Wednesday 18 April 2012

The good, the great and the just plain bad. How do you judge? - Celia Rees

Recently, I received the following e mail from a reader:

I read a lot and I'm wondering how you, as a writer, decide which book is a great one and which is just one more book on the shelf.
Are there any specific conditions or you rely on your gut-feeling?

Forgive me for being dim, but at first I interpreted this as asking me about writing, so I answered as follows:

Thanks for you interesting enquiry. As far as writing a book is concerned, you have to think every one is great - if it feels like a shelf kind of book, it isn't worth taking the time and effort to write it. Every book is special if it gets as far as publication. After that, it is up to the publisher and readers to decide if it is great or not, but they are all important to me.
But no, that is not what she wanted to know. She wanted to know how as a reader I would judge between a great book and 'one more book on the shelf'. I answered as follows:

I'm sorry, I kind of misunderstood your question. As a reader, for a book to be great (or even good) it has to:

1)Grab my attention and keep it all the way through by being a good story, intriguing and interesting, thought provoking and intellectually stimulating (but being a really good story will do).
2) Not annoy me by being badly written, badly researched, ill thought through (or not thought through at all), unoriginal and stereotyped characters, an obvious rip off of another book.

I have very little patience (or time) so if a book does not capture my attention, or I can see the strings by the end of Chapter, it is on its way to the charity shop.

Harsh, perhaps, but true. I realised that being a writer has sharpened me as a reader. I used to be an 'if I start, I finish' kind of reader, now I just don't have time; there are so many things I should be reading that my own personal reading time is precious and not to be clogged up with duff prose or pages of pointless padding. Also, I have become far more intolerant. I am like the master puppeteer at a puppet show. I know there are strings, and I can admire a skilful disguising, but I don't want to see the workings, don't let it show. If I can divine the writer's intention, see how he or she is trying to manipulate me as a reader, or worse, if the author doesn't even realise you are supposed to hide it, then I won't finish the book. If it is really bad, it becomes what a friend of mine calls a 'hurler' - a book you want to hurl across the room (not recommended for the Kindle edition).

I have to confess to being even worse with historical fiction. If I find an unintended anachronism or sloppy factual inaccuracies, I will not finish the book. Partly because I consider it to be 'my' genre, I don't like people playing fast and loose. I don't like history being used as a mere backdrop for adventures that involve lots of galloping about and where boys fight and girls flounce. I don't like books that deal in ill considered cliche or unquestioning nostalgia. I want a book that uses the freedom that writing fiction gives to look at history from a different angle, to tell me something I don't know, or makes me look at something familiar in a new way. Knowledge has to be matched with thought and imagination. At the other end of the spectrum, I don't like authors who have obviously done a mass of research and are going to make sure we know it, putting all those hours in the library to good effect by stuffing the narrative with endless facts.

Obviously, these rules limit and restrict my reading, but when I do find a book or an author I like, then the experience is proportionately rewarding. It just doesn't happen all that often. I guess that is one of the prices a writer has to pay.

So, good, bad, hurler? How do you judge?


Imogen said...

Good questions! If a character does something for no other reason than to get the plot going, the book gets hurled. Lack of narrative drive and I wander off, four pages of someone being a bit depressed on their way to the shops or lazy characterisation (she's a girl - she loves shoes!) and I'm out of there too. Agree about crammed in research. Great book? I believe completely in the characters and in their world and I'm convinced that what is happening to them matters.

adele said...

I'm like you, Celia and am growing less tolerant as I get older. MY LIFE IS TOO SHORT is a sentence I find myself saying more and more often. And in historical novels some things drive me mad. On which point, does anyone know when the expression "That's daft" or "Don't be daft" came in to use? It struck me as very odd in an Elizabethan book but I may be quite wrong. An editor should have picked up on that if it's wrong.
Jolly good post. I like the expression HURLER. Some good books become hurlers right at the end because the ending is quite annoying. Someone close to me hurled ATONEMENT very hard indeed when all was revealed!

Sue Purkiss said...

Yes - Atonement is very much a book of two halves, I've always thought. I'm not patient with books either. But for me, it's just a question of whether or not it keeps my interest. If I find I'm drifting, or if I really don't care what happens to the characters, that's it. I can forgive the occasional anachronism, though - partly because I can't see how anyone could possibly get it all right. I mean, who's to know if in the Dark Ages a peasant/thegn/sea captain drank out of horn cups or metal ones or pottery ones? Or whether in 1257 you could get material in cobalt blue or pea green? Probably not terrific examples, but you know what I mean...

Katherine Roberts said...

Ah yes, Celia - I am also far less patient with books now than before I started writing them! But every reader is different, aren't they? I suspect I might hurl some books that other HG's love, and the other way around... it would be a sad world if we all enjoyed the same type of books!

Interestingly, now that I have my Kindle and can download and read free samples at leisure before making the decision to buy, I have eliminated "hurlers". Somehow, reducing everything to that grey screen means the words/story must really work for me or I just delete the sample and forget the book. The downside of this is if a title is not available as an ebook, and then I must return to the old method of reading reviews and/or sneaking a peek in the shop/reading a sample online (which is not the same)... and with so many ebooks available to sample, those books can wait.

Word of mouth is obviously still important, but since every reader is different (and I've bought a lot of "hurlers" this way!), I now sample everything before I buy.

Marie-Louise Jensen said...

I will usually read a few pages in a bookshop before I buy to check the writing doesn't irritate me; buying online if you can't 'look inside', you need to rely on reviews, which doesn't always help. Reading is such a personal experience. No book works for everyone. I have flung away one or two at the end too - one that won a big prize, too. Which just goes to show, really.

Katherine Roberts said...

Yes, I agree the ending can be a "hurler" moment and reading any number of samples can't prepare you for that... I often find I want to rewrite other people's endings, but if I've got that far then I respect the author and will not hurl the book!

Celia Rees said...

I'm glad I hit a chord but good point, Katherine. We are all different and what one may hurl another might cherish. I also have to confess to certain prejudices that I should not harbour, but that is probably a different post.

griselda heppel said...

I agree with all of this. So much comes down to Show not Tell (I know, yawn yawn) and with historicl fiction the skill is surely to show just enough to paint a credible picture and not so much that the reader suspects the writer wants to prove they've done their research. What puzzles me is that in Literary Fiction a lot of these considerations seem to go out of the window. I am frequently disappointed in books by highly regarded writers in which both characters and plot just don't stand up. If you write beautifully enough it's Ok apparently. Not with me. Duck while I hurl a few modern 'classics'.

Barbara Mitchelhill said...

For Adele: the word 'daft' meaning 'stupid' is Middle English and was first used to mean 'unsound mind, crazy'around 1536. Can't see why the phrase 'That's daft' couldn't therefore be used.

I do agree with all Celia's comments. I find myself being intolerant of many books these days. Only last week I 'hurled' two books - one of them a Booker Prize winner - having neither the time nor the patience to finish them.
Another problem I have is when I talk with a friend who has loved a book and I want to scream that the plot might cover an interesting subject but it's so badly written I want to get out a red pen. But I don't. I feel that would be 'churlish'. (Middle English/1566)

Jan said...

Dear Barbara Mitchelhill, please will you come and sit on my desk? I could SO do with someone to answer all those 'Would they have said that THEN?' questions!

madwippitt said...

Book criteria:

Bad book? Don't finish it.

Good book? Finish it then pass it on to a friend or the charity shop.

Brilliant book? One I know I will want to re-read: goes to live on one of my bookshelves.