The idea of a book being good or bad is enough to send many book lovers into a flurry of indignation. All books, they might say with fierceness and finality, are good just for the fact that they are books, regardless of their literary merit.
No lesser authority than writer Gunter Grass left no room for debate when he said: “Even bad books are books and therefore sacred.”
Yet, the question of whether it was good or not is the first many readers will be asked when discussing a book.
So, what is it that makes us consider a book good or otherwise? There are so many ways in which a reader can be pleased or disappointed, from the language to the story line; the characters to the length. A poorly written ending can taint the entire book, while many readers have been put off immediately by a lacklustre beginning.
The question of what makes a book good is one that sometimes even stumps the experts, with judges of some of the world’s most respected book prizes occasionally at loggerheads over the most deserving winner.
The original winner of the 1989 Whitbread Novel Prize, The War Zone, was later stripped of the prize after a dispute among the judges, and the award was given to another book, Lindsay Clarke’s The Chymical Wedding.
One of my favourite novels, The God of Small Things, won the 1997 Booker Prize, but a panel member from the previous year’s prize clearly didn’t agree with me or the judges describing the book as ‘execrable’, and saying it should never have been shortlisted.
It is not just the literary establishment that struggles to define the quality of a book; the general reader is often at odds with books critics over what a good book looks like. Some internationally bestselling books have drawn the ire of critics. 50 Shades of Grey is among the world’s most popular books, with more than 125 million copies sold, but was widely panned by the critics. The Da Vinci Code has sold about 83 million copies since it was published in 2003, but critical reviews were mixed, at best, with the book described as “preposterous” and “sloppy” by some, and “gleefully erudite” by others.
The chasm between the popular notion of a good book and the critical one was also evident when Anne Enright’s The Gathering won the 2007 Booker Prize. The novel had sold less than a paltry 3,500 copies.
Writers themselves even have difficulty in evaluating the quality of their own work. Author Allison Tait asked writers when they knew their book was ‘good enough’ to send to publishers.
Bestselling author Rachael Johns answered, “This is actually something I struggle with a lot – mostly because I honestly NEVER think my writing is any good. I’m one of those writers who doesn’t love writing but ADORES having written. I always feel like a fluke and that my writing isn’t good enough, so I usually end up sending it [to the publisher] before I think it’s ready.”
Similarly, in an article titled Ten Rules for Writing Fiction, author Anne Enright’s third point was, “Only bad writers think that their work is really good.”
It might come as a relief for those who doubt the quality of their writing that bestselling author Stephen King believes that bad books could be worth reading when he said, “Every book you pick up has its own lessons, and quite often the bad books have more to teach than the good ones.”
However, celebrated writer James Joyce was not so generous, saying, “Life is too short to read a bad book.”
I asked some of my friends and family members about what elements they considered most important in determining whether they considered a book to be good or not.
The main aspect they seemed to agree on was that the use of language, whether beautifully arranged, strikingly evocative or elegantly sparse, was the most important factor in making a book enjoyable. One friend pointed out that even a brilliant concept could be ruined by poor use of language.
From that starting point, the responses varied. Some didn’t mind if characters were likeable, as long as they seemed realistic, and were not clichéd; some liked to be moved, while others preferred to relax with a book, rather than being stimulated by it.
Clearly, different aspects of literature are important to their diverse audiences, although language is a consistently important element. And I have to agree, that for me, the use of language is crucial. Beautiful words, strung together with skill and thought, can overcome a poor story line and weak or unlikable characters. In fact, I am a bit embarrassed to admit that I can’t even really remember the story lines of some of my favourite books, including One Hundred Years of Solitude, All That I Am and The God of Small Things; I just recall the sense of beauty the words invoked. Some turns of phrase were almost poetic.
But I have also loved books that were carried by their complex, engaging story lines, such as Jonathan Franzen’s books, The Bonfire of the Vanities, The Thornbirds, A Suitable Boy and the enduring Middlemarch.
And it’s hard to look past the intriguing historical fiction of Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites, Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Geraldine Brooks’ Year of Wonders.
Then there are the hilarious Bill Bryson books, John Kennedy Toole’s irreverent A Confederacy of Dunces and the outrageous Vernon God Little, and the unsettling truth of Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things.
These books are wildly diverse, but I found each of them to be undeniably good. Other people’s lists might also include these, or entirely different, books. And perhaps that is part of the joy of reading – every book is a personal journey that the reader experiences in their own way, with all their own preferences and prejudices.
Clearly, when talking books, there is no hard and fast rule about what is good or bad, or even if there is such a thing. It all depends on who is reading and what they want from the experience. They might be looking for a cracking yarn, exquisite use of language, a mystery to solve, a new world to explore, believable characters or a happy ending.
Fortunately, the millions of books written throughout history, with attributes as diverse as their authors, ensures that there is always going to be a good book on hand, whatever that might mean.