Writing about Who Should Decide What is a Good Book

There has been an argument raging over at Nathan Bransford’s blog about Stephen King calling Stephanie Meyer a bad writer, which has raised the entire question of what makes a good book, and who determines what is good.

I’m not sure I want to go into the issue of whether King should have dissed Meyer, but address instead a really tricky question for anyone in the publishing world: who decides what is a good book?

On one hand are those that feel it is the critics who should decide what is good and what is not, and on the other other hand is the camp that feels readers should be the ones to decide.

The first camp runs the risk of egalitarianism : of some “boring old farts” sitting in their ivory towers (or even “internet-savvy middle-aged snobs”), who have only read books and theses and reviews (and are hopelessly out of touch with people, their tastes) deciding if a book is to be canonized or relegated to oblivion.

The second camp is the other end of the spectrum: they want it to be the purview of a housewife who loves romances,or a fan-fiction writer. They want readers of literary fiction with perhaps twenty books under their reading belts to be the arbiters of taste, to separate the wheat from the chaff. They do run the risk of dumbing down.

If I was to weigh in, I’d say each has its place.

Someone like Harold Bloom, (who made my life excruciating with his textbooks of criticism of almost every writer I had to read for my English Honours), must exist to create a sort of discussion on works of fiction.

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An Arvinda Adiga needs to win a Booker for a lot of people to know that he has written a book, and for them to read it. A book like Anne Enright’s The Gathering needs to be read for the sheer power of its language and the depth of human emotions it plumbs, and a dense book like My Name Is Red needs to reach the masses for them to appreciate its awesome beauty and skill of writing. These books, though not as entertaining to the masses as Harry Potter, also need to be read by more and more people because they hold up a mirror to our times.

But then, the critics should not thumb their noses at popular genre fiction: a book like the Lord of the Rings or Chronicles of Narnia reads on many levels, and should be given its air time in terms of criticism. I’d like to say the same about the Harry Potter books. They have a great story to tell, and yes, in parts the latter books of her series suffer from really bad writing, which an editor could have fixed had Rowling let anyone touch them. But that does not mean that they should not receive serious criticism (from which future books can only benefit), and stand to win prestigious awards.

When it comes to the reading public becoming the sole judge of the quality of writing, it has its merits as well. The master storytellers and people with great plotting skills will definitely be identified this way. A Stephen King, a Tom Clancy, a Rowling, a Dan Brown or a Sidney Sheldon would shine, and I think their bestseller status is great recognition already for their storytelling skills, which are not to be scoffed at. If storytelling and entertainment were the sole criterion of good books, then the opinion of the general reading public would determine good books from bad. Every once in a while, it will throw up a gem like Lord of the Rings which both entertains and provides a metaphor for human existence.

But storytelling is not the only job of writers. Writers are the conscience of a civilization, its biographers (Dickens, who was also quite popular during his times), sometimes even its philosophers (Tolstoy, Sartre). They are the observers of human condition (Rushdie, Marquez) and its commentators (Woolf, Joyce), and those roles cannot be taken lightly. Only a handful of authors are mentioned here…there are more and their impact on the collective human consciousness has been tremendous.

True, critics can get it wrong, or “good” books can seem “bad” when seen in another age, because they have possibly lost their relevance, or the standards of quality have changed. Jane Austen is an example of such shifting critical opinion. But informed criticism (not seeking merely entertainment but a commentary on the human condition) is important in determining, (or at least posing to determine) which books are good and which bad. If not for anything else other than opening a discussion or serving as the argument to be refuted.

So..

We need the ‘boring old farts’ to tell us what is good or bad, and then start off a discussion from there. We may or may not agree with their judgment, but in this way, books that deserve to be read by more people would find a bigger audience.

We also need the public to tell good from bad, because in this way a few books will be thrown up which are good for entertainment as well as inner significance. Plus, entertainment ain’t such a bad thing.

Bottom-line..

