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What’s It All About…

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For those of you who liked the title but didn’t get the reference to The Addams Family…um.

But it’s a little earlier this morning, and I may be a little more coherent.

The question of what makes a bad book of fiction is more difficult than the question of what makes a bad book of nonfiction, for this reason:  it’s more difficult to come to some kind of agreement about what a novel is for. 

Nonfiction books are of several types–how-to, argument, informative, polemic.   There are more, but you see what I mean.

Each of these categories has an internal logic.  A how to book that didn’t teach you how to do anything is objectively a bad how to book.  Even if we enjoy the book enormously, it has failed to do what it set out to do.

 I’m not sure we have the same kind of consensus about what a novel is for. 

Even genre novels, which at least theoretically have boundaries on what should and should not happen within them, turn out to have fuzzier borders than any of us notices at the beginning.

What makes a good mystery novel? 

I tried to make a case for the idea that the standard should be the mystery, specifically the fair play mystery–but most of the readers of this blog rejected that, in favor of more general standards having to do with character and plot that could really be applied to any fiction.

In some genres, there seem to be almost no established boundaries at all.  I’ve come to the conclusion that a novel is “science fiction” if its writer and its publisher say it is.  Beyond that, there doesn’t seem to be a lot to work with in the way of intra-genre definition.

But even the more general standards–characterization, plot, not being pulled out of the story–don’t help much, because we’re still left with coming to some consensus of what the novel is for.

If the novel is for the enjoyment of readers–if the novel exists for no other reason than to make readers happy–then even the most general of standards are useless. 

Bad grammar?  Bothers some people but not others.  Cardboard characters?  Some people positively adore them.  Plots full of holes?  Think of the fifth Harry Potter novel–it sold 850,000 copies in hardcover.  Anachronisms?  Hell, most readers won’t even notice them.

If the only purpose of a novel is to produce a subjective experience in a reader, then no novel can be called “bad” as long as it produces that subjective experience in some reader somewhere. 

My father called any mystery novel whose solution he could figure out before he reached the end “bad,” but I almost never care if I can figure the thing out.  It’s not what I’m looking for.   What was a “bad” mystery to my father was, very often, a very good one for me.

The problem goes farther than this.

Assuming that a novel is “for” giving the reader a subjective reaction, we can’t even say a novel is “bad” if readers get a different subjective reaction than the one the writer intended them to have.

For one thing, we’re in the same position with the writer’s intent here as we often are.  Writers think the intend things and subconsciously intend others.  Writers have died and their intent can no longer be divined with certainty.   Writers do things they didn’t intend that turn out to be much more spectacularly impressive than anything they did intend.

Milton was of the devil’s party and didn’t know it–and whether he intended it or not, he produced one of the most vibrant and compelling characters in the history of literature while doing it.

This is why, in the formal study of literature, the work always begins with definitions.  Before anybody can talk about “good” or “bad” books, they have to know what the book is supposed to be doing.

I think a lot of the arguments here about whether we can say that one work of literature is superior to any other are really arguments about what the novel is for–what it exists to do.

 My favorite expression of what literature is for is still Kesey’s:  it’s the truth, even if it didn’t happen. 

I used to think that was pretty clear, until I started writing this blog.

In the meantime, of course, I think I can define lots of things that would make a novel “bad.” 

Highest on the list for me would be clunky, awkward, or leaden prose.  In the end, the music of the writing will always be, for me, the most important part of reading fiction.

But I can’t even look to formal literary studies for support on that one.  There’s a lot in the canon–not just the “required reading list,” but the books that have survived for generations without benefit of English Departments–that seem to me to be leaden as hell.  Think of Middlemarch.  Or anything by Thomas Hardy.

As we go down the list, I tend to agree with most of you that anachronisms and other inaccuracies are a Bad Thing, but I’ve been told in no uncertain terms, by readers elsewhere, that that kind of thing doesn’t matter at all as long as there is  a “good story.”

But I don’t think we could even agree on what makes a “good story.” 

Looking through the openings people sent me to check out, the only one that grabbed me was the beginning of The Elegance of the Hedgehog, and that was the only one I was really interested in reading, but I’d be willing to bet that that wouldn’t be the choice of most of you here, including most of you who are here because you read the books I write.

For a long time, I reacted badly when people told me that what was important was “a good story,” because what they seemed to mean by that was a book where lots happens! people go running around having action!  shots ring out!  cars explode!  aliens land!  everybody goes rushing around madly and never thinks about anything!

