Monday, 25 August 2014

Anatomy of a good book

When you work in library, you often get asked if you could suggest a good book. We usually ask some questions before we suggest anything so we know which genre he or she is looking for; but in the end the answer is probably a romantic book like Danielle Steel, or a thriller like Aspe. Only every once in a while I get a jewel of a customer who rejects all those generic novels and asks “But I really liked Anna Karenina when I was younger, don’t you have something like that?”

So when I was thinking about what I should write about for this month’s “About books” blog post I thought I might try to speculate a bit about what a good book actually is, without straying too far into subjectivity. And to aid me in this I will use a couple of lists to illustrate my point. Because who doesn’t love lists?

The first list I want to show you is the first one that turned up when I googled the term bestsellers. It’s a Dutch list of what’s currently in the top 10, but it’ll do fine.

1. The Fault in Our Stars (young adult novel)
2. Powerfood (cook book)
3. Kieft (autobiography of a soccer player)
4. For You (romance)
5. The Midwife (romance)
6. Augustus (historical novel)
7. And The Mountains Echoed (novel)
8. Golden Shore (thriller)
9. Don’t Ask Why (thriller)
10. Life of a Loser: dumped. (Kid’s novel)

It’s quite a diverse selection. Only two of them (six and seven) would I consider to be bought by people why don’t shy away from a tougher read. Two are romances, two thrillers, two non-fiction and two books for teens/children. It’s tough to see which book would be of a better quality than the others.

The second list is from Wikipedia, and it’s the list of best-selling books of all time.

1. A Tale of Two Cities (historical novel)
2. The Lord of the Rings (fantasy)
3. Le Petit Prince (novella)
4. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (fantasy)
5. And Then There Were None (crime novel)
6. Dream of the Red Chamber (novel)
7. The Hobbit (fantasy)
8. She: A History of Adventure (novel)
9. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (fantasy)
10. The Da Vinci Code (thriller)

All these books are or sound familiar, yet it is still a very diverse list. My inner self is exclaiming “hah!” pretty loudly at all that fantasy and Tolkien, but I’ll try to not to dwell on that.
Still, it’s not very clear what the blueprint of the universally ideal book is. So let’s move on to yet another list; a list that is not numbered and of which I will post the link here because it’s quite long. It’s a list compiled by a hundred people who are all supposed to know a thing or two about writing and books, a collection of titles of which these people think are the best books ever written.

Do click on; I find it quite interesting.

immediately we see that these are books that are all very familiar, but I doubt that 90% of the customers in our library – people who you’d expect to be inclined to read- have read more than five of these titles. Maybe we need to make two categories in which we can divide our holy grails: the bestsellers and the literature.

Easy to read
Not particularly easy to read
Easy to empathize with characters
complicated characters
Predictable storyline
Attention to metaphors, detail, symbolic
Sometimes escapist/ wish fulfilment
Often an incredulously idealistic main character
Genre specific
Not genre specific
Sometimes provocative
*Please note that some novels might have qualities from both columns, this is after all just a rather crude representation I made in ten minutes.

This is the point where I compare Fifty Shades of Gray to, oh, I don’t know, The Catcher in the Rye.
Catcher in the Rye has sold over 65 million copies. Fifty Shades of Gray has sold over a hundred million copies (Humanity, I am disappointed.)
(I have not read Fifty Shades, but I have heard enough to know it ticks all the boxes in the bestseller category.)
So why is it that in schools we discuss Salinger but not James- apart from the fact that any principal would probably get a fit if a teacher wanted to discuss pornography in class? My opinion on this matter is that James made a very skewed picture of reality. Fans are so caught up in the wish fulfilment of the tortured handsome man that makes the main character feel special because she’s the only one that can change him- just guessing, tell me if I’m wrong- that they willingly turn a blind eye to what it should be. I’ve read a couple of opinions from people who are into BDSM, and they all agree that what happens in the novels is wrong, because the writer got the depiction of consent, safety words, and after care all wrong. But let’s focus on that skewing of reality. After all, Shakespeare himself wrote some pretty weird plays (Midsummer Night’s Dream anyone?) and we still consider those literature. What’s the difference? Well, the difference is that James got her reality wrong, and that Salinger (and good old William) focus on certain aspects of humanity or emphasize them, which encourages to perceive the world and the people in it anew. The moral, or the reasoning of their story rings true. I’m not sure if 50 Shades even has a moral or logical reasoning. (Another example: The Trial. Mental book. But look how often reality has been compared to this book. If someone talks about a Kafkaesque situation we allnknow what we’re talking about.)

If we, hypothetically, would want to create a book that would satisfy everyone, we would need to balance on this slack wire between maintaining credibility (morally, emotionally, and logically; the motive behind the actions must be believable) and maintaining the escapism (where we want to be reading because the book is so much more interesting (does not have to be better) than reality).

So what do we need in our cocktail? Everything in measures, of course. But let’s figure out some of the main ingredients.

- An original idea! This is where it all starts. Do you want to be riding someone’s vampire lovers’ wave or would you rather start your own hype?

- Good structured storyline: get rid of all the plot holes, trim the subplots that lead to nowhere. Make sure your story isn’t predictable. Instead of making the reader wonder who’s done it, make them wonder who hasn’t done it! So get rid of the fairy tale happy wedding ending and create a shiny new possibility. Make the main characters ride off into the sunset on a triceratops while they activate the hormone bomb, to bring peace and love and equality between all dinosaurs. You know what I mean.

- Sentence structure. Because if I find another Young Adult novel in first person present tense I might kill someone. Make your sentences flow! There are courses out there that can help you with this.

- Background information. This is a tricky one, because it depends on what kind of story you’re going for. Song of Ice and Fire is very saturated but it’s still one of the book’s fine qualities, whilst The Old Man and the Sea barely has any background information but people still love the simplicity of it. Make sure it’s interesting, and make sure it’s correct.

- Metaphors. Everyone loves a metaphor. I could eat them all day. Make them dreamy, make them tense, make them squishy, but make them!

- Speak to the imagination. Create the scenery of your dreams. Make them bigger. Cultivate the atmosphere.

- None of this really matters. None of the 1300 words you just read matter. Why? Because rules are made to be broken. Sometimes telling is better than showing. Sometimes more is better than less. And sometimes vampire love is exactly what we need.

Until next time,


1 comment:

  1. Loved this post! I've been wanting to write something myself about "what makes a book literature", but you might just have done it for me. ^^