the reviews are crap, but mostly they are interested in indicating what kind of book it is and who will like it. They’re also on Google Books if you browse around. Full of nice art, too, and stuff you didn’t learn in English class about famous authors, as well as parodies and book humor.

      The Making of America Project also includes tons of back issues of good magazines, including some serialized novels, early sf/f, and pre-Holmes mystery. Mostly they’re from farther back than the Twenties, though.

      1. I forgot to mention that The Bookman includes the first US bestseller lists. There’s also a list of Books in Demand at Public Libraries, collected by the ALA from “200 representative libraries in every section of the country and in cities of all sizes down to ten thousand population.”

        1. For example, you find out that in 1922, Sinclair Lewis, Edith Wharton, and Booth Tarkington were neck and neck with Gene Stratton-Porter, who today is thought of as just a kidlit or YA writer.

  4. So much this. What I recall from many ofthe readings in high school was that the stories lacked any sense of heroism. None. The Chrysalids, just a lot of whining and fleeing (rather than a Correia-esqe stand against evil, with explosions. Because there should always be explosions). Margaret Laurence’s The Stone Angel was even worse. Just bad. The only spine in the story was the book’s.

    This is why people are turned off reading. It’s WORK to plod through this stuff, and thus no longer a leisure activity. Fortunately I was a reader long before.

    1. I feel completely the opposite about Wyndham’s The Chrysalids than you did. I thought it was an excellent novel about a small group hiding within a society which would destroy them or cast them out if they were discovered.

      Is it whining if your society will destroy you if they discover your secret? (It’s been at least twenty years since I last read the book, so there may have been whining that I don’t remember.) They fled because the characters in question were children — high school age and younger — when they were discovered. Half a dozen young people have few options beyond fleeing when their society actually is out to get them.

      I read the book by choice rather than assignment, but I don’t think that would have mattered to my enjoyment of the book. I’m a fan of Wyndham’s books and have read many of them. I can only speak for myself, but I’d have been thrilled to find any of his books on a required reading list for a class. Alas, they weren’t even on the list for the science fiction English class I took in college (the class had an excellent list, just no Wyndham).

      1. Is it whining if your society will destroy you if they discover your secret?

        If all you do is complain and flee, then yes, it can come across that way in a story. It’s like “informed characteristics.”

        1. I’ll have to add the book to my reread stack and check for whining. That said, fleeing strikes me as a pretty reasonable response to half a dozen children who can communicate telepathically with each other but have no other advantage over am agrarian society composed of thousands of people. Revolution is certainly beyond the children — especially in a muscle powered society (bows and arrows are the hunting weapon of choice) — as is simply standing up to the combined might of the adults in the society.

          If there’s smarter or better alternative for these children, could someone please explain it to me?

          Note that I’m not saying anyone is wrong for disliking a book I really enjoyed. Individual tastes vary, after all.

          1. Identifying the problem and fleeing are both *starting* points– and revolution is a rather improbable thing for any group right off the bat; it’s no less reasonable for a group of kids with some steps in the middle, though.

      2. Fair enough, and it clearly shows the overall goal of SP3 that tastes vary, and diversity of work should always be about the work, and nothing else. I’ll grant, it’s been almost thirty years since I read it, but those were my takeaways. Completely agree that it was a natural and sensible product of the world and situations as built by Wyndham, but perhaps that did not meet my taste. Definitely not as bad as Stone Angel (shudder).

        It’s hard to say it would have turned me off the genre, as I may have come at it from certain preconceived preferences in SFF that I already had, having already begun building my library (which now stands at well over a thousand volumes of various species – from novels to comics to gaming books to non-fiction…). As is so often the case, YMMV. 🙂

        The big difference, we can have a sensible discussion about the work, and wrangle some ideas, then go for a beverage of choice. No shrieking, ad hominems, etc. That’s how you celebrate diversity.

        1. What? And here I’ve been storing up all sorts of invectives to punish you for disliking something I liked. Ah well, I guess I can save those for the next time I comment on Making Light.

          Come to think of it, I’ve never commented on Making Light. I don’t even read it unless linked to something. I guess I’ll just forget about the invective — they were pretty lame, anyway (I’m not good at this whole shunning thing) — and go back to reading and writing stuff I like.

          Crazy, I know, but that’s the way I roll.

          1. If you need help with the invective look up the “Brothers O’Toole’ cussin’ contest” on Youtube. It is quite instructive and the character only twice resorts to the profane (and once is a legitimate part of the town’s name.)

  5. I’ll say this: a *preference* for printed, rather than electronic, books, doesn’t preclude a strong e-book buying habit.

    I very much prefer paper (specifically, mass market paperback, for anything but technical works, due to their convenient size), but I have a ton of e-books for a variety of reasons.

