There are many theories of what makes a good book. The most prevalent/strongest one in our day is the social justice theory. No, I don’t mean the one propagated by social justice advocates, though they’re linked.
What I mean is that for a long time, what made a book “good” and gave serious people permission to like it was that it had classical references. That’s how you knew the writer was properly educated and thought deep thoughts. I think that started in the renaissance and before that it was “books that were good for something” the something being propagating the faith. Well, things go in cycles.
After WWI put vast cracks in the civilizational confidence of the west and we started doubting our roots, classicism because a mark of being “high class” and high class was, aesthetically and politically right out in the early 20th century. The trusted men from the best families were responsible for making Europe into a vast abattoir. Which made literary criticism ripe to fall for the then new and exciting Marxist theory of everything. (Well, it was actually a theory of economics, one that was disproven by the time it was written, but Marx wasn’t an economist. However people tend to take one lens and view everything through it, even things it makes no sense to do that with.)
So once again, literature became “good” when it did something “good” in the world, in this case advance change towards the perfect socialist state, just like medieval literature advanced our way to heaven.
I’m not sure this was ever okay, not from a ludic perspective. Most books informed by this perspective are tiresome, even going back to when they were a new and exciting thing, back in the early to middle last century. I do understand they were “new” and “exciting” to people who had never read the like, but now, almost a hundred years later, the nostalgie de la boue and the obsessive violating of taboos we no longer hold grows tedious.
And that’s part of the problem, you know? It’s that the only way to keep that kind of preachiness new and fresh is to continuously violate taboos, until you get to the point no sane human being would read these books for pleasure. And then we get a lot of crap about how we should read them because they’re somehow “good for us.” I’m sure you can find examples. Seems like there’s a new one every week.
I know that if you don’t agree with the moral aims of the books they sound beyond tedious, and into the lunatic range. And then the rate of reading and readers falls. And then everyone laments.
So, what is a good book?
I don’t know. I’m a libertarian. I’ve made a whole career out of telling people I’m staying out of their business. All I can tell you is what makes a good book to ME.
A serviceable book keeps me entertained for two hours or so while I’m cleaning the house or cooking dinner. (Sometimes audio books, sometimes “disposable paperbacks” bought for $1 at the thrift store. Why?) I call these popcorn books. I read them in chain, because that’s ALL I do for fun. That’s my escapism.
These books are fungible, but not … uneeded. If most of what you do is read for fun, you need a supply of these. I’ve written books like this (Dipped Stripped and Dead under pen name Elise Hyatt is up on Amazon.) Some would argue that most books I’ve written are like this, but I’d say that my science fiction, and the shifter fantasy, and maybe even Witchfinder rise above that. Though I’m not going to break your head if you say they don’t. I just know what I was aiming for. Like being unable to watch yourself walk down the street, it’s d*mn hard to evaluate your own books, your own heart’s blood. For instance, Jane Austen’s own favorite book was Emma, a book that makes me want to sleep and kill things AT THE SAME TIME.
It was brought home to me recently the importance of “writing things that matter”, things that rise above popcorn. Let’s say that finding out you have a brain tumor (non malignant or at least isolated by virtue of position. The one thing it affects is my vision, and it might be reason enough to remove it, eventually. We’re monitoring) and that one of your acquaintances/colleagues has cancer, watching one of the first bloggers you liked die, and watching one of your first mentors (Ed Bryant) die too, all bring home to you the fact that this is passing, and you want to make sure amid the “must dos” and “I’ll write that for money” you want to write something that remains. Something that is heart’s blood, and will make your voice heard throughout the years, if not centuries.
So, how do you know what that is?
You don’t. It’s how it hits readers. Some books I consider popcorn; some books I WROTE as popcorn got me emails from people who said the book had been an anchor and comfort to their dying relative. Plain Jane, written as a work for hire under a house name, for crying outloud.
You CAN’T tell. All you can tell is what you feel is a GOOD book TO YOU. And if it does survive centuries, we will know (though if you will know depends on what you think of life after death, likely.)
Books rise above the average to me when I remember them, think about them, or a phrase comes back to me. Yesterday it was a sentence from Jim Butcher “You know, lying is not a superpower.”
That’s the first cut. The book wasn’t FORGETTABLE.
But how do you make it something else, something that resonates and vibrates within you and others? I don’t know. I only know me. I gravitate towards mirrors and the point of pain.
What does that mean?
I was a freakishly big-headed kid (literally, not metaphorically) who spent most of her time with raw sores all over her face, particularly around eyes and mouth, making me look rather like the joker or something out of a horror movie. I’m forever grateful they went away with the onset of puberty and that they’ve been only on my arms for the great part of twenty years.
I was also a cherished and loved child, and frankly spoiled by dad and his mom.
Going to elementary school was like a betrayal. I couldn’t figure out why people recoiled from me, and when I figured it out my world shattered, and was never put together again the same. My perception of self was destroyed, but also my perception of what mattered about me/what the rest of the world saw.
Some would argue that most of my life is informed by that moment.
I hate sucker punches. I hate it when people are attacked by people they trusted or had reason not to fear, in their place of safety.
I write people whose world has shattered repeatedly. I write situations that make me question my own principles, and rebuild, over and over again.
Why? Because in books that’s what stays with me. Either books that shatter me and put me back together again, or books in which I get the sense the writer did that to himself/herself.
Your mileage may vary. And I’m not one to tell you what you should do. Again, made an entire career of not telling people what they should do.
If you’re writing popcorn books, getting paid, and people like them: well done. You’re making an honest living. And some of those books you consider fungible might be the lifeline to someone else’s sanity. You never know.
But for me, when I reach beyond, I reach for the shattered mirror and the pain. In real life as in fiction, I fight for the person who was suckerpunched by either people or reality, whose world was shattered and who can never fit the shards together quite the same way again.
Maybe that will resonate through the centuries. Maybe it won’t. It resonates with me.