Sunday Salon: What Makes a Book Good?

Last week, when I wrote about gender and genre, I had every intention of writing about the question of quality. I was at the time frustrated at how people were dismissively declaring Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weiner’s books as “crap” without convincing me that they had read them—and without seeming to take into account what these authors’ books intended to do. As it turns out, the question of the gender divide interested me more than I thought, so my post went in a different direction than I expected, but the initial question I had in my mind hasn’t left me.

One of my favorite film critics is Roger Ebert. One of the things I love about Ebert is that he genuinely loves movies, all kinds of movies. He’s just as likely to give a rave to a massive commercial blockbuster as to an esoteric foreign film. But he doesn’t just hand out praise thoughtlessly. When a film fails, he says it. But the important thing is that he seems to take into account what the film intends to do. And he reviews all kinds of films, which is extremely helpful when I’m trying to decide whether the blockbuster of the moment is worth seeing or when I’m looking to see something a bit off the beaten track.

(On a side note, the fact that I always read reviews of blockbuster films before deciding to see them leads me to think that more printed reviews of blockbuster books would not be a bad thing, but then I don’t see reviews as being about promoting certain books as much as about helping readers separate the wheat from the chaff. I am realizing that this is not necessarily the majority view, either among print reviewers or among bloggers.)

There are lots of things I look for in a book. I want well-drawn characters, well-crafted prose, readability, a compelling story, interesting themes, emotional resonance, intellectual stimulation, humor, excitement, new ideas, the comfort of the familiar, and so on. The thing is, not every book is going to have all of these things. Not every book attempts to. Before writing a book off as crap, perhaps it’s a good idea to ask what the book is attempting to do. Let’s not fault a romantic comedy for not being War and Peace.

Certainly, some of these qualities are more important than others, but the importance of each of these qualities will often vary from book to book and from reader to reader. Some people simply can’t get into a book with prose that never rises above the workmanlike level. If the story, characters, or themes interest me enough, I don’t mind uninspired language, as long as it isn’t outright poor. This is a difference in personal taste. And that’s okay. We all have our preferences, but a book that doesn’t meet all our personal preferences is not necessarily crap. It may be a very good book  in its way. And one way of being good is not automatically superior to other ways of being good. Yes, the best thing is to be good in many ways—that, in fact, is what makes a good book into a great book.

To conclude, let me direct you to this great post at The Egalitarian  Bookworm, which says a lot of what I’m thinking, but better than I could say it.

Notes from a Reading Life

Books Completed

  • The Mirage by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles.
  • Half Magic by Edward Eager (audio).
  • The Robber Bride by Margaret Atwood (reread).
  • What Good Is God? by Philip Yancey. (Book to be published October 19, so I’m holding my review until closer to that date.)

Currently Reading

  • The Widower’s Tale by Julia Glass.
  • My Invented Country by Isabel Allende (audio)

New Acquisitions

  • None

On My Radar

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30 Responses to Sunday Salon: What Makes a Book Good?

  1. Boxer, Beetle is a very accomplished debut, Teresa; I reviewed it early last month.

    It frustrates me when books are all held against same measuring sticks when different books offer different things and possess unquantifiable value to different readers. Without having read a book then someone cannot judge it and judge others for reading it and finding something in it: whether it be stimulation, comfort or entertainment.

    • Teresa says:

      Ooh, I must have missed your review. I’ll go take a look!

      And yes, it’s the need for different measuring sticks that’s important to me. I’m not going to evaluate a goofy comedy by the same standards as a classic tome.

  2. The Raven says:

    I very much agree that we should judge books (and pretty much everything else) by what they set out to do–but on the other hand, if an author chooses to limit the scope of what he or she is trying to do, is it fair to say the book succeeds as well as one that sets out to do a great deal more?

    Fascinating and thoughtful post. Thanks for giving me a lot to chew on today.

