What makes a book good?

I’m currently reading a mystery about authors by arguably one of the most well-known novelists in the world, J.K. Rowling, writing as Robert Galbraith. I’m finding Rowling’s commentary about the publishing industry, about writers and writing, an interesting subtext to the story, given her unique perspective in that regard. One fictional author is successful and another isn’t, one is considered “good” and the other “bad;” a romance writer’s work is described as “pornography” dressing up as historical romances that sell extremely well; a literary agent rages about the amount of trash people write. The mystery is set when eBooks were just beginning to be widely available, and a character threatens to self-publish a highly controversial manuscript when his publishers refuse it.

The recent Amazon rom-com “Book of Love” is another, far less nuanced, commentary, in which an unsuccessful “boring” novel is translated into Spanish with a lot of steamy scenes added and becomes an international bestseller, turning the book from “bad” to “good.” The author is forced to accept that his writing was substandard before the additions made it popular. (I don’t want to give this too much credit for having a deep plot, because it really didn’t. I just had it on while I was cleaning the house the other day.)

These different but related depictions have made me think about the reasoning behind determining a book’s value or worth. What is “good” writing? Is it writing that someone enjoys? Does it sell well, or receive lots of high ratings, or do critics like it? Can a book be good without markers of success like bestseller lists or celebrity endorsements?

Outside of the most overt means of rating one piece of writing as better or worse — whether it has massive plot holes or contradictions, for instance, or editorial errors far beyond grammatical typos, or involves things like plagiarism or fraud, what makes one novel better than another? There are certainly books I read and think, well, the writing wasn’t necessarily the best, but what a fun and compelling story. That was good! I’m in for book two! Others may strike me as extraordinarily well-written, but aren’t nearly as engaging.

On a very basic level as a reader, I would classify not-good writing as that which lacks authenticity in voice and narrative, consistency, relate-ability and flow, while good writing offers those things. I can tell almost right away if I’m going to like an author’s work. I have a hard time reading certain authors because of their style, though I wouldn’t call it an inferior style, just one that irks me personally.

The same applies to any form of art — movies, TV shows, paintings, music, theatre, sculpture, dance, poetry, as well as all forms of design. There are certainly creations in every medium that a large percentage of people might agree on as being very good indeed, but does someone have poor taste if they disagree?

Our appreciation of what’s “good” or “bad” is so entirely personal that, while I can appreciate the wider contextual role of critics in every medium, as well as the power of popularity, I feel like we often give external evaluations too much credit. An expert in literature might condemn a story as “total utter derivative crapola,” and yet hundreds of millions of people adored the book. So is it bad because critically it was reviled, or good because it’s a money-earning bestseller with an HBO series in production? What about a title the critics heap with glowing praise that never makes it into anyone’s book club? If it isn’t considered “great literature” by a certain number of experts, awarded prizes and acclaim — or, conversely, if it isn’t hugely popular, is it therefore less worthy of a reader’s time?

I find the feedback of audience members far more valuable when I’m considering a movie or a book than I do critics’ assessments. Critics are paid to know what they’re talking about, but their opinion, however informed it might be by knowledge of the subject, is still just one opinion, and can be affected by biases, pressures and preconceptions. Endorsements and awards don’t just happen spontaneously simply because a novel or performance is really really good, there are machinations, negotiations and stratagems behind just about every selection. Most Amazon reviewers don’t have ulterior motives, they just know what they liked and didn’t like. Even then, a book that nine out of 10 readers thought was meh might be one of my favorites, you never know.

If it isn’t considered “great literature” by a certain number of experts, awarded prizes and acclaim — or, conversely, if it isn’t hugely popular, is it therefore less worthy of a reader’s time?

The valuation of books is one of the most ambiguous parts about being self-published, without the official sanction of the industry. Any author can publish their work and distribute it widely online, so “low-quality” titles get mixed up with the editorially-approved “high-quality” ones, the way the industry spins it. And yet recently my mom was reading a novel that she found truly awful — a traditionally-published title, authorized by that glowing stamp of industry acceptance. She sent me an excerpt that read like it was scribbled by an overexcited 16-year-old in her first creative writing class (I recognize this style, since I used to be one, and it wasn’t done on purpose). The book was, in her estimation, ill-written nonsense and not remotely enjoyable or entertaining.

It’s hard to feel as self-conscious about bypassing the agent-editor-publisher process when I consider all the traditionally-published tripe I’ve come across, riddled with problematic characters or plots and lacking substance or style. It was considered “good enough” to publish by a series of professional gatekeepers, and so it was chosen over “lesser” works. I’m reminded again of how arbitrary a system it really is. Maybe it’s true that industry-published titles tend to be better-written or -edited than self-published titles, overall, but that doesn’t mean that as a rule they’re better.

As someone who studied literature and art history, I absolutely see the value of literary and artistic analysis, examining historical and sociological contexts of a work, and the wider critical perspective. But like reading, experiencing any kind of art is a highly subjective experience, separate from expert judgments. If someone loves a painting, and finds an emotional resonance with it, are they wrong to feel that way if a critic pronounces it a crummy mess and not worth the price of the canvas? Should you not have enjoyed a show if it was panned in reviews?

But like reading, experiencing any kind of art is a highly subjective experience, separate from expert judgments.

Does it matter, ultimately, what industry professionals or a collection of paid experts or other audience members think, if you individually were entertained or inspired or moved by a book, movie, painting or song?

No. In my opinion, which is just one opinion, it does not.

It comes down to the question we all get to answer every time we watch a series on Netflix, go to a concert, check out a local artist or read a book: Did you like it?

You didn’t? Then it’s not for you, it was meh or derivative crapola or the worst 90 minutes you ever had to sit through in your life.

You did? Then it’s good. Simple as that.

~ Emily



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