Thursday, October 4, 2012
What, Exactly, IS a "Good Book"?
"True ease in writing comes from art, not chance, as those who move easiest have learned to dance." - Alexander Pope
Today, as never before, a person with little writing skill and a good idea for a story can easily and successfully enter the publishing marketplace. A century and a half ago, a "writer" was someone fortunate enough to have had the upbringing that afforded formal education; after that, he or she would have to either have the means to live a life of leisure and have no need of earning a living, or he or she would have to have the talent and good fortune to be taken under the wing of a sponsor: that is, a wealthy person who wanted to support literature as an art form and to see the particular writer succeed.
Now, the tradition of sponsorship in the arts has greatly changed and is nearly non-existent. (An "artist" may come into a year or two of financial assistance in the form of a grant from an institution, but no longer will a wealthier person pay all living expenses for years on end.) Most writers must burn the midnight oil, working around kids, family obligations, and a 9-to-5 job. Writing is an enormous time commitment; and it is often a financial sacrifice as well.
But beyond the obvious concerns of having the practical means to write, what makes a writer? What makes a really good book? Let me stop here and say directly to the reader that I don't presume myself to have achieved any sort of pinnacle in terms of these questions: but I do know a good book when I see one. As a reviewer, editor and writer, I am constantly turning over the questions in my mind around what really great writing looks like. It interests me as a writer wishing to better myself, and as a person interested in the continual advancement of literature as an art form worth respecting.
What is the difference between, say, Mary Had a Little Lamb and Beethoven? Is one - in the grand picture of human endeavor - more valuable or important than the other to civilization? What is the difference between the latest radio hit and a timeless folksong? Is one more deserving than the other? Is Dr. Suess as valuable to the world of literature as is Dickens?
One may define success of a song or a painting or a book in terms of financial success. But I believe that would be misleading: the market evolves and changes and often has little to do with promoting quality. One may define success in terms of length of life: a hit song may be forgotten within months, but a classical symphony is played three hundred years after its debut. Has the symphony necessarily brought more joy than has the hit song?
Both of the quotes at the beginning of this article speak to the quality of literature, and to the differences in quality amongst books. In the modern world, there are many writers who write books that give readers entertainment - and this is always a worthy pursuit. Those who do it best, and do it consistently, make some money. A precious few like Dean Koonz know how to write a quality book and make it entertaining to the masses as well; their books have tapped into a social psyche nerve - they speak a language that hundreds of thousands understand.
And so a book need not be a quality book in order to succeed financially or in terms of popularity. But the term "literary fiction" still implies a work that is of high quality, and I believe that it is a concept worth protecting and preserving, primarily because the most innovation happens in the highest quality of literature, and also because the highest art elicits the most revelatory emotion from the viewer/reader. It celebrates the human spirit in the truest sense.
What is real quality in terms of a book? I believe that at its highest form literature contains the following elements:
- It uses language in an innovative way, and it strives for beauty. This may occur in the form of inspiring and original metaphors, it may be that the prose reads with the music and rhythm of poetry. But in this highest form of literature, language is presented in a way that celebrates language for its own sake.
- It offers innovation. This may be in terms of theme, message, or use of language. Innovation moves the art form forward, raises the bar, challenges future writers.
- It honors literary forms and techniques that have survived the test of time. It may borrow from the greatest of works in terms of theme and structure. It nods to the most moving literature of our past.
- It offers a structure that pulls the reader in, that best and most profoundly conveys a message.
- It contains not only a story message, but a universal message about mankind. It causes the reader to consider his or her own life, values and ideas. This message may be dark, or light.
- It is sophisticated in the sense that it presents a writer that understands the basics of literary form and structure.
- It flies in the face of rules of genre; it shows no boundaries - the story and message is all-important.
Each of us, as professional writers, has to determine what sort of book we will write, and consequently what sort of writer we will be. Some of us want to entertain the masses, some of us want to entertain a few and do it well. A few of us aren't as concerned with selling books or with entertaining as we are with saying something that needs to be said. A few of us write because we love language - we love its music, we love innovative use of words, we love the artistry of it, we fight to find and present beauty in it. This last category is the type of writer that found a sponsor 150 years ago, the type of writer whose book might be read and reread 150 years from now.
I believe that there is room in the world - and certainly in the market - for all types of writers. I don't agree with Mr. Koonz: the literary novel is alive and well. It is all over Amazon if one searches. Beautiful language is still invented, and still appreciated, even if it sells less to a population that is suffering from having been educated more about computers and economics than about language.
Each of us decides what we will be, what we will sacrifice, what we will embrace. In my own field, there is a difference between M/M romance, and literary fiction with a gay theme. One is based upon a basic formula: a gay couple finds one another, has a conflict, resolves the conflict through much angst, and ends up together. Ninety-nine percent of M/M books follow this formula, and when they don't readers get very testy. These novels vary in quality of writing; some are written in very simplistic language with no innovation in language at all. However they are entertaining and the authors are laughing all the way to the bank as they deposit the royalty check. Do these books advance literature? No. Do they convey some important, soul-enlightning universal message? Never. Do they entertain? Sometimes. Will they be remembered in thirty years? Not likely.
Gay literary fiction seeks to do a bit more. These books rarely follow a pattern - the story might go anywhere. A happy ending is not necessary, and often forcing such an ending would ruin the book. These books present universal, timeless themes, and seek to convey a message about the state of humanity. They are not for the weak of heart, but they are for those who love language and literature for its own sake, and for those who like to learn something about life when they read. Do these books make money? Rarely. Will they be remembered? Maybe. Do they contribute to the advancement and respect of the art of literature? Hopefully. . . Yes, often they do.
I have chosen to write literary fiction. As a writer of this type of book, I have endured the angry emails of readers who were incensed to have been denied a happy ending. Never mind that they just might have been forced to think, to feel something scary. That they might have been changed, or have experienced a moment of painful psychological growth. In a society where our schools have failed to teach the value of sophisticated literature, people get pissed off when a book demands too much of them.
I have learned the lesson well: if I insist upon writing this type of book, I will get angry emails. They hurt: a letter that complains about a work of literary fiction is a letter that criticizes the writer's life philosophy, that condemns the writer's view of life. It is a very personal thing. One doesn't just write such a book; one bleeds such a book. One births such a book.
And I have learned that I will get beautiful fan letters as well. Personally, I would rather be told that my book had pissed off, but then moved, and finally changed a person, than that my book entertained him or her for a few hours.
But that is the choice I have made. I wish to stand with those who try to state something about the world in which we live. I am not interested in providing fodder for a happy day - I am interested in forcing thought, pulling forth hard emotions, demanding answers. I want to find my way into the music and make my words sing for a reader. I strive to write something enduring. And I am learning to live with the darker consequences.
Want to get pissed off, moved, and perhaps elated? Read "Gentlemen's Game" by Lichen Craig, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble online - where you can order it for either Kindle or Nook - , and hard print here at this website. Or order it at your favorite bookstore.