Of Books and Tastes…
What is a good book? Have you noticed the frequency with which fierce discussions about the best-selling books usually occur from time to time?
We no longer have a new erotic novel, a dark thriller, a paranormal or horror novel, or any dramatic book with a heartfelt personal story of overcoming or an enveloping love story, without verbal battles arising around its quality and -supposed- bad or good influence.
Sometimes it seems that even blood will run with these discussions.
I confess that I have become involved too, especially when a book of my special affection falls into the cauldron of discord, but, of course, which reader does not feel that his/her life is being harmed in any way when some guy dares to outrage the good name of your favorite book or your favorite character?
However, I understand and I am aware that such a derivation of such a debate is entirely subjective.
The point is that the quality of a text always falls within the scope of the debate.
Whether it’s a last-minute bestseller or a dark edition of a quasi-known book, the discussion about its quality can become sour or passionate, but rarely, or never comes to be resolved.
The answer may be found in another question.
What is, after all, a good book?
Type 1: The Perfectionist
Some will say that a good book is always one that’s written impeccably and, obviously in the case of literature, in an innovative, surprising, and special way. That a novel or a story, much less poetry, is written in the same formal and correct language of a technical report or an academic article does not seem to please those who support this criterion, because a «good book» cannot match what anyone can do in their field.
Type 2: The Revolutionary
Others will say that a good book is one that contains a powerful message, be it of denunciation or of social, political, or philosophical criticism, that manages to transform the whole life of those who read it. In this trend, those who defend the need for powerful content prefer that they are anchored in “reality”, that they are significant for the daily life of the reader or that of their society, and that they can expose it to “transcendental” issues. A book that contains a background related to fantasies, dreams, or pleasures «not connected» with a critical reality, cannot be «good.»
Type 3: The Meaningful
Another sector ensures that a good book is one that is not only well written but also conveys a positive message, of overcoming and advancing, both for the reader as a person and society as a whole.
They are books, they say, that function as a source of inspiration for change, for the transformation of people, by developing models of behavior, or of society, «ideal» or «desirable.»
A «good book» -this group alleges- should not contain moral ambiguities or apologies for violence or hatred that could exert a «dark» influence on readers. They are usually, by the way, those who believe that literature is an activity aimed especially at children or young people.
Type 4: The Cynical
On the other hand, there is the group that believes that good books are only those that transgress the established social order, unmasking their most cruel and macabre facets, undressing the rot of a society destined to destruction.
A good book, for these readers, can’t contain «beautiful» phrases, or «archetypal» heroes and much less, -please!- Happy endings, because in this infected world there are no happy endings. Although it closely resembles the sector that advocated a powerful message of denunciation or social criticism, in reality, they become more extreme, since every subject should be treated, in a “true good book”, from its most scathing, cynical and cruel angle, and will be shown with all the degradation that the human being is capable of.
Therefore, for this sector, children’s and youth literature is hardly outlined literature, because the authentic one is the «adult» one, the «serious one», that is, that of the «good books» they describe.
Type 5: The Compartmentalizers
Some divide the good and the bad books by their sales figures. And in this regard, we find two opposing groups:
- The first group believes that a book that sells a lot is good, because for them «so many people cannot be wrong.» Thus, the fact that a book is so liked by thousands or even millions of people indicates that it can transmit a message and communicate with the reader at levels that «only a good book» can reach.
- The second group believes exactly the opposite: it deeply despises the taste of the majority public, so it considers that a book that sells a lot is necessarily bad. For them, the «mass» is stupid and ignorant, and will always tend to buy the superficial and easy, that is, what the market dictates, and prefer it over the authentic «good» books, which will always be rejected by the majority. But not for those who are too «deep».
«Good» and «Bad» Books
I suppose you will have realized that several of these positions, which are only some of the most common, have the unquestionable ability to provoke the angriest discussions, as they easily give rise to extremisms.
What happens is that it’s usually divided between «good» and «bad», when the most realistic is that there are
- Mediocre books,
- Good books, and
- Books, let’s just say, wonderful or extraordinary, that being Extra-Ordinary will not be anything common and can’t, nor should they be the measure by which others are judged. In fact, they are often considered that way long after they have appeared.
Here, then, we have to consider only the mediocre and the good.
The bad… well, I honestly believe that bad-bad books rarely come to be considered by the general public as well as by the specialized public, because they are so incomprehensible, so absurd, they are so poorly constructed, that almost everyone discards them and forget about it instantly.
There are many, but they pass quickly, especially in the age of the Internet (and instant and easy publication).
The Good… and the Mediocre
In my case -and it’s only my opinion, – a good book is usually the sum and combination of many different features, contained in the various positions of those who judge them.
- Its writing is certainly impeccable, even beautiful.
