Friday, September 04, 2009

What Makes A Good Book Good?

Earlier this week, I was having a hardcore wallow over the uninspired pap I was scribbling all over my WIP. I knew I needed the jolt of eagerness and excitement over the written word that I can only get from a Really Good Book.

My RGB of choice was Dogs & Goddesses by the divine Jennifer Crusie, deific Anne Stuart, and transcendent Lani Diane Rich. And it worked. Whammo! Popped me right out of my funk. I'm writing great gobs of goodness into my WIP and life is good again.

But then I got to thinking. What makes a RGB so good?

We could dissect it. Break it down into pieces and examine the parts, but a book autopsy only works on dead items and Really Good Books are alive to me. Please, let's not kill them. They are so pretty as a whole, must we suck the life out of them and hack them apart? Does it have to be the dialogue or the characterization or the plot arc? Could it possibly be some kind of magical alchemy? An X-factor that takes a good book with all those dry ingredients and adds a juicy slug of wow to the pages.

I don't think a truly excellent work of literary fiction is any more quantifiable than popular/genre fiction. Can you describe to me exactly what makes Dickens more enduring than his contemporaries? What separates Steinbeck or Alcott from theirs? Entire literary theses are written in the attempt, but those theses tell us as much about the reader and what they bring to the work as they do about the work itself.

In one of Jasper Fforde's Thursday Next books (RGBs!) - I think it was The Well of Lost Plots, but I can't be sure - he talks about how much work a reader does, what percentage of the book experience is fueled by the reader versus the words themselves. Words are just words. The reader is the one who makes them worlds and people and ideas.

I was lucky enough to see Jennifer Crusie speak while I was in Ohio a couple months ago. One of the things she mentioned was leaving enough room in the manuscript for the reader to get inside and make themselves at home. This really got me thinking about the accessibility of books. Some are thick and dense, with not a lot of wiggle room, and not terribly cozy for a reader to crawl inside. But sometimes those difficult reading experiences can be just as, or even far more, rewarding than the easy ones which throw out the welcome mat.

I'm kind of in love with that metaphor now - the book as a living space. I'm picturing some of the difficult ones as being cramped and having major electrical problems, so you're pressed up against the wall and get periodic shocks as the book jolts you into opening up a part of your brain you hadn't accessed before. Electro-shock-reading!

To me, a RGB is not any particular kind of book, but rather a reading experience. I love classic literature. (Well, some of it. My hatred for James Joyce is a living, breathing thing.) But I also read copious amounts of genre fiction. I tend to think that genre fiction exists to take you out of yourself (those wide open doors of the accessible book) whereas lit fic exists to put you back in and make you take a hard look around (and maybe shock open a few new neural pathways). And both are valuable.

You cannot force someone to love electro-shock-reading any more than you can force them to respect the "easy" read. In this article at Smart Bitches, Candy talks about mandatory reading lists and the cold war between lit snobs and genre slobs. Can't we all just get along? Why does one have to be better than the other?

Eloisa James told a story at the National Conference about the difficulties of being a genre writer in a family of literary snobs. She kept being asked when she was going to write a "real" book. (If you've never read Eloisa James, do it now. Those books are real. And utterly brilliant.)

I can understand her frustration, but (don't hate me!) I can also see the other side. I love romance. I love writing romance. But I want to write a Big Book someday that examines and impacts society in a way a happily-ever-after could not do. So I can't take offense when people ask me when I'm going to write something real. Yeah, it sucks that they don't respect what I'm doing now, but I understand that to them a RGB has to be electro-shocky and romance just ain't. One man's RGB is another man's uninspired pap (or James Joyce).

And now I'm off topic... does anyone remember what I set out to say when I sat down to write this post? Something about Really Good Books? And what makes them good?

My verdict: Magic. And a place for the reader to climb inside. Really, it's all up to the reader. Not to diminish the work writers do, but without the reader's imagination, where would we be?

Your thoughts?


Kaye Chambers said...


I agree. A RGB is all about the magic of sucking you down the rabbit hole. That's what separates brilliance from the masses.

