Monday, July 30, 2007

What Makes A Great Book?

by Joe Moore
How often have we heard someone say, "I don't understand why my book is being rejected while so many bad books are published?" Here's my spin: there's no such thing as a bad book. The reason I feel that way is I believe that all books are considered good or even great by someone.

No publisher will intentionally release a "bad" book. Doing so would be a stupid business plan. Their goal is to find the best written manuscript, give it the most professional editing possible, promote it within budget limitations, and work closely with the author to raise the awareness of the book in the marketplace. But no publisher has a plan that is immune to failure. Not all books appeal to enough readers to make back the original investment. The trash pile is full of great books that did not make it into the hands of enough readers. And we have all come across books that we personally didn't like or thought were "bad". That is individual preference, not quality of writing. If they are truly written poorly--spelling errors, typos, incorrect punctuation, etc.--that would be the failure of the editor.

I have never met an author who said, "Today I'm going to write a mediocre book." I've never dealt with an agent who was looking for writers with minimal talent. There are no publishers out there willing to risk their money on a sure-fire loser. All books are considered great by someone. That's why they were written, represented, and published. Did enough readers agree? Better yet, did enough readers even get the chance to agree. That's the battle we all face in trying to make money writing.

But even if we write a great book, there's no guarantee that we will ever be published, much less sell enough copies to make any money. Don't get me wrong, we do have to write a great book. But there are more great books that fail than succeed. Greatness is subjective, elusive and ambiguous.

I think all books are great to someone. What do you think makes a great book?


Mark Combes said...


Uh, pretty pictures?

Geez, I havn't a clue what makes a great book. But I view books as entertainmnet and what I like to read and what others like to read might be as far apart as ...night and day? I look for books that work on a couple/three different levels. A good plot; a bit of universal truth/theme; and puts me in a place I've never been (foreign country, back alleys of Chicago, etc). The problem is, you don't know if you've got all three until you are well into the book. So I start alot of books - and drop them at page 100....

Steven said...

I think there are different things that can make a book appear to be great - take the instance of Hannibal Rising by Thomas Harris. I haven't read the book, but it was pretty soundly panned. Perhaps holding it back a few more months and polishing it would have helped, but an accountant for the publisher would not allow that. It was timed for release along with a motion picture. Critics, editors and possibly even the author might have shaken their heads and begged for more time, but to a businessperson, that moment was the right moment so the book that was on hand at the time was the best book. Maybe that's cynical, but I don't think it is. Sounds realistic to me.

Sue Ann Jaffarian said...

Joe, you make a very good point about there not being any bad books and that all published books were good to someone at some point.

Another thing we writers need to remember is even if we write a GREAT BOOK and our agent and editor think it's GREAT, if there is a glut of that type on the market, or perhaps the publisher previously had one similar and it failed, they may still give ours a pass.

Rejection isn't always based on what we create. Sometimes it's based on what has preceded us or whether or not the publisher thinks there is a market for it. When Too Big To Miss was first making the rounds, it was rejected for just such reasons.

As frustrating as it is, sometimes we have nothing to do at all with why our work is rejected.

Bill Cameron said...

I have to admit, I think there are plenty of bad books. Being bad and being unmarketable are not mutually exclusive ideas. Publishers are focused on selling books, so they're going to publish what they think will sell, and often bad books sell for reasons independent of their badness.

Let's look at a favorite whipping boy: The DaVinci Code.

Sold a jerbillion copies, and features some of the worst writing this side of second grade. Flat, wooden characters, absurd coincidences, and the most ridiculous tense and POV leaps I think I've ever seen. But what the hell, it sold lotsa copies.

Now, I suppose you'd say that lotsa people liked it, so it's not really bad. But I disagree. I think people like bad things all the time. Just because something is bad doesn't mean it won't be commercially successful.

