Wednesday, February 15, 2012

What makes a good book - A response to Jason

In the previous post, Jason asked me "Can you have a good book without an interesting subject?". I think it's a good question and worth a post. In addition, he had wondered more about the scholastic essay competition I had mentioned in a previous post.

My first thought in regard to this question is, "Who am I to judge?". I'm just an avid reader. For all my degrees and attempted degrees, never have I pursued English or journalism as a field of study. I've done a lot of proofreading, reading, editing and writing in my lifetime but I've never been educated in a related field (except library science which is more than books). I mention this because I believe writing is an art form. No matter how hard you try, you're not going to please everyone.

For example, one of the most popular writers on the planet, James Patterson, is a writer whose prose I find completely insipid, whose stories do not grab me, and who I believe is the hallmark of the downfall of our society (OK, I'm exaggerating a little bit). Yet he's one of the most popular writers on the planet. There's books for kids, adults, non-fiction, fiction. I have my doubts about the actual writing that a man named James Patterson does but the Patterson brand appeals to a lot of people. So is he good or not? It's up to you to make that call.

For me, there are many ways for a book to be good. When people ask me about writers I like, I often make sure I separate between who I think is a good writer versus who is a good storyteller. Jeanette Winterson, for instance. Amazing writer. Her stories I often find blah, though. It's like going into an art museum an seeing a beautiful painting of a parking garage. You can appreciate the talent but you sure wish they would have gone with a better subject.

On the other hand, you have great storytellers who may not be great writers. Jay McInerney comes to mind there. His prose is nothing special. It's good, don't get me wrong, but I've never come away from a McInerney book thinking, "Wow, that guy has a great command of the English language". Peter Cameron is another guy like that for me.

Then you have that rare breed who can do both. T.C. Boyle. Michael Chabon. Even though I think of both of them as more talented writers than storytellers (I'm pretty sure I could read a book about a sofa written by either of these guys and think it was good) they usually combine both real well.

This then gets me asking myself, "Why do I read what I do"? You're not going to find Animals of the Third Reich on a bestseller list. You won't find much of what I read on bestseller lists. Part of that is a professional choice. Working in a library, I know people are going to read the popular stuff. I'm going to here about it. I'm going to read reviews about it. It's not pressing for me to grab something everyone else is reading. There are certainly exceptions but for the most part, my feeling is there are a gazillion books out there, I should try and be selective as to what I read (along those lines, there is nothing that makes me want to throttle a library patron more than the person who comes in and complains that there is nothing to read). Take a chance.

I think really that's what prompts my reading selections. Taking chances. I started reading at an ungodly early age. Then I kept getting pushed by my teachers and librarians. When I was in kindergarten, I was pressed to sign out books in the non-fiction section and move away from Babar (it took me some getting used to that. All my classmates were being read to and I was off browsing the dinosaurs). In the early grades, the librarian sent me to the older grade section (where I got to read about cryptography). I think never being where I was "supposed to be" helped lead me to being a varied reader.

I like fiction and non. I tend to favor male writers. As of late, I've turned towards books published by small presses. I tend to read smaller books (less than 300 pages) because then I can read more books. I don't always read books by my favorite authors. If you look back over my reading lists, you'll see I rarely, if ever, read an author more than twice a year. There's still a ton of Boyle books I have yet to read, for instance. I like books that challenge me. Challenge my vocabulary (Chabon), challenge my ways of thinking, challenge my knowledge base. I knew nothing about animals in the Third Reich. Now I do. Does it have any "use"? Doubtfully. But it was something I knew nothing about and wanted to learn at least a little so I read it. Was it a good book? I gave it zero stars. I thought it was dry. It didn't meet my expectations. But I learned something and I'm not sure there's a whole lot more on the subject that has been written. So to an extent, yes, I think it was a good book.

But really, I don't know. I don't like ranking and rating books because it is hard to compare. I do it anyway, but I don't really like it. For instance, take my "top three" books from last year; Running the Books, Eleven and Ghosted. What made them good? What made one better than the other? I found Running the Books to be well-written, informative, inspirational. It was a unique story told from a unique point of view. It resonated with me. I liked Eleven a lot, too. It was a great story, one of the best I've read in a while. Wonderful characters. Watson isn't a great writer but he told his story in a very capable and appropriate manner. If Chabon writes that book, it isn't as good. It gets dragged down in descriptions and vocabulary. It's still probably a really great book but it's not Mark Watson's book anymore. And Mark Watson wrote his book really well. As for Ghosted, well, there's not a book like that anywhere. That book doesn't get published by a big press because it's too out there, it's too disturbing, it's too long and rambling. It's not a book a lot of people are going to "get". For those who do, though, whoa! It's because of books like that that I am grateful for small presses who will take a chance and realize that just because a book doesn't have mass appeal, it will certainly have some appeal.

So to answer Jason's question in one word, "Yes". I think a book can be good for a variety of reasons.

And I'll talk about the writing competition since this post is already absurdly long and since it is related because I had to judge writing. The competition is a nationwide scholastic one with a variety of ways kids can enter (journalism, short stories, poetry, etc.). Kids are judged regionally by people with literary backgrounds (mostly, if not exclusively, teachers and librarians). The top ranked kids (in my area, about the top 40%), get prizes with the top echelon (just shy of ten percent I believe) having their entries moved on to, I believe, a statewide competition then from there, nationally.

Judges were asked to rank the areas they wanted to judge in priority order. I think I got my two preferred choices; high school journalism and older age (11th and 12th grade) short stories. We were to read a number of works (I did 15 journalism and 30 short stories) and judge them on originality, voice, and to a lesser extent, technical skill. Each piece was to be scored out of 30 points and we were provided a rubric which was a horrible guide and of very little help.

So as a judge, how did I decide what was good, especially given that I was to discount technical skill, an ability I value highly as a reader? First I looked at originality. Was there anything special about what the kid wrote, from either a topic or perspective viewpoint? There were a few that made me say, Hmmmm....interesting". They got good scores on originality. Some were completely dull. Some made no sense and made me wonder why they even bothered.

Then I looked at voice. This was tricky as we were to look for "emergence of their own voice". What I looked for was an attempt to escape straight fact-telling, fiction or not. Jim woke up, he went to school. Aliens attacked the school. Jim found the secret self-destruct button on the spacecraft and saved the school. If you told me about Jim and the school and the alien and gave me detail and did it in a way that seemed like you weren't trying to be someone else, then I gave you good points.

But then it was tricky again because I think it takes technical skill to be original and demonstrate a voice. If you're spelling things wrong and using improper punctuation, I'm going to find your story more difficult to read. How can I tell what your voice is if your sentences aren't coherent?

I tried to compare the works to one another and not T.C. Boyle. I wanted to be fair. Even still, there were some really brutal works, especially, as I mentioned before, this was an optional contest. Kids who entered either enjoy and/or think they are good at writing. Some certainly need a lot of work.

No worries, though. Each work was judged by multiple judges so individual judge quirks should have been eliminated.

Whew! This was a crazy long post. Hope y'all enjoyed this little insight into what I look for in a good book.


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Yes. That was a long post. I grade it a 12.5.

jtorrey13 said...

See email. I'm too long winded for YOUR comment section.*

*Yes, I realize it's not your comment section, I just felt a little emphasis for ribbing, ribbing for my pleasure, was needed as well as some passive voice to hide behind.

jtorrey13 said...

Ok, now this is the second mention of "Animals in the Third Reich." Coincidence? Yes.