    • Teresa says:

      It’s certainly true that some books are more ambitious than others, and therefore probably “greater” books than those that are attempting something simpler. (Although I wonder if making someone laugh or making someone feel deeply is any less ambitious than a “loftier,” more intellectual goal.)

      I guess where I get frustrated is when people say a book is no good because it’s, for example, plot-heavy and lacking a lot of depth. A book with a strong plot *and* depth might be a better book, but that doesn’t make the shallow, plot-heavy book a bad book.

  3. Trisha says:

    You’ve stated exactly why I like Ebert so much!

    I think you have a great point here. When I’m teaching analysis to my composition students, I always tell them it’s about the same questions: What was the author trying to do? How did the author go about doing it? Was the author successful? It’s too true that often in analyzing books – or movies – we forget to start with the actual purpose of the work instead of judging it by irrelevant standards.

    • Teresa says:

      Those are great questions to ask. Seems to me like it’s a good starting point for anyone attempting to write about books. And that first question is actually pretty complicated, isn’t it? (I’m thinking, for example, of Nicholas Sparks who thinks he’s writing like Hemingway, which he isn’t, although his readers probably aren’t looking for Hemingway, and he seems successful at giving them sentimental weepers.)

  4. You’ve definitely given me something to think about.

    My first response is to add that we should not only think about what the author intends but also what we as readers want from books when we review them. I know that I want to read a book that surprises me with insights, with where it takes me, with truth. I am rarely satified with most genre books as a result.

    My Sunday Salon is here:

    Hope you will drop by!

    • Teresa says:

      Definitely different readers are looking for different things from books. There are certain kinds of books that may be very good at being what they are but that don’t interest me. But I’d be reluctant to write them off as crap–they’re just not for me.

  5. Steph says:

    I think you make a lot of good points here, but I suppose one thing I’ve always wondered about when it comes to this notion of good books is whether that designation is even important. I mean, as you point out, we all read for different reasons, and to me it doesn’t really matter whether a book can objectively be considered good or not if I don’t personally enjoy it. I suppose at the end of the day it’s less important to me for a book to be good based on the measures you’ve described as it is for me to subjectively find it good. Perhaps Picoult achieves everything she means to do in her books, I can’t say, but I do know I would not like her books one bit based on what I’ve read about them. What does it matter then if others consider her to be a good author or not?

    (And just so it doesn’t look as though I’m picking on Picoult – though I am! – I’ll say the same is true for Ian McEwan; plenty of people love him and he’s well respected but I don’t like him at all. I guess I wouldn’t necessarily say his books are bad by some objective measure, but I don’t enjoy them, and so it amounts to the same thing – I don’t read things by him!)

    • Teresa says:

      Those are some really good points, Steph! I can definitely acknowledge that a book is effective at achieving the author’s objectives, without liking it much myself–or without wanting to read more by that author. As you say, the effect is the same, but the way I talk about my dislike would be different.

  6. Hi, I’m a new follower.

    Wonderful entry. I think that one has to find a reviewer you mostly agree with and only then listen to what they have to say. Otherwise it doesn’t matter since you have different tastes.

    I have a “taste test” on my website so people can see what I thought of different books and know my taste.

    P.S. I think Ebert is great but I only listen to him when it comes to comic book movies – otherwise our tastes differ.

    • Teresa says:

      I actually often learn a lot from critics I don’t agree with, as long as they’re able to articulate why they do or don’t like something. Ebert is my favorite film critic, but I don’t always agree with him, but I can almost always tell from his reviews whether I’ll like something.

      I like that “taste test” idea!

  7. You’re quite right that we need to, like Ebert, take into account what an author is trying to do, but I think a reader has certain expectations that defy genre or depth- interesting characters, world, and story.

  8. Ooooh Steph has a great point!

    At the end of the day, books are as varied as people, even if a book has endured a test of time, like a classic, doesn’t mean it will offer the transcendent reading experience to everyone. The article you linked to called The Hunger Games a one note series and I”m trying to figure out what that means. No depth? Only succeeds on one level?

