Friday, February 6, 2009

What makes a good book?

As an avid reader of author, agent, and reader blogs the idea of what makes a good book is oft discussed (argued) with almost more opinions than there are books, good or otherwise. Since I love to read, am trying to be a writer, and write book reviews these discussions got me thinking of my criteria.

First a tangent:

For most of the years of my existence I went wandering through libraries and book stores thinking there were four kinds of books: good, bad, ones I liked, ones I didn’t like. Simple, easy, comforting. Now I have learned that books (apparently) have all these categories. The two big umbrella categories are fiction and non-fiction. Fair enough, it’s nice to know where to go for the reference books and it’d be weird (though not unpleasant) to stumble across a fantasy novel whilst looking for a book on home repairs.

Let’s stand under only one umbrella for now and talk about fiction. Right now I’m thinking of the library and it’s nice to have adult, young adult, and children’s sections for ease of shelving. Still no beef with this, but now we’re in a pickle. Mixed in with all these books I have learned are genre books!

Here you might ask, what’s the big deal about genres?


What’s the big deal about genres? What’s with genre fiction? I’ve recently come by the statements “I read genre fiction” or “I don’t like genre fiction.” WTF? Please place the book in front of me that can not be listed under a genre heading! I’m pretty sure such a book does not exist. Even if it’s one of those completely random stream of consciousness books it’s still going to go under the Stream of Consciousness genre. Since I don’t like that particular style does that mean I don’t like genre books?

Ok, ok, I do actually know what people are trying to say when they say genre fiction. But if a book is well done then what the hell does genre have to do with its merit?

And this is the first of my criteria for a good book. It transcends.

A good book transcends genre, transcends caveats like “it was a good book except for…” I think a truly exceptional book would even transcend time and age group but I hesitate to make that a criterion. Some books are good precisely because they are so rooted in the time in which they were published, and still others are good books even if a Reader might not be ready for them in their teens or too mature for them by retirement.

The second of my criteria is a good book will display excellence of craft. For a book to truly be good it must be well-written and well-plotted with outstanding character development.

The last of my criteria is that a good book will be accessible. I firmly believe that a book must be accessible to an audience. I don’t see the point of writing a book if it is not.

You’ll notice from my four categories that I did not assume that I would like every good book or dislike every bad book. I have read books that I thought were lovely examples of craft yet still I did not care for them. Conversely, I’ve read books that would not have got a passing grade in some of my writing classes (I will not insult them by calling them trashy, or worse, genre books) but that I loved and read twice! This is where the subjective of good and bad comes in but I think that’s separate from the objective (or at least as objective as anyone can be when analyzing art).

And even if you were to agree with my criteria I bet we could come up with a lot of books where we disagree re whether they are good or bad (in fact, you can give that a try by checking out my goodreads list). And that’s where the objective part gets fuzzy, though I think that’s the fun of a topic that has no right answer.

So my brief flirtation with trying to understand genre books will be happily put aside. I return to good, bad, books I like, books I don’t like and I am relieved that something as irrelevant as genre won't prevent me from reading a really good book!

And as they say in one of the very best books, be blessed in your endeavors!

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