Ask Yourself: What Makes a Good Book?
June 19, 2012
For those of us who write and pretend to be authors, this is the great, universal, and mysterious question: What make a good book?
I would like to tell you. I really would.
I have no idea.
I don’t have a clue.
Back when the world was drying from the great flood, the news of the day was that the Alamo had fallen, and I was in high school, we were fed a strong and steady diet of the Classics.
Some captivated me like the House of Seven Gables, The Fall of the House of Usher, Moby Dick, and All Quiet on the Western Front.
But most of the Classics confounded me. No. They bored me. They were a quagmire of words and phrases full of sound and fury and signifying nothing, according to Shakespeare, and he didn’t excite me much either.
Have you waded through Silas Marner, The Plague, and The Scarlet Letter lately? We used Pride and Prejudice as a doorstop and lifted it like weights to keep our strength up during P.E.
I once asked a high school teacher, “Why are these books considered classics. They are old. They are difficult to read. They don’t interest me.”
She answered, “Because they have withstood the test of time.”
My response was that any book could withstand the test of time if it was stuck in high school literature text books and required to be read for a couple of hundred years.
My feeling, even among the so-called Classics, is that books are a lot like art hanging in a famous gallery.
If you like the painting, it’s good.
If you don’t like the painting, it’s bad.
It doesn’t make any difference who the artist might be.
Books are no different.
For example, I don’t particularly like the mysteries of Stuart Woods and James Patterson. I think both authors are great storytellers, but the writing, as far as style is concerned, is rather juvenile and leaves a lot to be desired. Millions, however, disagree with me. They buy any and every book that Stuart Woods and James Patterson pull out of their PCs. My wife is among them. She likes the books because they are quick and simple to read. The novels definitely do not require a lot of thought or contemplation. They are an escape. They are entertainment, pure and simple.
I once interviewed James Patterson, and he said that his books became great sellers because he used the same techniques he had applied during his glory days as a top creative director for a major New York advertising agency.
He said, “I keep my chapters short. They are never more than two to four pages. Most times, they are only three. When someone is reading one of my books at night, he or she finishes a chapter and glances at the next one. Only three pages? They think, ‘I have time to read another one before I got to be.’ And then another one. Pretty soon, a reader has finished the whole book. If the next chapter is fifteen or twenty pages, the readers would merely sit the book aside and maybe never go back to it. Too many pages of gray type are daunting, and nobody wants to wade through them.”
He had a point. I don’t know if it matters with eBooks. But it certainly did with print versions.
So books keep flooding the marketplace. There are more new writers everyday. There are more new books published every day.
All authors believes that they have written a good book, and their brilliant writing skills and extraordinary storytelling abilities have made a book good.
A lot of them are right. At this particular time in this particular revolution of the planet earth, we probably have more exceptional books on Kindle and Nook than the classical authors of old had in libraries or high school textbooks.
But do the readers find them? Do the readers buy them? Or, are these books simply adrift and hitchhiking their way through the galaxy of an unsettled marketplace?
Perhaps, when it’s all said and done, whether we like it or not, there is an answer to that great, mysterious, and universal question I asked early.
The criteria have changed. Then again, maybe it was always this way. The theme, the subject, and the genre of the novel don’t matter. Whether the book is well written or well edited doesn’t really matter either.
It’s all about the story. It’s all about the only six plots ever written and whether they emotionally impact a reader: love, hate, greed, revenge, power, ambition, and jealousy. It’s all about the cover design. Does it grab readers browsing through Amazon and stop them dead in their tracks. Does the log line or the synopsis tell them, “Hey, pal, here is a novel that’s definitely worth reading. It’s worth ninety-nine cents or a few bucks. Give it a shot.”
Does the author’s name ring a bell? Is he or she a known quantity? Have I seen the name attached to Twitter or to a blog? Have I read another book the author has written, and did I like it well enough to buy another one?
Here is the bottom line, and it has absolutely nothing to do with the novel itself. There is only one basic, down-in-the-dirt, hard-core reason that makes a good book or a book good.
It’s crass. It has nothing to do with art. It does nothing to soothe the poet’s soul that dwells within us. But I would take sales over a well-written paragraph every time.