What makes a book good?

I have to admit, I am rather kicking myself. I decided a few months ago that this was a valid lecture topic for my Novel III class, which starts in the not too distant future. But who am I to lay down Pronouncements on Literachurrr? Where does one even begin?

Well, it’s easy to say what makes a book bad, and it’s also pretty easy, in my opinion, to say what doesn’t make a book bad, and so I think I’ll start there.

First, I’ll dispense with the most obvious thing, the thing (I would hope) that goes without saying, but I consider a book superbad if it is hate literature. If its point, in overt whole or in sneaky part, is to portray some given slice of humanity as somehow less able, less noble, or less capable of goodness than another, it is propaganda, and evil, and I want no part of it.

Moving on, I consider a book to be not quite good if its line by line writing is clumsy, even if the story is compelling enough that I read it through with some enjoyment.

I also consider a book not quite good if its story or protagonist bore me, even if the prose is beautiful.

The above two points are important because as one develops as a writer, it becomes incredibly useful to know how to separate enjoyment from quality. We all have moments when we enjoy something that we know, objectively, isn’t all that great. And I will tell you something else… there is not one thing wrong with that. In fact, I’ve recently posted a review of a well-known Stieg Larsson book here, and in it I write about how I liked it an awful lot, even though it’s seriously lacking in the prose department.

This next bit is one of those things that should go without saying, but so many people demonstrate that in fact it does need saying: I do not consider a book bad if I have not bleeping read it. This is true even if if it is something I’m pretty sure I won’t like. Along the same lines a book isn’t automatically bad because it’s a literary novel, or porn, or mystery, or a teen gothic romance with sparkling vampires, or sword and sorcery with frighteningly cheesy cover art, or fanfiction, or entirely written in haiku. As a matter of principle, I believe there is every genre of fiction offers the potential for artistic excellence.

The above covers the bad and the ugly pretty decently, I think, but I’m back to the original question: what makes a book good? I like to think my judgment is pretty decent. Even so, as I’ve already said, the thought of setting myself up as a big ol’ authority makes me uneasy. Hey, everyone is wrong now and then, right?

Never mind that: here I am, out on the limb. How’s this for a proposition? A book is good if it is nicely written, tells a good story, makes you think, and if it makes you feel something, whether that something is recognition, surprise, grief, or hilarity.

Finally, it’s good if it is memorable. My annual books read lists are full of novels I cannot recall at all. Pixies might as well have erased them from my brain. I can go back to reviews of some of them, and with that kind of a prod in hand I can sometimes remember: Oh, yeah, I quite enjoyed that at the time. If it passed without a trace, I say no: it may have been fun, but it wasn’t good.

Critical judgment, the ability to separate our notions of what we like from the issue of what is good, is a tricky and subjective thing. It is the difference between a gut reaction and an informed opinion. Party of the sticky terrain here is that the issue of quality comes loaded with all kinds of emotional baggage. How many times have you mentioned disliking something–a movie, an actor, whatever–only to find the person you’re speaking to reacting defensively, or as if they’re hurt?

We are raised, generally, to think ill of snobbery, and we take it personally when people we respect don’t like our favorite things. And if you’re the person who didn’t like your BFF’s favorite novel ever, you sometimes want to apologize for having been judgmental in the first place. After all, telling someone their beloved thing isn’t good may diminish the pleasure they take in it, right?

Then again, it might make them think–you can’t know.

But I’m not suggesting you start mowing through your friends and family members’ various sacred cows, pickin’ fights and revealing their flaws to the harsh inner light of your critical judgment. I am saying that the more you can learn to discern whether a book is well-crafted, the more critical tools you’ll have to apply to your own fiction, and to the work of any writer you’re trying to critique.

So… this judgment thing. Where does it come from?

Alan Bennett says it far better than I could in his excellent novella The Uncommon Reader.

…saw in the corner of the bookshelf the book by Ivy Compton-Burnett which she had borrowed from the travelling library and which Mr. Hutchings had given her all that time ago. It had been hard going and had nearly sent her to sleep then, she remembered, so perhaps it would do the trick again.

Far from it, and the novel she had once found slow now seemed refreshingly brisk, dry still but astringently so, with Dame Ivy’s no-nonsense tone reassuringly close to her own. And it occured to her (as next day she wrote down) that reading was, among other things, a muscle and one that she had seemingly developed. She could read the novel with ease and great pleasure, laughing at remarks (they were hardly jokes) that she had not even noticed before.

