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.
Some books are like “eating popcorn” and other books are like “eating a meal at a fancy place”.
Both can be good IMO and of course there are books in between those extremes.
But to me what matters is “did you enjoy the reading experience” (sounds fancy doesn’t it).
Now there are also books that are like “eating in a fancy place” where it isn’t a matter of “enjoying the meal” but is a matter of “being seen dining there”. IE Dining there is a way of showing that you’re part of the “proper people”.
On the other hand, if the food in that fancy place is terrible, then even the “proper people” won’t eat there and the fancy place will close. 👿
There are several ways to screw up food. You can cook it incorrectly; you can pair the wrong ingredients together; you can have a well-cooked meal and screw up the presentation badly. With the first, it can be raw or overcooked; the second is like pairing mustard and oranges; and the last is like when my mother was served a salad towering over the bowl it was in—impossible to eat without making a huge mess.
And that also ignores things that simply aren’t to a person’s taste. My mother likes liver, but I feel like the texture is reminiscent of mud and sand. I know someone for whom the very smell of Cream of Wheat induces nausea. Or there are people with dietary restrictions, for whom the wrong ingredient can bring misery and pain.
Learn to cook—but make dishes you enjoy. Someone else will like them too.
And even a great meal done right can misfire if it’s not what was expected. If you’ve been looking forward, all week long, to a chicken dinner Sunday evening… and get fish, it won’t matter that it might be the best d@mn fish ever, it’s NOT the chicken dinner, and thus falls short. See: Truth in Labeling.
And a 🍕 pizza is not a chocolate shake. (Remembering of time in college when I agreed to type someone’s paper for one, and they thought I’d be happy with the other.)
This is what I find so amusing about the genre that calls itself Literary (and insists it is NOT a genre): They are utterly convinced that they are writing literature. But no one knows. No one CAN know, for at least a generation. When you find a story that resonates with readers across eras and across social settings, MAYBE you’ve found literature.
My definition of literature has always been, “Something that is still being read by people outside of a class 100 years after it’s been published.” I figure that, whatever my personal opinion of a work, if there’s something in it that still speaks to people after that long, there must be something of value in it. It was the reason I always got so frustrated in my English classes when they wanted us to read “relevant” authors like Toni Morrison and Maxine Hong Kingston, because there’s really no way to know if those are really speaking to something universal or if they’re just trendy authors who know how to spout the lines the awards committees want to hear (I’d bet on the latter, but like I said, I acknowledge there’s more here than my personal opinion).
I remember being upset at seeing “Winds Of War” labeled as a Classic.
I remember reading it when it was NEW! 😉
Do you dislike 20-25 year old cars being labeled Classic, too? 😉
I suspect that I would if I paid any attention to talk about cars. 😀
Or disco being played on “oldies” radio stations?
Haven’t listened to the radio since. For all I know, they’re mixing in rap now.
Hubby handed our teenager a CD full of 90s pop music hits.
“Oh, oldschool! Thanks, Dad!”
Cue wincing from Daddyhood and laughing from Mommyhood.
‘Classic Rock’ stations play 80s now. ‘Oldies’ is what was classic rock when we were kids.
I hate seeing 1980s American cars called “classic.” They were odious crap. Something like a Lamborghini Countach, okay. Classic. Japanese cars, I could stretch to. Saw a really -cool- Datsun B210 the other day, something that I’d never have thought cold be anything other than a rusty tin can.
1984 Buick LeSabre? No. Just, no.
1964 Buick LeSabre? Okay. That’s a nice car. Even a 1972-73 Olds Delta 88, that’s a really nice car. Huge, but fun to drive. 1980s, 1990’s, 2000s, they’re all disposable shitmobiles. For my money the only cool car to come out of the American manufacturers in the last thirty years is the 2005 and up Ford Mustang.
Classic SF, last 30 years… David Brin? Vernor Vinge? Maybe?
I have a 1984 Chevy Blazer, 6.2 V8 diesel: militarized truck (M1009 CUCV), which is lovely and a classic in my mind, and it looks as good as it drives–off-road suspension and all.
When I worked at a bookstore, we had a Politics section. I figured that anything worthwhile in 30 years would move over to History, at which point I might consider reading it.
