Reading – what makes a good book?

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Today’s post was going to be something reasonably witty about blogging. That is now going to be tomorrow’s post. The reason for this is that it is now nearly 10pm and I haven’t done anything about it. And the reason for that is that I have been reading.

You know a book is good when you can’t stop reading it, even when you know you really have things you should be doing. Just another chapter… just another page… or two.

Since my last proper post, I have read the last two in the Jesse James Dawson series (A Shot in the Dark and A Wolf at the Door) and also Dark Currents, which is the first in Jacqueline Carey’s Agent of Hel series, only just out. I’ll review them all properly in due time (i.e., starting tomorrow) but the fact that I read them one after the other and neglected some things I really should have done should tell you all you need to know about the quality.

Which makes me think, what makes a good book?

For me, the final measure is, what did reading it make me fail to do that I should have done?

The good books are the ones that you stay up late to finish even though you have to get up at 5.30am, the books that you read while walking (especially up and down stairs), the books you sneak a page or two of even when you’re at work and your boss will not be happy if they catch you at it.

For me, it’s not about felicity of style, or beautiful imagery. It’s about the writer telling a story in a way that means you can’t just stop reading. Scheherazade is the classic example of this – her stories were so compelling that telling them kept her alive. The Sultan was so desperate to hear the end of each story that he couldn’t execute her – and once she’d finished, he was so hooked that he wanted another story immediately.

To me, a successful writer is one who causes people to get in trouble at work, fall down the stairs, and walk into lampposts. It doesn’t matter if you haven’t won any prizes – Scheherazade, as far as I know, was not awarded the Booker Prize, or whatever – the real measure of a good author is that people read his (or her) stuff. These are the books that you lend to your friends, and that you maybe buy a second copy of so that you can lend out and still read it over and over again until the spine gives way and it’s been dropped in the bath three times.

I wonder about these literary prizes; I’ve read a couple of books that were nominated, or that won, and quite frankly, I thought “Well, I’m glad that’s over. I can say I’ve done it, and now I can go and read something that I enjoy.” Who actually, really, likes these books? Deep down in the bottom of your soul, where the truth is, did you really enjoy The Life of Pi or Beatrice and Virgil? OK, I admit, those two I didn’t actively dislike. In fact, they’ve kind of stayed with me in a way that proves they were OK (i.e., not the kind of nothing-book where by 24 hours after you finish it you can’t remember the plot or any of the characters) but I won’t be reading either of them again. Beatrice and Virgil, particularly, was rather heavy-handed. I may not be a genius, but really, I don’t need to be beaten over the head with a message to get it to sink in.

But they did not make me laugh out loud, or cry.

Terry Pratchett, now there’s a man who can write. He’s funny, and is it not written, that he is so sharp he will cut himself one of these days? Take Going Postal, for instance, which centres around the post office and the new Clacks system (a sort of system of semaphore towers). Working the towers is dangerous, and workers are not infrequently killed in the line of duty. When that happens, their name is added to the ‘overhead’ – messages about the clacks system itself, and kept permanently moving from one end of the line to the other.

“I know about Sending Home,” said Princess. “And I know the souls of dead linesmen stay on the Trunk.”
“Who told you that?” said Granddad.
Princess was bright enough to know that someone would get into trouble if she was too specific.
“Oh, I just hear it,” she said airily. “Somewhere.”
“Someone was trying to scare you,” said Granddad, looking at Roger’s reddening ears.
It hadn’t sounded scary to Princess. If you had to be dead, it seemed a lot better to spend your time flying between the towers than lying underground. But she was bright enough, too, to know when to drop a subject.
It was Granddad who spoke next, after a long pause broken only by the squeaking of the new shutter bars. When he did speak, it was as if something was on his mind.
“We keep that name moving in the Overhead,” he said, and it seemed to Princess that the wind in the shutter arrays above her blew more forlornly, and the everlasting clicking of the shutters grew more urgent. “He’d never have wanted to go home. He was a
real linesman. His name is in the code, in the wind, in the rigging, and the shutters. Haven’t you ever heard the saying ‘Man’s not dead while his name is still spoken’?”

Pratchett’s skill is to keep you jogging along with a fun adventure story, then suddenly smack you in the face with a turn of words or an image that goes straight to the heart. He doesn’t have to keep labouring his point; he gets it right first time and then moves on. You get just enough time to recover – then he does it again.

Yes, I pretty much remember what went on – more or less – in Yann Martel’s books. But I had to look up the title of the second one. Pratchett, however – not only do I remember the titles, I also remember the contents. He writes words that stick in your heart, not just your mind.

That’s Scheherazade-standard stuff, that is.

But if you add magic, or fun, to a book, then it seems that automatically you get pigeon-holed as ‘genre fiction’ which is code – in some circles – for ‘trash’. Stella Rimington caused a small riot in literary circles by suggesting that ‘readability’ might be a good thing to look for in a prize-winning book.

Er… well, duh?

What is a book for, if it is not to be read?

While deathless prose is to be admired, what do we mean by this? Many people think that it means prose that’s been polished to within an inch of its life, so that it looks beautiful from every conceivable angle and displays the author’s literary prowess. Like Yann Martel. Hey, I recognise good prose when I read it.

Or do we mean words that convey an image that makes you cry in public and then you can’t forget? Words that stay in your heart so you can quote them years after you read the book? Words that you don’t remember because of the perfect balance of the paragraph, but because of how they made you feel?

How many people read these ‘prize-winning’ books only because they won the prize, or because they were short-listed? And then force themselves through to the end, discuss it at their book club, and gladly turn to something else for real pleasure? How many of us have books-to-read, and books-to-impress-people-with? You know… the Biggles books and the Mills & Boons are hidden on the shelf in the bedroom, and the Booker prize-winners are given pride of place in the living room. Books as status symbols. Look at my books and be impressed. I read Literature.

To go back to Stella, and her comments about readability, surely this is an essential component of a really good book? Yes, you need structure, characterisation, plot, etc. But if it’s all so sterile and polished that it’s deathly rather than deathless, then surely that’s not a good thing? Surely the best writing of all is the kind that you don’t even notice because you’re so wrapped up in the story and the imagery?

To say that readability and writing quality are mutually exclusive is, I think, not only wrong but also unforgivably snobbish. In fact, I would say that if a book is not readable, or if you would have no trouble putting in down to go and do the washing up, then the quality is poor. Because it is not performing the function of a book – which is, to be read.

So, I would challenge you to think of the next book you read (or write), in terms of the Scheherazade-quotient: what would you give up just in order to hear the story?

[OK, end of rant. And, for the record, I don’t have anything personally against Yann Martel. He was just a convenient example, kind of like eating a chocolate biscuit because it happens to be within reach.]

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1 thought on “Reading – what makes a good book?

  1. rebecca2000

    yep you’re missing all my great posts because you’re reading and not posting your challenge….My post today is crazy good! 😉 well or really bad but you won’t know until you read.

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