So while I agree that agents and publishers don't go LOOKING for mediocrity, and while I don't think authors set out to write mediocre books, I do think mediocrity is both commonplace and incidental to what makes it into the marketplace and whether it's successful or not.`

Mark Terry said...

One of my favorite novels is "The Deal" by Peter Lefcourt (oddly enough, not a mystery, thriller or crime novel). It's the story of a suicidal B movie producer whose nephew shows up with a script about the life of Benjamin Disraeli. He promptly shuts the gas off (he was committing suicide on the first page of the novel), options the script and promptly has it rewritten to be a slam-bam action film for someone like, say, Wesley Snipes. (And by the end of this wonderful novel, ends up shooting the original script, but you'd have to read the book to figure out how they get to that point).

Anyway, at one point, the studio reader who ends up snagged in his con game demands, "You can't honestly tell me you think this is a good script."

Charlie Bern (the producer) says, "What's a good script?"

"Oh come on," (I'm paraphrasing), "you can't believe this piece of dreck is a good script."

"A good script is one that gets made into a film."

"Even you can't be that cynical."

Charlie just shrugs, because after dozens of years in the film business, he honestly does believe (in many ways) that the definition of a good script is one that gets made into a film.

I'm inclined to give the same definition to a good novel. It's one that gets published, bought by someone, and read. Period.

We can go on and argue about literary merit (and never agree), about writing quality (and probably not agree), about characterization, theme, dialogue, plot points, storytelling and any number of things and never, ever agree.

So, to my mind, since there is precious little that isn't wildly subjective about what a "good book" is, I'll choose to define a "good book" as one that got published (and I bought or was given, read and enjoyed. Of course, if I bought it and hated it, I might think it sucked dead bears, but... someone thought it was a good book).

Joe Moore said...

Mark2, I've got a couple of shelves full of books that I gave up on after 50 pages. They might have been great to someone, but not me.

Steven, I'm reading HANNIBAL RISING right now and really enjoying it. Thomas Harris doesn't know the meaning of cliché.

Sue Ann, you're right. Once that manuscript is sent off, approximately a million things can cause it to soar or crash.

Bill, I don't know about you, but I wish I could write as bad as Dan Brown. :-)

Mark1, THE DEAL sounds like a good deal. I've put it on my TBR list right after THE SERPENT'S KISS.

Felicia Donovan said...

Bill, funny you should mention The DaVinci Code because my son is part of the construction crew on Dan Brown's new house (read "mansion"). That connection aside, I honestly did enjoy DVC. I thought it was well-researched and entertaining. Was it literary? No. Was I moved emotionally by it? No. But it kept me engaged and that was what I was looking for when I read it. Its mark of "greatness" is in the phenomenal sales results and as a writer, I'm grateful for that because it shows there are still readers out there.

And for the record, do you think my son would have mentioned that his mom was a writer when chatting with Dan Brown about the progress of the house? Nah. I'm half-tempted to beg him to drop a copy of The Black Widow Agency off the roof into one of the rooms...

Bill Cameron said...

I'd agree with the notion that it's difficult to ascribe "greatness" in a truly empirical sense, and I guess that to try to do so does require one to delve into a kind of literary nitpicking. But what's the problem with that?

I think we have to make a distinction between commercial merit and literary merit. Sure, you get into arguments about what is and isn't good or great, but nonetheless I think distinctions of quality are not only possible, they're of genuine value.

I wrote my first novel when I was 17. My mom thought it was great, and the last time I checked, she's someone. So, one possible list of "great" books might include:

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemmingway
Beloved by Toni Morrison
The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
Moby Dick in Space by Bill Cameron

Now, "someone" believes all of those novels are "great," but I think a stirring rendition of "One of these things is not like the other..." is in order. And I would argue that the critical difference between Moby Dick in Space and the others is not that the others were actually published, but that Moby Dick in Space is a terrible novel, despite what my mother thought of it.