I like my “cheeseburger” reading material. Something that I can read and digest quickly. I also like the three course dinner reading material which takes time to read and properly digest the material. There’s room for all types of reading. As long as it properly entertains and informs me. Then there’s the “Organic-gluten free-NON-GMO” crap that ends up being walled. Entertain me or inform me there is no other option.
I like my “cheeseburger” reading material. Something that I can read and digest quickly. I also like the three course dinner reading material which takes time to read and properly digest the material. There’s room for all types of reading. As long as it properly entertains and informs me.
I have my mental potato chips, my fudge, my cakes, comfort food mains and the tried and testeds.
“Horse sense” books: The ones you can stand to read.
Consider “Absorbine Jr.” Ever wonder about ‘Absorbine Sr.’? There isn’t such, but there is just plain Absorbine. Horse liniment. Horses won’t put up with this “it needs to be nasty to be good” crap, so it isn’t nasty. And people found out it 1) wasn’t nasty and 2) actually worked and this lead to the “Jr.” version for people.
Grey goo? “It has to be nasty to work.” Neigh!
 I do not speak fluent equine, but I might be able to get by in the more friendly locales.
Not much to add, other than I really appreciate where this comes from. Intellectually and emotionally.
One of the problems, and you can find it anywhere on the political spectrum, but it’s usually rife wherever cultural power lies at a given moment, is that people convince themselves that they can hack history and shifting tastes.
They’re really smart, you see. Much smarter than everybody else. And more educated than anybody in all of history. (Don’t laugh, they actually believe this.) They are Thomas Sowell’s “Anointed”.
And this means that they can declare what history will judge, well in advance. Because they’re just so smart. And that gives them control over everything. Which they, of course, deserve.
And when things shift, and their power is jeopardized, and their intelligence and wisdom is called into question… well, we’re in the process of watching that happen right now.
Look at the recently announced Nebula nominations. Is anybody at all going to care about those novels in five years? In ten? Fifty? I wouldn’t put money on even five years, but that’s the best the Anointed can give us. The best of the best. They’ll tell you so themselves. Repeatedly.
TBH usually barely last one year.
it just lasted eight.
“Look at the recently announced Nebula nominations.”
I’d rather not. I haven’t read a single one. Maybe there’s a diamond hiding in there, but if so, well hidden.
I have to say it is hard to imagine anyone in 50 years caring about them, when no one cares now.
Jason, You may find of interest my review of the latest Hugo novel winner, to appear in the next issue of Tightbeam. George http://N3F.org
Reblogged this on Lee Dunning and commented:
I’ve never really analyzed my writing on the level ‘accordingtohoyt’ attempts here. I think as a living breathing person it’s inevitable that a piece of yourself shows up in your writing. We all have codes and belief systems of one sort or another and they play out in bits and pieces amid our characters. If those items happen to resonate with a reader, it can raise that particular book to a higher level for that individual. If we as writers are lucky, more than one or two people see themselves in the work and the book as a whole becomes something more than a few hours of escapism.
I’ve always called them popcorn books too. They are a great comfort sometimes. At other times, I might be the mood to have my heart wrenched so I read more challenging (to me) material.
I call them “fluff-for-brains,” because that’s how I feel when I’m at the point of binge-reading comfort books. There’s nothing but fluff left between my ears – my brain has checked out and gone on vacation.
There are advantages and disadvantages to being an oddball taste. There are writers who produce cheeseburger books that appeal to a wide audience. That’s positive in that you a very large pool of potential readers, but the downside is that there are a lot places that people can get cheeseburgers.
On the other hand there is a much smaller market for deep-fried kimchi on a stick. When you write something oddball your pool of potential readers is much smaller–but once they find you they are very loyal because they can’t get what you produce anywhere else (or at least, far fewer places.)
I think popcorn books are best when they’re Cracker Jacks.
Maybe some caramel coating, probably a little nuts… and a prize when you finish.
Dipped, Stripped and Dead.
Sarah, may I ask where you got the Jim Butcher quote? I’d like to … I dunno. Print it and make it a motivational little thing somewhere in my home. It gives me comfort.
The problem is I’m so BAD at titles. It’s in the one where the two ladies (Winter and Summer) die because the Winter lady was possessed. Someone I know must have a better memory than I do. Dresden files.
