*Scene: the classroom in the Peanuts cartoons. At the front, the ever-incoherent teacher. Facing her, a column of kids at desks: Lucy, Patty, Charlie B, and at the back, wearing a dunce hat, a bemused looking kid, slightly older than the rest, who we learn is called Neil. The deployment of dunce hats is not standard educational practice in this state. The hat has a home-made look. The D is back to front.*
Neil (interrupting the teacher’s drone): Please, Miss: I have a question.
Neil: No, Miss. It’s not about Edgar Allan Poe.
Neil: Well, I was wondering: what makes a book a good book?
Neil: No, Miss, I don’t have a degree in English Literature from Princeton University or, indeed, similar from an overseas education provider of equivalent standing. I was just wondering what makes a good book.
Teacher: Bwuh-BWUH-buh. Bu-BUH-buh.
Neil: Well, I suppose that’s why I keep having to retake this Critical Theory class, but I still want to know. What, for instance, makes an awards jury pick one book out of a bunch of others and say: “This is the one I enjoyed the most”? What? No, okay. Not enjoyed. Enjoyment is subjective and wholly unquantifiable. We covered that in the first term, I know. And I don’t suppose awards juries are supposed to enjoy books anyway.
But look, there are a whole bunch of skills required to write a novel, so let’s assume that an author has to be at least proficient at all of them if we are to consider their book, by an objective standard, good. The prose has to be correctly deployed in a style that complements the purpose to which it is being put. The story told well and with drama and not confuse the plot which has to be both logical and satisfying. The form should be the best one for conveying both the story and any intended additional meaning. The setting should be evocatively conjured, and the characters, as the reader’s points of access to the story, must have actions, conversations and intentions that are believable within the context of the story’s world and the trappings of the plot.
So, an author has to achieve a baseline proficiency in all of these elements before anyone is likely to give their book a second look. But beyond that ability to write a cogent sentence, to render a believable character, to carry a logical story all the way to the end, authors tend to boost some these elements more strongly than others, demonstrating excellence in some skills, while others remain at the proficient level. This is natural–you can’t turn everything up to eleven. You choose what works for your story. Horses for courses, and all that. If your intention is to write a thriller, you rein the descriptions right the hell back in favour of action and pace, for example. Additionally, many writers actually excel at one or two of the core skills, but rarely at all of them. They show off what they’re good at. If they write great characters with fantastic dialogue, then its natural that their books feature those above, say, intricate plotting or nuanced, politically relevant subtext.
Neil: Really? Penn’s little buddy, Teller, said that?
Neil: Well, perhaps he wrote it down. It’s still good though: “Art is what what we do once the chores are done.” I like it. But, of course, this is where is does get subjective, isn’t it? This is where, when we talk about good and best, we tend to start using words like innovation of form and authorial ambition and insight and allegorical and conversation with the genre. At least, the we who claim to be scholars and authors and possibly award jurors do. But what about the readers? Not the academics–the readers who buy books in quantity because they live for stories? Live through stories. What’s their interpretation of good and best?
People sometimes like to bring in terms like High Art and Low Art round about this point, so that we can judge by different standards: artistic ambition versus entertainment. So we can give prizes to the former and indulge good examples of the latter as “guilty pleasures”. But, see, that’s where I have a problem. It’s in the tone used when making that distinction. When we say: I loved it but it was just a supernatural horror or it was brilliant but it was just a THE fantasy adventure, it’s dismissive, and it’s kind of insulting both to the authors who choose to write those kinds of books and to the people who buy them, often in significantly greater quantities than books with higher ambitions.
I don’t like the terms High Art versus Low Art. I prefer Those Who Read With The Head versus Those Who Read With The Heart. I admit that I tend to be in the former category. I value newness in novels–new ideas or new settings or new ways of telling stories–over familiar tales, even when told well, but I’m still susceptible to the latter from time to time. To achieving complete immersion in a great piece of entertainment, to falling under the spell of a masterfully told story. As an author who is slowly assembling and honing my own set of novelist’s tools, I find that I eye the skills and techniques deployed by great storytellers whose books are bought by Those Who Read With The Heart with at least, if not more, an envious eye than those of their Header counterparts.
Put it this way, Miss. You know that trunked novel sitting on your hard drive? Flour For Algernon, the beautiful, spare and unflinching quasi-sequel to an acknowledged classic, part memoir, part baker’s recipe book, which examines the diminishment of mental faculty considered as mille feuille? I’ve read it. It’s truly an amazing work, but it’s dry. Really, dry. It needs, I don’t know, butter or honey, or, yes, cream. Gloopy, unctuous, bad-for-you cream. You know what I’m s–
Neil: Well, if you feel that way, fine! But answer me this honestly: if you were asked to write an engrossing, immersive fantasy adventure, a genuine can’t-put-it-down page-turner with characters that the readers will be heartbroken to part with at book end and, indeed, will feel compelled to hassle your publisher for more, and when you finally decide to kill them off, they/you/everyone will cry for days at the bereavement, could you do it? Honestly? Because, I say these skills are genuinely rare, that they’re as difficult to master as any others in the writer’s tool box, and that we don’t reward them enough.
Teacher: Buh! Buh-bwuh-buh-buh. Bwuh.
Neil: Yes, Miss. Yes, I know. Yes, it does. No. Yes, the D is the wrong way round for a reason… oh, very well: Edgar Allan, American Poet, born in eighteen hundred and nine. Published Tamerlane in eighteen twenty seven…
Heaven help me.