I'm not suggesting there is something wrong with being entertained by something like The DaVinci Code. I admit, without shame, that I enjoyed it myself. But I do submit that it's not a great book, even if it was great for the bottom lines of Dan Brown and his publisher. I'll even go so far as to say it was a lousy book in many crucial ways, but it does have a clever premise and that, combined with certain unfathomable mysteries of the marketplace combined to produce a money fountain. And good for Dan, assuming he actually wrote and researched it (something that remains open to debate).

I have to admit, I'm not comfortable with the notion of ascribing popularity with quality, nor with suggesting that a fairly low baseline -- "somebody likes it" -- is equivalent to soaring artistic merit. That's like saying a Little League Participation Badge is equivalent to Olympic Gold.

What exactly constitutes great, as opposed to merely good or mediocre, and as opposed to popular and/or commercially successful, is a matter of debate -- and that's cool. I don't think there are absolutes. But I think there is a continuum of quality, and as a writer myself, recognizing that continuum, understanding it, and learning from those at the high end are all important.

I honestly don't want to write as badly as Dan Brown, though I readily admit I wouldn't mind selling as well as he does. To me, the two are not directly related. Nor am I ashamed of being entertained by him. But I have no illusions about how great his book is.

Quality matters, and differences in quality are real. Just because people like something doesn't make it great. It simply makes it liked.

Mark Terry said...

Perhaps we can define a "Great" book the same way Tom Clancy defined "literature": written works that high school students are forced to read 80 years after the death of the author.

Someone (probably a few hundred someones) recently asked JK Rowling whether she thought Harry Potter was going to be added to the list of "great" characters: Bilbo Baggins, Frodo Baggins, Tom Sawyer, et al.

Rowling seemed slightly startled (or perhaps bemused) and said if it's around in a hundred years then I guess we'll know.

I find it interesting that we can so easily dismiss a book read by millions (say DVC) as not being great. I'm not saying it is. I have found all of Dan Brown's books to be very entertaining, enjoyable reads, and people apparently are finding more in it than I did. On the other hand, a great number of the literati found HL Mencken to have a great deal more to it than I found it to have (I found his essays to be racist, sexist and classist, but was told by my college lit professor it was satire; then 10 years later they discovered Mencken's diaries which seemed to demonstrate that Mencken was racist, sexist and classist, so I wonder if anybody knows--or cares--whether he was writing satire or not any more.)

I think we can thank Joe for throwing out the chew bone of "art versus commerce" for us all to gnaw on.

Joe Moore said...

"I think we can thank Joe for throwing out the chew bone of "art versus commerce" for us all to gnaw on."

I'm all in favor of unrest. :-)

Felicia Donovan said...

Bill, as a former English teacher, I assure you that I would love for all things literary to be considered "great" both on a commercial and literary scale. I think of this when I am left breathless by the beautifully crafted works of Carol Shields and Anita Brookner, just to name two contemporaries.

Are we, as writers, able to eschew commercially successful works just because they're not "literary enough?" Let's not bite the hand that feeds us...

As for the debate about whether or not Dan Brown does his own research, I'll share a story that I hope will settle the issue. DB grew up right here in my hometown and his family is still here, so there are many people who can attest to his habits. One of the characters in DVC is named after a local librarian as a tribute to all of the assistance she gave him when he was researching DVC. She recently recounted that even as a young man, she had to DB out of the library because he was so absorbed in his research.

And I'm sure "Moby Dick in Space" was far better than you've led us to believe.

Mark, I recently began reading some of Ayn Rand's works (The Fountainhead, Atlas) which still garner much literary analysis and discussion. Rand was considered a brilliant intellect who ascribed to the philosophical platitude of "Objectivism." I found archived interviews with her on the Phil Donahue Show in which she denounced the education of "damaged" children as "wasted money" that was better served on children who showed intellectual promise. I was so shocked and disturbed that I couldn't even continue the stories, no matter how well-written they were.

- Felicia

Bill Cameron said...

Trust me. Moby Dick in Space was truly and deeply awful.