Sunday, July 11, 2010

What makes a book "good" or "bad"?

I apologize for another cross-post, but I am really curious about your thoughts on this. I'm afraid I'm a little bit rant-y on the subject - I'm not even really clear (as you will see) where I come down on this subject. Though in the end I think it's up to the reader. Here's the post:

I finally listened to the “Summer Reads for Kids” episode of On Point that aired earlier this month. Visit the website to listen to the interview: It’s a great discussion which raised a lot of questions for me.

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins came up in discussion. Interviewee Pete Cowdin felt that, though he enjoyed it, he considered it a “guilty pleasure” but not necessarily a good book. Theoretically I can see his point (though admittedly I really enjoyed it) but does that mean that all guilty pleasure books are inherently bad?

Huge blockbusters influence the entire publishing industry – we’re wading through mountains of paranormal romance novels about girls dating vampires, werewolves, zombies, pixies, demons, etc. I get irritated at the huge stacks of Twilight in big bookstores while so many other books aren’t getting much attention, or even a space on the shelves. Big sales certainly does not mean good writing and exemplary literature. But what is the criteria of great literature? I have my own ideas of what works for me, but that doesn’t mean that I know what deserves to be labeled a good or bad book. And if readers are to make up their own minds, is there really any use in making this distinction?

The market influences writers, too. I can’t imagine that SO MANY authors just happened to be writing about vampires in time to jump on the Twilight bandwagon – not that I blame them for doing so. In the NPR interview, Esme Raji Codell expressed the sentiment that children should come first for the author, not the marketplace. I agree: if every writer catered to the whims of the marketplace then publishing would stagnate – there would be no growth, no freshness. But if our readers are salivating for more indulgent, guilty-pleasure stories, how bad is it for us to indulge that desire if that is what we truly want to write?


  1. Selling a lot of books isn't an indicator that the book is good or bad, just marketable. And really good and bad depends on who is looking at it. Book sellers and publishers think that books that sell are GREAT.

    When it comes to writing, write the book YOU want to read.

  2. I thought Hunger Games was an example of great writing. Collins had well turned characters, lots of nice phrases, and overall a well wrought story. Sure, like many I doubted the premise that any society would enjoy watching gladatorial games among children, but I was willing to suspend that doubt because the story was so amazing.

    Often, not always, but often, I think a book becomes a best seller because it is very good. I don't really believe that just because I'm a writer my taste in reading is more valid than anyone else's. And look at some of the best sellers from the past: Dickens, Austen, Poe, Shakespeare... These folks were POPULAR!!! Sure, I get frustrated that Twilight gets more attention than some other deserving authors, but that's the breaks. For me, as a writer, I strive to walk that line between literary writing, and an addictive story line. When someone tells me, "I couldn't put it down," that is the highest compliment for me.

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