In other words, developing your judgment is a matter of practice… and of practicing something that, in theory, you ought to already enjoy. It’s the same process one goes through if you’re trying to learn to appreciate chocolate, wine, cheese or anything else: you taste a lot of things, you pay attention, and you think about the experience. You discuss it with other people in the know; you see what other people are saying. You taste some more. Lather, rinse, repeat.

There are aspiring writers who don’t read, and I cannot help but find that a shame. Love of books and reading, of stories, is–I hope–the thing that draws people to writing. And once you’re drawn, I hope you want to write good books. Not books of a certain genre, necessarily, not books that Tell Important Stories!, not works of propaganda, but well-told interesting stories that reflect, to readers, what it is to be human.

The girl who came through the ether

It was about a year ago that I got myself an iTouch, and at some point I also got the iBook app. (They were giving away Winnie The Pooh.) Then kelly-yoyoKelly got a Kindle, so I got that app too. Once I had successfully read a few books on the gadget, I got myself a third book-reading app so I could experiment with downloading books from the BC Libraries without Walls program.

I started this phase of the experiment with Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy–the trio that ends with The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest. I knew the database would have them all, I figured they would be fast easy reads, and I was betting I’d never want to own them. All of that, as it turned out, was true.

I have been mustering up a post about what makes a book good. Not okay, not good enough, but good. And this Larsson trilogy falls into the category of books I liked a lot that are not, strictly speaking, good. In this case, that means they have terrific stories and poor prose.

This isn’t just my opinion. Others have pointed out that in translation (and possibly in the original) these books have a clunky prose style. June Casagrande does an interesting edit on the opening passage of the third book, and Nora Ephron makes great fun of the series in The New Yorker. The points made in both articles are valid, but I have no real problem with liking a bad book (or TV show, or movie) now and then. In this case, Larsson’s protagonist and her story pulled me in. It was a tour around the bureaucratic backroads of a foreign country.

I was particularly intrigued by the weird legal situation that Lisbeth Salander is in as the series begins. She’s in her twenties but she’s also trapped in an odd sort of reversed emancipated minor status. Emancipated minors can act as adults in some cases, even though they aren’t legally of age. Lisbeth, meanwhile, is an adult in fact but a dependent minor in the eyes of the System, and she has a court-appointed guardian.

There must be a comparable structure here in Canada and in the U.S., but I have never seen it used in fiction. And it is a great obstacle for a character, especially a socially awkward one, to be stuck with–the threat of being institutionalized hovers over Lizbeth’s every move.

I liked the cluster of allies Lisbeth gathers, somewhat against her will, and the way each novel ends with a gory explosion of violence and crushing public exposure of the bad guys. I like the examination of the role of the media in making big crime stories, and the glimpse of Swedish constitutional law, and the fact that Larsson clearly had it in, bigtime, for homophobes and racists and human smugglers and guys who batter women.

Finally, I have to say that it didn’t hurt that the phrase “lesbian satanist bikers” pops up on every third page of the last two books.

One Ring Circus, by Katherine Dunn

My UCLA novel-writing class is in workshop at present, which really slows down my intake of fiction, so instead I’ve recently read Katherine Dunn’s One Ring Circus: Dispatches from the World of Boxing.

Katherine was one of my instructors at Clarion West 1995; she is a generous teacher, honest and full of enthusiasm and passion for writing. She brings that same fierce love to boxing, and what I loved most about this series of boxing articles tended to be her physical descriptions of fighters–there’s a painterly sensuality to the way she talks about these men and women that differentiates them from each other so clearly. It’s a nifty trick, the more so because, as someone who’s not a fan, it would be easy to just have a generic picture of some ‘fight guy’ in one’s mind while reading.

Journey with Elizabeth Bear

I know and admire Elizabeth Bear‘s writing–I had the good fortune to review Hammered when it was first released, and rave about Carnival, every chance I get. I teach her story “Two Dreams on Trains” in my Writing the Fantastic course at UCLA.