- It does not usually resemble a technical report or academic writing, because it is neither the one nor the other, but if I wanted to, I could imitate them and even make fun of them.
- Literary language, if something is striking, is that it invents itself as it wants. This does not mean that you cannot or should not resort to the ways you want: you can use a foul language as well as a formal one, a gentlemanly and gallant one as well as a sensual and erotic one, a scientific one and also a political or philosophical one, but always will do so with deliberate intention, not by mistake or ignorance.
Somehow, every demanding reader knows when a book is plagued with grammatical and even linguistic errors and inconsistencies, and when a book is playing with language.
- The first is the first hint of a mediocre book.
- The second promises that the book will be mediocre.
A good book, in turn, has content that is meaningful to the reader.
What does this mean?
Well, it represents a break in your world, a new stop in your life, in such a way that it becomes an integral part of your worldview, of your attitude towards life and towards others.
In other words, a good book is integrated into the reader, whether or not he wants to allow it.
I do not say he/she likes it, because he/she may not, but it is significant in some personal, emotional, and intellectual way.
Of course, I have noticed that good books tend to please most readers, especially when, as time goes by, they realize how significant the book was for them after all.
Does the above mean that a good book must, in effect, contain a strong social denunciation, or a deep analysis of the world, or an overflowing realism that leads to impact?
Of course not.
That a book denounces X situation or that plating philosophies more or less deep doesn’t mean that it manages to integrate the reader.
Please have in mind that a book can deal with all these issues and still be mediocre.
A book may not address any of these issues and be a good book.
It’s not the specific content that makes it relevant, but the way it manages to connect that content with the reader, which, however, does not mean that it doesn’t have any content.
A book that is only praised for its form, but no one seems to connect with its content, is a mediocre book too.
Now, the content of a good book is usually relevant, from an objective point of view, which does not mean that it is specifically political, or sociological, or that it deals with a very particular subject of the time in which it is written.
Beware of the devotion to «realism»: it is still a kind of cult of an only theme. And being monothematic is not typical of a good book but a mediocre one.
As for sales, well… that depends on many factors external to the book, such as the author’s ability to achieve a good promotion, or the publisher to know how to communicate to the public the existence of an X or Y title.
I doubt that a good book which is well promoted and widely offered is not accepted by a majority audience.
I don’t believe in the idea of «stupid and ignorant mass» and much less than a good book is «incomprehensible.»
There will always be little demanding readers, that is true, and some that lack adequate general training that allows them to access good books with certain more complex themes.
However, I do believe that there is an appreciable number of well-trained readers who can access those good books with more complex themes, if they are offered properly, that is if they are told that they exist! As no one can read a book that doesn’t know it exists!
A good book does not need, on the other hand, a thick or complex theme to be good.
The theme will be as complex or simple as the book requires, that its particular content needs.
This does not have to refer to an adult world or a social or political problem X, nor does it have to be a «model» of anything behavioral or conveyed morals, or «undress» cruel realities or various human rot.
It can have all of this, but it’s not mandatory for the book to be good.
In fact, it can be childish or youthful, it can be anchored in a specific real referent or it can be completely fanciful, it can address a philosophical question or it can explore possibilities of all kinds.
A good book does not have to present prose or a lyric plagued with «surprising» neologisms or constructions.
They may be plagued with all of this, but is not necessary, because they depend on the particular style of the author and how the content is articulated with the form.
In a good book, by the way, background and form are built without forcing, depending on each other and vice versa, and manage to provide an image of perfect unity.
A good book does not need to make the reader suffer.
You can, if you want to if you need it if you are looking for it, but it’s not mandatory.
That is, if a book instead of suffering, it delights, it pleases and is full of joy, it also doesn’t mean that it’s «bad», it only means that it’s a good book that didn’t want to opt for suffering.
Now, suffering from a book does not mean that the book is not enjoyed, because, in a good book, suffering is also a source of pleasure, (even if it sounds masochistic).
The important point here is that, whether the book makes the reader suffer, whether it makes the reader laugh, whether it makes the reader grieve or makes the reader dream… if it’s a good book, the reader will never be bored.
A boring book, however philosophical, is a mediocre book: it does not know how to integrate itself into the reader’s psyche.
In this respect the number of readers who come into contact with the book is significant. If a good number of readers accessed book X and felt bored, it is a strong indication that this book is mediocre; but, on the contrary, if a good number of readers felt entertained with the book, it does not mean that the book is good since entertainment is only part of the pleasure, not the whole pleasure.
Actually, it’s not so difficult to find good books. They are more numerous than many believe, and more varied, as our complex and contradictory human reality are varied.
P.S. I am going to place between the «mediocre» and «good» books one more category: the «regular» books.
They are not mediocre, because in reality they are well written and address an interesting theme, but somehow they fail to leave a «mark» on the reader, beyond casual entertainment.