    1. Cost. I am far more likely to buy an e-book when there is a reasonable cost savings. Without some other reason to buy, I am not going to buy an e-book for the same price I can get a mass market paperback version. If an e-book is cheap enough, I’ll often buy one before spending the money on a hard copy… especially a new author. The Baen e-book setup, for example, often provides me “the first hit is free, dude” approach, and I often find myself buying that author’s catalog in print a week later. For example, Ryk Spoor and Sarah Hoyt entered my library staples via this route. Others (surprisingly enough, no Baen authors) have been tried, and found wanting.

    2. Convenience of ownership. I have Kindle and Acrobat Reader on my phone. Even without an internet connection, if I have my phone, I have at least a dozen book sized works to amuse me. Which is why quite a few of my e-books are works I have hard copies of already. I have even been known to tag team the same work back and forth between Kindle and hard copy, to avoid carrying a book I was reading around all day.

    3. Ease of acquisition. I can hear about a book, and two or three minutes, I’m reading it.

    But is still *prefer* reading printed copies.

    1. One more reason: ease of storage.
      Many of us like keeping our books, but have limited storage space for one reason or another.

      1. Mine is similar to this but a little more specific, I work on a ship and have a lot of free time to read when i am at sea for 21-28 days. with our transportation, i can only carry so much and I read really really fast. I have to go with E-books just to take enough with me to last out a hitch. but by personal preference, I have a fairly absurd sized library in my house and add to it every time I am home.

        1. As a Naval Officer, an e-reader is essential. At the rate I read, I simply can’t pack in the amount of paper books I would need for a long deployment. Even given the long workdays at sea, there’s always time to sneak in a few pages (by pages I mean chapters). As much as I do love the feel, cover, heft and general awesomeness of hardcopy, e-readers are pretty awesome. Plus, reading Star Trek books on a PADD seems somehow apropos, no? 🙂

          1. I am still freaking out over having a PADD (smartphone) in my pocket, even if the main thing it scans are barcodes and only senses my steps. 😀

            (Funny thing is, I had to be nagged into it because my husband was tired about my whining at my “new” phone’s horrible keyboard.)

      2. Two things drove me to get big into ebooks. The first was that, at the time, I was doing some substantial international travel. I’d pack a bunch of books to read in airplanes or while trying to rest in some hotel somewhere and invariably I’d never pack enough. So I’d be out of reading matter in a country where I didn’t speak, let alone read, the language.

        Then, there was this book I’d checked out from the library–the fourth book in an “alien invasion” series by a then new to me writer. A book titled “Hell’s Faire.” There was this CD in the back….

        The rest is history.

    2. Lately I prefer ebooks for the print size. It’s getting to the point where I need bifocals or reading glasses and I hate glasses. With ebooks, I can just up the font size and keep going.

  6. Chuckle Chuckle

    Sarah, you have to read Chris Nuttall’s afterword to his book “Love Labours Won”.

    He considers Romeo and Juliet idiots and thinks that the Friar was the bad guy. [Very Big Grin]

    Seriously though, I don’t think in terms of “quality books/stories”. I think in “terms of good reads”. I don’t “know” if a book/story is “quality” or not. I do know if I found a book/story a “good read”. Of course, unlike some people, I also know that my “good read” is another person’s “oh, it was ok” or another person’s “that was junk”. Which is why when talking about a book I enjoyed or didn’t enjoy, I end the comment with YMMV (Your Mileage May Vary). [Smile]

  7. A book that grips you, pulls you in, and at moments has you on the edge of your seat, even though you know how it will turn out: Chaim Herzog _War of Atonement_. Which should be used as an example in non-fiction writing courses, along with Vestal’s _The Missouri_ and Tuchman’s _The Guns of August_. Not great for learning how to develop characters, or the finer points of plot-crafting, but if you want something that grabs the reader, pulls them in (each in different ways), and has tales of adventure and daring do against the odds? These three.

    Fiction is a harder go for me. I’m tempted to say, “Well, I read for fun, not personal development, so I haven’t read many of the great works of sf/f literature.” Which makes Sarah’s point precisely, methinks.

    1. Clippy from Microsoft Word. Seriously, I wanted our planet knocked out like Hitchhiker’s Guide to Galaxy after dealing with that paperclip.

      1. “I see you’re trying to invade the Earth. Would you like some help with that?”

  8. “What are some good books?” Holy smokes! What a loaded question. I have such eclectic tastes. Barbara Tuchman was mentioned. Or at least her book, ‘The Guns of August.” A favorite. And her excellent, ‘The March of Folly.’ Learned a lot from that one.
    Not really crazy about Sci-Fi. Love the movies, but not reading it. Maybe I just haven’t read enough of them. I’m one of the few people I know who thinks that Dune is a bit of a bore. Just me, I guess. I did love the ‘The Restaurant At End Of The Universe’ trilogy. Terrific. Lousy movie, though.
    Biography? ‘An American Caesar.’ And ‘Ford, The Man And The Machines.’ They read like novels.
    Too many to think about or even remember.
    As far as all of this E-Book vs. Printed Book argument goes, I wish it were the word that’s being read that was important rather then the device it’s printed on.