I forget, sometimes, that she and I have never met. I follow her Twitter feed and her blog, where she talks about her passions, writing craft, and the artistic life with its constant juggles and challenges. It all comes across as real and familiar; it resonates with me. I feel as though I know her Giant Ridiculous Dog and cats, though in fact I don’t. I’m one of the many readers who never misses her Criminal Minds recaps, which are charmingly filed under the Geeks with Guns tag.

Even though she is an unselfish and honest blogger, I asked her to do a Journey interview out of sheer greed, just so I and you could get to know her a bit better.

Elizabeth Bear
PHOTO BY S. SHIPMAN

Here’s what she told me:

I live in Manchester, Connecticut, with a giant ridiculous dog, a presumptuous cat, a room-mate, and the roomie’s cat, a giant fluffy monster. I love to cook, and do it recreationally; I am an apprentice gardener and a really lousy guitar player; and I have a collection of outdoor hobbies including kayaking, rock climbing, and hiking. I read compulsively, and I’m a third-generation SF fan on both sides of the family.

I tend to have a lot of irons in the fire in terms of projects. There’s Shadow Unit, of course–tons of free online fiction in a semi-interactive, semi real-time narrative, written by some of SFF’s best writers, established and new. I’m fortunate to be doing a lot of teaching this year–Clarion, Viable Paradise, and I’m a guest lecturer at Odyssey this fall. And I have three books coming out this month (two of them delayed from last year): The White City, a vampire novella set in an alternate Moscow around the turn of the 20th century; The Sea Thy Mistress, a periapocalyptic Norse technofantasy, the third in the Edda of Burdens trilogy; and Grail, far-future science fiction about posthuman explorers aboard a generation ship, the third in the Jacob’s Ladder trilogy.

Elizabeth Bear

I also just delivered Range of Ghosts, which is the first in a new epic fantasy trilogy I’m very excited about. It’s nearly unique, I think, in that its setting is Eurasian and Central Asian rather than European. It’s not a historical fantasy, however, but an attempt to create a fantasy setting that draws from different backgrounds than most Western fantasy.

I’ve spent a good deal of my life trying to find a real profession, something that might lead to financial stability and regular access to healthcare, but storytelling seems to be the only thing I’m any good at.

I’ve been writing fiction since I figured out that stories came from somewhere. Which is pretty much first grade, as far as I recall. I remember writing little stapled “books” of stories about dinosaurs and race horses and aliens. Apparently, this is the thing I was meant to do.

Oh, I have quit. And I have worked at various other jobs from the time I was sixteen until I was thirty-six, more or less. Some of them didn’t leave a lot of time for writing. I made a couple of fairly serious attempts to get published in the 90’s, but I didn’t have a mechanism for improving my work, at that point, and I didn’t know how to learn the necessary skills to become a professional writer, so eventually I would get frustrated and pack it in.

From 1997-2001 I basically didn’t write anything. Toward the end of that I was employed at a job that demanded sixty or seventy hours a week and didn’t pay a living wage, and I had a fairly miserable marriage. I actually got back into writing after 9/11, when I was laid off and there was no work to be had, and I had taken the dogs to the dog park so much they were becoming territorial about it. Fortuitously, at that point in time, my friend Julia Frizzell told me about an online community–the Online Writing Workshop for Science Fiction and Fantasy, where I am now, in a moment of narrative circularity, employed as a resident editor–and I was fortunate enough to fall in with a group of other writers of similar skill level who were very smart about publishing and very determined to get published.

You will recognize some of their names. Among that group was Karin Lowachee, C.C.Finlay, Sarah Prineas, Benjamin Rosenbaum, Amanda Downum, Leah Bobet–and many more, some already established, some still in the process of breaking in.

We bootstrapped each other, I think. Peer group is so amazingly important.

I’ve always been an SFF reader. I was raised to be one. I read other things too–literary fiction, mystery, biography, nonfiction, poetry.

But–other than the juvenile stage, where I wrote horse stories, and a plot-coupon epic fantasy I’m still stealing bits from (Kasimir, the steampunk warsteed in the Edda of Burdens, came from that originally, as did Gavin the Cyber-Basilisk, who appears in the Jacob’s Ladder books) –I originally started off as a poet. Because I couldn’t figure out how to write narrative arc. I had a gifted-and-talented program teacher in third and fourth grade (Mrs. Katz) and a fifth-grade teacher (Mrs. Kology) both of whom really encouraged my poetry–as did my mother, Karen Westerholm, who is an award-winning poet in her own right. She’s been a National Poetry Slam finalist.