Your comment about literary snobs brings to mind a recent conversation with the principle of the local elementary school. I was there interviewing her to determine if it was the right place to send my children.

"What do you do?" she asked.

"I'm a writer?"

"Really?" She seemed to get excited about the prospect. "What do you write?"

"Urban Fantasy and Paranormal Romance, mostly."

Her face fell as her nose popped straight into the air.

"Oh. I suppose there's a market for that. I decided 'happily-ever-after' books were a waste a long time ago."

Well, guess she told me. *grins*

And, not surprisingly, my children don't go to her school. Not just for the lack of respect for my chosen profession, either.

Vivi Andrews said...

Wow. Someone who deals with children every day and doesn't believe in happily-ever-afters and fairy tales? That is so sad!

Gwynlyn MacKenzie said...

Like you, I read alot. Louisa May Alcott dominated my elementary school reading, both her biography and her fiction. I read Little Women so many times, when, as a senior, I had to write a term paper (which I'd put off to the last minute), I cobbled together a comparison of Ms. Alcott's real life and Little Women. I got a B because my bibliography a footnotes were a bit sketchy. (I only owned the fiction. The library had the biography *G*)

So, that said, I can appreciate both kinds of reading, but must admit, other than research books, I read mostly HEA fiction. Not exclusively. But mostly.

I have quite enough to wrap my mind around at the moment. Electro-shock reading would be but another irritant. Who goes there by choice?

Darynda said...

Great post, Vivi!!! You are so clever and just an excellent writer. I can see why you won a GH!!!

And don't even get me started on literary snobs. My very best friend turned into one for several years and she made sure that I knew my writing was little more than fertilizer. Then out of the blue she started reading "those" kinds of books again.

She recently apologized for being such a bitch to me for so long. I just said, "Oh, were you?"

No way was I going to show her how her attitude had hurt. Not in a million years. But that's just me.

Thanks, Vivi!!!

Anna Richland said...

I could share many genre-snob-stories but many of the people who have made such comments might read this blog ... so I'll let them wonder rather than confirm for them how defensive they have made me and how much they hurt my feelings. I'm (mostly) over it now that I finished my second manuscript and I've landed among such an accomplished group of fellow writers.

And Vivi, maybe part of why you like Dickens, Steinbeck and Alcott so much is because they all started out serialized or writing magazine shorts to pay the bills? Genre of their eras, in other words?

Kate Diamond said...

I agree, Vivi. There has to be magic from the writer!

But I think the reader also contributes: right time, and right motive.

So many of my favorite books were first encountered at a young age--"Anne of Green Gables" springs instantly to mind. I read it for pure pleasure (and had a total crush on Gilbert, thus starting a lifelong trend of romance-reading).

Conversely, I tried to read "Great Expectations" in middle school because I thought it would impress people. I ended up not liking it and not being able to finish (although later I read different Dickens and loved it).

heidenkind said...

If "real" books (not to mention real good books) aren't romances, then what was Uncle Tom's Cabin? Or Jane Eyre or Middlemarch or The Great Gatsby? No, not every romance novel is a brilliant social treatise, but that doesn't mean they can't be. Actually, romance DOES tend to be at the cutting edge of civil rights and human equality--just look at how popular GLBT romances are right now.

Kate Diamond said...


Classic romance is my favorite! I'm a big fan of Austen. I also love L.M. Montgomery's books (she's a classic children's author, after all).

I don't think I'd characterize Gatsby as romance, though... Daisy is WAY too obnoxious and there's no happily ever after. What do you think?

I'd be curious to know what people enjoy more: Bronte sisters, or Austen?

Vivi Andrews said...

Thank you everyone for commenting! I fell off the edge of the world (Yukon Territory, Canada) for a few days, but I'm back now and loving reading everyone's responses!

Vivi Andrews said...

Oh, and Kate - AUSTEN! The Bronte sisters were so melancholy. I'll take wit over angst any day of the week. :)

Vivi Andrews said...

Oh, and Anna - wasn't Steinbeck a flop until he wrote Tortilla Flat - a comedy? But he wasn't serialized, was he? And I wasn't really talking about why I like them, but more about why they have stood apart from their peers in the eyes of literary history, you know?