  9. Don’t have time at the moment to get into what I consider good reads right now, but just a quick comment on format. I, too, prefer paperback for reading, hardback for collecting, but these past years I’ve been almost exclusively “reading” audiobooks. It started when I was travelling for work and was driving 20k miles a year. Then I found I could divert my mind with a book while performing many of the semi-mindless tasks we humans do throughout our day.

  10. Consider in my field, right now, iirc to make a “bestseller” in hard cover you need less than 20k books. Now consider all the people who watch and play sf and think of the potential market of even 10% of that who also like to read.

    Tried to find good stats for how many video games sold in this or that category.

    Didn’t work.

    So here’s the Steam “players online” stats:

    Yes, it’s a weekend, but none of the top 15 games were below 20k on the peak number of players in the last 24 hours. (people playing the game while connected to Steam during the same hour) At least four of those are SF/F.

    There’s definitely demand.

  11. I’ve heard people disparage Heinlein’s juveniles as “out of touch” and not really “accessible” to modern kids.

    My daughter would disagree.

    There’s also a tendency to disparage popular fiction. Some folk claim it’s just “least common denominator”. Of course, if that’s all it were a lot more people would be writing it.

    People sneer at Twilight and, yeah, I find many of the themes and characterizations in that story pretty detestable, Meyer’s catches something in a lot of people that draw them into that story. Likewise a lot of people like to look down their noses at Terry Brooks but the man somehow convinces a lot of people to part with beer and pizza money on a regular basis.

    I, for one, would like to know how he does it.

    To me, “good fiction” is something that touches the heart of those reading/hearing/watching it. Popular fiction, at least popular fiction with staying power, epitomizes that. It has to or it wouldn’t be, and stay, popular.


    1. I’ve heard people disparage Heinlein’s juveniles as “out of touch” and not really “accessible” to modern kids.

      ….these are the same ones that have been informing me as far back as I can remember that “nobody” my age does/thinks/reads whatever I’m doing/thinking/reading?

      Or, another favorite, people born half a century before the kids, who don’t have kids, don’t socialize with kids, but just know what they’re “really” like?

      1. Well, to be fair, some minor bits of wonder are lost on the current generation. Like when Don Harvey in Between Planets answers a phone call from horseback… 😉

  12. You make a good point. Often, the elitists sneer at “entertaining” as if it were some easy default that any old writer could achieve without effort. But the bookshelves of the world are filled with authors who fail to entertain.

    Literary is easy. Entertaining, *that’s* hard.

  13. Some good books that really moved me, and/or had protagonists (Heros) I could identify with:
    Foundation Trilogy
    Childhood’s End
    Glory Road
    The Eagle of the Ninth–Rosemary Sutcliffe
    All the Heinleins, well maybe did not always move, but always enjoyable to read.

  14. I just read Black Fire: The True Story of the Original Tom Sawyer–and of the Mysterious Fires That Baptized Gold Rush-Era San Francisco. It’s history, mostly, but the author does let you get into the head of Mr. Sawyer. (Who was a real person, and not really that much like Twain’s character.) The last quarter to third of the book really limps along, though, because they’re more about the relationship of Sawyer to Twain, and leave behind most of the adventures Sawyer had fighting the really devastating fires of 1850-1851 San Francisco.

  15. As a kid:
    Dandelion Wine/Something Wicked This Way Comes – Bradbury
    Fire Hunter – J. Kjelgaard
    The Rolling Stones and all the rest of Heinleins stories
    All of Asimovs short stories – but Green Patches has especially stuck with me over the years.
    My Side of the Mountain
    The Call of the Wild – London
    Everything by Poe
    At the Mountains of Madness – Lovecraft
    Edgar Rice Burroughs……and John Carter
    and has mentioned above…..The Eagle of the Ninth
    oh and before I forget….Canticle For Leibowitz

  16. As a teenager one of the books I truly loved and still read every few years is “Red Sky at Morning”- Richard Bradford

  17. As a kid:
    Dandelion Wine/Something Wicked This Way Comes – Bradbury
    Fire Hunter – J. Kjelgaard
    The Rolling Stones and all the rest of Heinleins stories
    All of Asimovs short stories – but Green Patches has especially stuck with me over the years.
    My Side of the Mountain
    The Call of the Wild – London
    Everything by Poe
    At the Mountains of Madness – Lovecraft
    Edgar Rice Burroughs……and John Carter
    and has mentioned above..
    The Eagle of the Ninth

    Oh and before I forget – A Canticle for Leibowitz – Miller

    1. Dandelion Wine was the first book I read in English, unabridged. Took me six months. Still have that copy, with Portuguese translation penciled in over half the words 😉

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