So I wrote poetry through high school and into college, and had a lot of false starts on stories that never went beyond four pages. In college, I worked for the school paper as a journalist, which is a little more impressive than it sounds: The Daily Campus is (or was) an independently-funded paper that published five times weekly, and did a fair amount of reasonably serious reporting.

Then sometime in my mid twenties I learned how to write narratives, kind of. I have a very inductive, nonlinear thought process, and early attempts reflect that. Which is one reason I was unsuccessful in selling them. I could no longer write poetry, though.

Around 2002, I started writing work that sold, and in the last couple of years I’ve started being able to write poetry again, which is a relief.

I’ve got an unpublished YA historical mystery with Sarah Monette that we’ve been unable to sell so far. I have some ideas for more mainstream stuff I may write someday, but I’ll need to have the time to do it.

I think one writes stuff better when one has done it one’s self. I read everything I can get my hands on, talk to experts, where practicable try it myself. I am an archer; I’ve done some swordfighting; I try to keep learning new things and practice things my characters need to know.

I support myself with my writing, and sometimes (often) it’s pretty precarious. Especially with the industry in the state it’s in during the current zombie apocalypse, as Sarah Monette likes to call our Current Troubles. I write fiction, book reviews–anything that they’ll pay me for and I can find time to do. I work almost constantly, honestly, and at best I scrape by.

I so far have only taught at workshops, although I have my eyes peeled for a teaching gig–but since I don’t have a degree, and I have neither the time nor the money nor the interest in an MLA, I have to take what I can get.

Most of my money comes from fiction, though. I keep hoping the foreign rights sales will take off, but they haven’t, yet.

I work almost every day, and sometimes I put in twelve-hour days. Of course, I can do that on the couch, in my pajamas, so it’s not as onerous as it sounds. But I have to make time to schedule stuff like social time and exercise. I neglected that for a while, and it was very very bad for me.

Someday I’d like to write a Great Book, even if I’m the only one who knows it. I think the Stratford Man duology–Ink & Steel and Hell & Earth–is as close as I have gotten so far. I’d kind of like to write a graphic novel–Blood and Iron started off as one, actually, when I was in high school. And then this Matt Wagner guy came along with a little book called MAGE….

I sold some poetry to young-artist venues in fifth grade or so, and a few short stories to small markets in the 90s. But honestly, I sent my first short story to Asimov’s when it was still IASFM–and I was in high school–and I didn’t sell a story there until after I had won the Campbell. I tell people it took me thirty years of fairly consistent practice to learn to write fiction, and that’s not far off.

I don’t think in terms of sacrifices or rewards. Storytelling is my life’s work.

Awards are lovely, and they can give readers a reason to give you a chance. But honestly, I’m not a big seller. I’ve had a great deal of critical success, but I’m still very much a niche writer in terms of market. Possibly I’m just not that commercial, for one reason or another.

I could never afford something like Clarion. I’m from a working-class family, and I’ve spent my entire life living hand-to-mouth, more or less. I’ve learned to do what I do through consistent effort, the generous criticism and mentorship of my peers, and trial and error. Reading slush and critiquing the manuscripts of others has been a great teacher for me–it’s a wonderful way to see what works and what doesn’t. Sometimes polished stories are hard to pick apart to see what makes them tick.

Writing for a living is exactly what everybody says it is–a ton of work, a profoundly difficult skill it can take a lifetime to master, very satisfying and frustrating in equal measures, and a lousy way to get rich.

I mean there’s little stuff–I tell friends who are waiting for the publication of their first novel that the best thing they can do for the two months surrounding the drop date is get drunk, stay drunk, unplug the internet, and write the next book. Of course, nobody does.

Most of what happens in a book’s or a story’s career is outside of a writer’s hands. All we can do is write the best, most honest, most real things we can. And then accept that some people will love them, and some will hate them, and the vast majority will go “meh.”

Being a writer is an exercise in relinquishing control.

I often feel like I’m doing what I have to do, and doing my best to do it honestly, and help as many other people as I can. Oh, and scary. Constantly terrifying, because I am always hard up against the edge of my skill and sure I’m going to fail, or starve, or both. The first of that is the best I can ask from life; the last is a little Live! Without A Net!

Someday I’d like to feel secure, I guess. That would be nice.