Anyway, if you want to know what I think makes a novel “bad,” ones that do that stuff are the top of the list.  And the use of that particular definition for a “good” book is common enough so that I can be pretty sure that if people start telling me it’s a “really good story,” I’m going to hate it.

If the purpose of the novel is that people should (subjectively) like it, then there can be no standard of good and bad. 

People will like anything.

Written by janeh

June 30th, 2011 at 7:55 am

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses to 'What’s It All About…'

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  1. Well, yes, some people will like anything. There are people who enjoy stinky blue cheese. I think it smells like feet. Feet that need medical help.

    To me a “good story” (in a book) is not necessarily one where things happen. In movies though, Things Happen is an acceptable premise, particularly if I like looking at the People Thing Happen To. Explosions, running about, car chases, this one of the reasons for the visual medium. Reading about sword fights is far less exciting for me than watching them. I read my fair share of sword & sorcery, or duke-it-out detective stuff, but tend to gloss over the blow-by-blow descriptions. Eh, get on with it.

    The definition of “good story” for me, is one that makes me want to know what happens NEXT. If I find myself dragging my eyes across the page and not caring if the protagonist gets divorced, farts, or falls over and dies, that book is over for me, and I abandon it.

    Even in good stories, though, I can’t tolerate bad grammar, bad proofreading, illogical or hackneyed plots or huge plot holes, or wooden dialog. I’ve been known to stop reading authors who insist on telling the same story over and over, or whose characters do the same stupid crap repeatedly. Lack of character development, in other words.

    But this need to know what’s next gets me reading an incredible variety of books and considering them all good stories. SF, fantasy, mysteries, the occasional standard novel. In mysteries I’ll read both cozies and grim dark tales like Karin Slaughter writes. I don’t like horror because there I don’t *want* to know what happens next. ;) Likewise with horror movies. Never understood those fans. Ewww. Except for Shaun of the Dead. That one cracks me up totally.


    30 Jun 11 at 1:36 pm

  2. OK, that’s pretty much why I balk at “objectively superior” novels. Either it’s entertainment–pretty much inherently subjective–or the critic wants to assign a purpose to novels to which I haven’t assented–and to which the author may not have assented, for that matter.

    For purposes of clarity, I generally refer to Spenser, Marlow, Hammer, Dortmunder & company as “crime novels” and reserve “mystery” for those novels in which someone really does attempt to solve a mystery. But I’ll admit the MWA is (are?) not with me in this.

    “Science Fiction” suffers, I think, from the ambiguity of “genre” which we use both for type of story–mystery, romance, adventure and so forth–and for setting, as in Westerns, Victorians and so forth.

    I would say as a setting, a science fiction story is one taking place in the future–and a future in which some of our “of course” assumptions no longer hold–anything from a Second American Revolution to personal immortality. (i.e., it’s NOT SF if your generational saga extends 30 years forward of the present, but nothing has really changed. It should be SF, though, because something will.) Did someone mention time travel? Yes, it can be set now or even in the past, but someone in the future has to invent the time machine. (I leave parallel worlds stories as an exercise for the alert reader.) This is the most common usage, and most of the stories in this setting are adventures, but it has also been used for gothics, romances, mysteries and what have you.

    As a story type, the SF story deals with the consequences of science–either a scientific advance, or with an event which is now only scientific speculation.

    So David Drake’s “Hammer’s Slammers” and “Leary and Mundy” stories are SF settings, but adventure stories, while Anderson’s BRAIN WAVE and Niven & Pournelle’s LUCIFER’S HAMMER are SF stories without an SF setting–as would be, say, THE INVISIBLE MAN and THE ISLAND OF DOCTOR MOREAU for the traditionalist.

    Yes, of course you can do both. Lois McMaster Bujold is sneaky that way and more than once I’ve started out reading an adventure novel in an SF setting and finished reading an SF story about the consequences of reproductive technology, sex changes or cryogenics.

    I hope this clarifies the argument.

    As for personal preferences, though, I’m plot and character driven. If the characters don’t engage, I’m not likely to stick. And for the characters TO engage, something had best be going on. It needn’t be a war. A courtship or mystery can be quite as engaging. (Sorry!) But if the characters aren’t under some sort of stress–having to make important decisions–their vocabulary and table manners won’t keep me long. It’s called “plot”–the only four-letter word Modern Literature dislikes.


    30 Jun 11 at 4:37 pm

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