    • Teresa says:

      I liked Steph’s point, too!

      And I absolutely agree that even the objectively “best” books won’t mean much to everybody. I think, for me, it’s just a question of how we talk about our dislike. If a book doesn’t work for me, does that mean it’s no good for anyone? Probably not, although in some cases, perhaps so.

      That Hunger Games reference flew right past me, but then again, I’m one of maybe 3 people who still hasn’t read any of the books. :)

      • Well I totally agree with you there!

        I just wondered about the one-note reference because it sounds like a bit of a put-down. (though she said it was a profound reading experience) I think that series is more structurally and metaphorically rich than it is given credit for.

        I do think also that it’s a bit popular to put down popular fiction. I often wonder why people spend so much time wailing about the popularity of Twilight rather than figuring out why it works for so many people and if maybe there is more there than meets the eye.

      • Teresa says:

        I agree, Amy, that people do seem to automatically put down popular books–or apologize for liking them. I find it more interesting to consider what makes them popular, just as I’m more interested in why people like certain books that what books they like.

  9. Jenny says:

    A huge part of my enjoyment (or lack thereof) of books tends to come from what I expected from them. When it turns out they aren’t trying to do what I thought they were trying to do, I am disappointed, even though I know it’s unfair. That’s one way book reviews are helpful, and the more the better.

    • Teresa says:

      The same is true for me, Jenny. When that happens, I try to sort out whether my expectations were fair, and sometimes they weren’t. (Sometimes they were, though, and the book just wasn’t successful.)

  10. A book which has a good plot, with wonderful characterizations, beautiful prose works for me. I don’t like long winded paragraphs or also those books which use very unusual words. When I read a book, I want to be wholly into to, not run to dictionary every time.

    Here is my Sunday Salon post!

    • Teresa says:

      Those all sound like important qualities to me. I don’t mind some complicated prose, though, if the story, characters, and ideas and strong enough to keep me interested

  11. I’ve just finished reading the Booker long list and I’d argue that all the books on the list were ‘good books’ as in well written with literary merit. I only enjoyed reading about half of them, but I know that many people love the other half. I’m not sure anyone can say which books are good – it is all down to personal taste and I know that even the worst books (poorly written, with inconsistencies etc) will be enjoyed by others. All we can do is to try and let people know exactly which aspects of each book they might enjoy and hopefully they’ll be able to decide for themselves whether it is worth them buying the book.

    • Teresa says:

      Jackie, I really appreciate your philosophy there! When I talk or write about books I think less in terms of recommending books and more in terms of giving people information that will help them decide.

  12. Jeanne says:

    I like to use the outmoded phrase “rhetorical purpose” for this. Some works of fiction did have one–The Water Babies and Uncle Tom’s Cabin, of course. Other works of fiction certainly have a purpose, even if it’s not so blatantly propagandistic. Picoult is always trying to get people to pay attention to some current events topic, whether it’s organ donation or whatever, but after reading several of her books I got tired of the way she never takes a stand, never brings her characters to the point where they have to say which side of the issue they’re on.

    • Teresa says:

      Yeah, I felt like Picoult was cheating with My Sister’s Keeper. I didn’t mind *her* not having a didactic message, but she didn’t force her characters to choose and live with the consequences. Same with Nineteen Minutes–she used a plot twist to weasel her way out of the central dilemma.

  13. Kathleen says:

    You are so right! Not every book is trying to be War and Peace and as readers we have to understand that. I loved Good in Bed by Weiner and didn’t think I reading Tolstoy.

  14. Bumbles says:

    I had a post earlier this week on what I want from the book reviews I read. For the same reasons you outline here, reading is so subjective and tastes so personal that what really helps me in a review is understanding where the reviewer is coming from. Tell me WHY you came to your opinion so that I can then come to my own.

    As for War & Peace, many portions were in fact romantic comedy ;0) I was thrilled to discover that when I read it this year.

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