The problem is I consume Dresden files as one long book, and every time one comes out read the whole thing from the beginning and absorb the new book.
I know the one. Cold Days. Thank you.
And its nice to know I am not the only one who does this with the Dresden Files. My copies are getting worn out and I need hardcovers! I wanted to read the stand alone Butters story so much I bought Unfettered II.
Mirrors? What does that remind me of? Oh, now you reminded me of James Scott Bell’s book, Write Your Novel From the Middle. Over here, he talks about it
Where the key is the mirror moment, where “The character is forced to look at himself. As if in a mirror, only it’s a reflection of who he is at that moment in time. Who am I? What have I become? What do I have to do to regain my humanity? Sometimes, it’s the character looking at the odds. How can I possibly win? It looks like I’m going to die—physically or spiritually. Now what am I supposed to do?”
And the mirror cracked….
I’ve called that mirror moment for years. that’s when it flips.
I know! It was nice to see James Scott Bell talking about it, too.
Certain books I want to read again and again– and yes, I need the popcorn books for escape… I used to use Harlequins for that a long time ago… Also at least a few of those books are still whirling around in my head and helping me to cope… Some of those books were written by Andre Norton and some by Robert Heinlein. The same with movies and shows… I pull out Red Dwarf when life gets too overwhelming and I need to laugh. I can come back from the dream a calmer person.
Also with mirrors– you never know what will come out of them when the door fractures–
Cyn! It’s so rare to find someone with my instinctive distrust of mirrors. Older son has it, the rest of the family thinks I’m nuts. Maybe I’ll do another post on mirrors in writing.
IIRC Barbara Hambly’s Vampires can be seen in mirrors but what people see in the mirror is how the Vampires actually are but not what the Vampires want people to see. 😉
You know those horror movies where terrible things come out of mirrors 🙂 and if you look too hard you will see things you shouldn’t? Well, yea I don’t look into mirrors unless I have to– i.e. check teeth or something else. Also at one point I used to cover mirrors.
When my one MS was (vanity-press) published in ’07, I sent a copy to an author I’d enjoyed and asked for his assessment of it. As he wrote back to me,
“Characters would appear to be your weakness. There are so many of them, and frankly, none of them seem to me particularly memorable. The main problem (I think) is that they all act in unpredictable, seemingly capricious, ways. They seem to be doing what your plot demands they do, rather than what their personalities (so far as the reader can discern them) would naturally lead them to do. (The whole trick of plotting is creating characters who will want to do or have to do the things you as a plotter need them to do.) For instance, a doctor [acts thus in a scene in the book]. Now in a normal book, such behavior might raise the reader’s interest; make him ask, “Why is the doctor doing this? There’s a mystery here.” But in this book, everybody seems to act like that. So the incident isn’t a hook to grab the reader’s attention, but only one in a series of anomalies that already have him very confused. A story about an eccentric in a world of normal people is intriguing. A story of a world of eccentrics (unless handled very skillfully) is just tiring. … I have no reason to love the world of traditional publishing, which has thrown me overboard without a life jacket at this point. But this must be said for it–it forced the author to serve his apprenticeship.”
He went on to write:
“The method I like best … involves asking one question about each character–‘What does he/she WANT?’ Once you know what a character is seeking in life, you have a handle on the choices he’ll make.
I’d add to that one question of my own–‘What is he/she AFRAID OF?’ What the character wants tells you what directions he’ll take. What he fears tells you what kinds of means he’ll use to get there.
This raises the classic problem, ‘My character wants X, but my plot requires him to do Y. How do I get him to do what I want?’
The first answer to that question is, ‘Have I really considered how the plot might go if he does what he wants to do? Would it possibly be better?’
The second answer is, ‘You get him to change his direction just as you would a real person. You put roadblocks in his way. You put him under duress. You torture him.’ Torturing your characters is part of the author’s job.”
And so, via hopes, fears, plot requirements and torture, we find the Mirror Moments.
If you haven’t yet, read Dwight Swain. Both techniques of the selling writer and Creating Story people. I never needed the second. Characters I get “for free”. BUT the first took me and husband and older son from unpublishable to multi-published.