The critics need to be less snobbish and take a look at deserving genre fiction. The reading public needs to stop seeking too much instant gratification, and pause once in a while to read a book that makes them think.

In an ideal world, yes. In our world, however, the argument shall go on.

I love comments, and I always visit back. Blogging is all about being a part of a community, and communities are about communication! Tweet me up @damyantig !

6 comments

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  1. Damyanti

    Hi M,

    Though luck plays a part, critics are not to be underestimated. Orhan Pamuk was awarded the Nobel, after all :). One of the reasons you might have found such a complex and seemingly obscure book in India may have something to do with its author’s stature as a Nobel prize winner.

    I thought I would not like LOTR, but I did. I read it as an adult of defined literary tastes, and to me the characters are real, not stilted. There is an over-abundance of setting descriptions, yes, even a few superfluous characters, but characterization itself was not lacking.

    My two cents:)

  2. mentalmist

    Hey Damyanti,
    By some strange coincidence, I am reading “My name is Red” right now. I picked it up solely on the basis of a few pages I happened to read while I happened to wait in a bookstore, there seems to be a fair amount of luck involved in these things, as compared to promotion and informed criticisms, critics are absolutely essential to furthering good work, but the fact is we cant fool all of the people all of the time, a big following indicates the imagination has been captured, i think that by itself, is a literary accomplishment! i must admit though, i am not a fan of LOTR, the man’s characters were intensely mono-dimensional, the book made an excellent series of magnificent stills, but didnt breathe life

  3. Damyanti

    Hi Candice,
    Thanks for taking the time to comment.

    I agree that classics stand the test of time, but I’m afraid longevity is not always a test of good writing. I have found some of Dickens’s work extremely boring, and the same goes for Thomas Hardy.

    But the circumstances in which Dickens wrote his work, and the fact that his work was serialized for publication explains a lot. I’m content to look at the Victorian times through his eyes, but I’m sure any literary agents worth their salt would perhaps not take on a new book like Pickwick Papers, or Hard Times.

    Older classics take on a patina of history, they are valued not just for their literary merit but for the knowledge of an earlier time that they bring to us.

    While time may be a good test for judging a book, it is not the ultimate one.

  4. candicekennington

    You make a good point about critics bringing books that may deserve to be read to the forefront. I agree 100% that the public seeks instant gratification too often (I think that applies to more than just reading).

    I think time is the determining factor when it comes to the final decision about which books are truly “good.” Shakespeare, Tolkien, Austen, Dickens, Hemingway… will all continue to be read into the future. Even when their language has become outdated to the point that they must be translated.

    Look at Beowolfe, the Odessey, and the Bible. Whether you like any of these books or not (I happen to like them all), no one can deny their literary status.

  5. Damyanti

    Welcome to my blog Buddhaphish.

    Yes, I know, writers sniping at each other can be quite amusing to watch. I am not a Meyer fan, for that matter I’m not a King fan either. But yes, my personal opinion is Meyer is not a writer I can learn from or enjoy.

    Yes Pek Chin is pretty good with her book choices. I have bought books based one her recommendation, and have not been disappointed so far.

    I’m not sure she recommended The Enchantress of Florence (Raman did) and that was the only book I wasn’t really impressed by:)

    I was going through your blog and saw that you’re looking for writing based in Borneo. I tried to leave a comment, but could not. Have you tried Somerset Maugham?

    Maybe you’ll find this link interesting http://www.maleisie.be/en/
    literature_william_somerset_maugham.html

  6. Buddhaphish

    I was very entertained by Stephen King’s remarks, and the furore after. It’s rather freaky that a lot of Meyer fans are taking it so personally when really, I did think he had a point (like you, I’ve read excerpts and was not impressed). Was it tacky for a writer to call out another writer? Dunno – there’s always such sniping amongst work peers, isn’t there?

    My current favourite personal book critic is the woman who works at Silverfish bookstore. She’s pointed me to some great books I don’t think I would have otherwise read (because I haven’t heard about them – the problem?? is that there are so many good books out there, and so little time!)