What makes a novel ‘good’?
How can you judge whether a novel is good or not? How can you find good novels to read? Obviously, it’s very subjective and it’s hard to know until you’ve actually read a book whether you [will] like it or not… but how can you know what to look for in publishers’ blurbs and reader reviews to identify whether a book is good or not? In other words, whether it’s a good match for you?
Let’s try to dig down to figure it out.
Imagine you’re browsing a bookseller site or reading a professional review. You come across a book you think you might like. Then, …
Tip 1. Don’t pay too much attention to how the book is being marketed.
Unfortunately, you can’t rely on whether a book is marketed as literary or commercial fiction. Not all good novels are written by ‘literary’ authors and not all ‘commercial’ authors write bad novels. In fact, having been an avid reader for nearly 60 years, having read thousands of novels, it’s now clear to me that:
- terms like ‘literary’ and ‘commercial’ fiction are not indicative of a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ novel
- no reader worth their salt should support an elitist approach to fiction based on whether or not it is deemed ‘literary’
- and finally, there are some tremendous novels on supermarket shelves, and some awful ones on the hallowed shelves of libraries.
Let’s take an example. This article started out as a review of a dystopian novel, Whether Violent or Natural, by Natasha C. Calder. There’s nothing I like more than a good apocalyptic, end-of-the-world scenario novel, so I had grabbed the opportunity to read an ARC of this, interested in its premise: a world where antibiotics have failed (a plausible scenario). It’s an interesting case too because it’s genre fiction (usually considered ‘commercial’) but promoted as ‘literary’ and ‘intelligent’ (because there’s a market for that). So it’s a crossover. I’m very open to crossover fiction!
But oh was I disappointed with this. As I wrote a review (not reproduced on this blog), it got me thinking about why I didn’t like that novel, which is being promoted as ‘literary’ fiction.
If you’re a fan of Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, you might like Whether Violent or Natural. I am not, and I don’t, for much the same reason. I’m not a fan of the sort of elitist approach to fiction that positions one novel as ‘LITERARY’ or ‘intelligent’ and another as ‘popular’ or ‘commercial’ fiction, based pretty much solely on the former using what are hardly more than literary gimmicks, such as overblown language or an unusual narrative voice.
Reader reviews are generally a lot more reliable than publisher blurbs. That’s why I do all my book-browsing online rather than in stores, but that’s a whole other can o’ worms. But you also need to be able to interpret the reviews. The following tips are about what to look out for.
Tip 2. Look at how readers describe their emotional reaction to the novel.
A good novel has an emotional punch. It gets under your skin. When reading reviews of a novel, look for indications that it:
- builds a world convincingly
- suspends your disbelief
- nails your attention
- stirs your emotions or even gets your heart pounding
- pushes you to reflect on the human condition
- hints at deep emotional complexity, at least in parts of the novel or selected characters.
Tip 3. Look for hints about how the novel is written.
By that I don’t mean poetic language. That’s the literary equivalent of a rich cream cake. Rather nauseating after a very little of it. No, I look for:
- a clear narrative structure
- a good plot
- convincing dialogue
- CORRECT English — ideally plain English, not poetry
- a narrative style that ebbs and flow pleasingly to the ear.
(Whether all that is thanks to the author or a good editor is something a reader rarely knows. Even some self-published, author-edited books are very good novels. Every writer has different skills.)
Tip 4. Look for hints about the writing style.
There’s a fun meme that ‘translates’ publisher’s blurbs. I can’t find it or remember the details, but it’s along the lines of ‘heartwarming’ means there’s a dog and ‘heartrending’ means the dog dies. You get the picture! Try to look behind the clichés in the blurb to figure out if this is a book you’ll enjoy or not.
To get back to Whether Violent or Natural, I confess I was warned. I should have expected the overblown prose, the lack of clarity, the weirdness (and not in a good way) and all the self-indulgent rambling, had I paid more attention to the publisher’s blurb: ‘strikingly original’. That usually translates to ‘annoyingly written.’
Tip 5. Look for like-minded readers
In everyday life we use all sorts of social cues to navigate relationships and choices about what we will do or buy or support. We look for clues that tell us whether or not something is right ‘for me’ by evaluating who is telling you about it. Tune into this social awareness when reading book reviews. Do you feel any kinship with the writer? Are you likely to have similar interests? Trust your gut!
So there you have it. 5 tips to find the next good book to keep you awake reading into the early hours!
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