Is there such a thing as a "good" book and/or a "bad" book?
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In a recent blog post, Ian Sales has addressed a question that we've tossed about in various forms and guises over the years: can we truly differentiate between "good" books and "bad" books? As Ian puts it:
"If there is no such thing as good – because if it’s entirely subjective and personal, then it’s completely useless as a descriptive term – then how do editors choose which books to publish, how do judges choose which books to give prizes to, how do academics chose which books to study? And why don’t they all choose completely different books?"
Is there an argument to be made that even the worst crap has redeeming value or do we, as snobs, as book-lovers, draw a line in the sand and firmly state "this, and not that"?
What think you?
This seems like it would open a Pandora's Box. In light of that view, here is an Oscar Wilde quote:
"There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written or badly written."
What makes a bad book bad:
And, of course, Orwell on "good bad books":
Technically, a good book is easy to spot.
Emotionally or intuitively, each to his own. A book might be terrible in characterization, derivative in execution and lacking in any finely-honed sentences, but if it succeeds in getting a person's mind off their troubles, then it was a good book for that reader. The personal reaction can and does turn a book's merits inside-out.
Seems pretty simple to me.
I always have time for ol' George. Smart man. Would love to get my hands on his collected letters.
What drives me mad is that folks are using all kinds of excuses to get around technical standards, insisting that even proper spelling is a matter of taste or employing the rationale of "post modernism" (which most of them don't comprehend) to defend their sloppy syntax and inept grammar. The notion of "good writing vs. bad writing" is elitist, doncha know, especially since the advent of blogging--heck, we're ALL experts now.
Would people here agree that there used to be more "good" bad books and these days we have a proliferation of "bad" bad books?
Yes and no. There used to be all kinds of bad books, but no one remembers them.
There are more bad books now, because there are more books, period.
8: No more than any other generation or era. Nostalgia and aging just tend to make our assessments rather akin to a retina getting glaucoma. A couple hundred years will make even the worst drek become "a classic." Just plow through your local historical society or museum and witness the mountains of racist, sexist, idiotic shit people ran through a printing press.
Also, that's totally a loaded question compounded with "good" good and "bad" bad, making this entire discussion veer into the cataclymically Wittgensteinian abyss of language games.
Yes, but past assessments re: the state of literature (good and bad) didn't have to factor to print-on-demand/self-published efforts that have totally changed the game and fucked up the averages.
Hi Cliff - suggest a really'good' book that I should read that is in paperback, available in the UK and isn't Proust.
Hi Ian - are there 'good' newspapers and 'bad' newspapers?
Since newspapers no longer report the news anymore, does it make any difference? Just stick to the one whose agenda and worldview most closely maps onto your own.
And for a good book, you can't go wrong with The Alexandria Quartet, available in a new edition this year to celebrate Durrell's centenary.
That was quick. Thanks. I was really curious about the standard of writing in the various newspapers. We used to be told that to get a child to read at the level of vocabulary used in the Sun was sufficient for them to operate as a literate adult. We don't take the 'heavy' papers because there is too much in them that I have neither the time nor the inclination to read about, but I would hope that the house style is more to the liking of 'literary snobs.' I'm one of those people who cannot start the day without a newspaper, although the younger members of the family rely on digital devices.
#12--And how about one of my faves, EARTHLY POWERS by Anthony Burgess. A novel so good, it stupefies me.
Then there are the old books that would be nice reads if they didn't have the casual racism, sexism, and social class crap of their day. I recently reread my old Honey Bunch books. Honey Bunch: Her First Trip on a Houseboat is definitely racist by today's standards, but compared to the usual depiction of African-Americans in the 1930s and '40s, it was enlightened.
Over 20 years ago I read Ghost House and Ghost House Revenge by Clare McNally. I don't remember the books themselves, but I remember the reaction I had to them: I felt as if the author had machine-gunned her words, drained them of blood, and left their pallid corpses on the pages. (It was a book club double volume or I'd not have read the sequel.)
Are you saying there are books available that are the equivalent of these gems? http://www.godawful.net/
Please, say it isn't so!
By the way, I don't think this is a loaded thread. One of the points that Ian's article was trying to make (and he emphasizes it in his followup comments), is that there are objective criteria for excellent writing and subjective opinion has nothing to do with it. We may like a book but that doesn't automatically make it a "good" book. Likable books aren't necessarily original or innovative or demanding or thoughtfully composed.
We can defend our choices of "good" books but we can't merely fall back on "because I liked it" or "because I thought the book was good, so there". We can try to place the book within the legacy of fine literature, demonstrate by example and quotation paragraphs that celebrate language or make a point with such precision, so few words, the result leaves us gasping. We can cite authoritative sources and reviews that confirm the book has been held up to the light, scrutinized, discussed and vetted. Posterity also confers credibility.
I may not like the work of either Virginia Woolf or Joseph Conrad (I don't), but I'm willing to concede that clearly they have earned their place in the pantheon of literature, regardless of my personal views. They are literary greats. Just not to me.
Jalen: chum, you just identified the talent pool that traditional publishers are currently skimming, looking for the next Stephanie Meyer or E.L. James. Fan fiction used to be a joke, now it's at the top of the bestseller lists. I mean, my God, FIFTY SHADES OF GREY was published by Vintage, which at one time was one of the finest imprints around.
The trads just lie in the weeds, waiting, and when someone's piece of shit rip-off of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" starts zooming up the indie e-book/Kindle charts, they swoop in, offer a big contract and another success story is born.
Pardon me while I find a bucket to puke in.
Cliff: Glad I'm not the only one who noticed Vintage published Fifty Shades. Still, maybe they'll use the money from the bestsellers to make available more international and obscure works. That's how it's supposed to go...
Yes, that's the theory, isn't it?
Kind of like "trickle down economics".
It used to work like that in the old days... until all the publishers were bought out by multinationals who insisted a) that all books made a profit, and b) profits had to be 15% or more...
In other words, the publishing industry has gone the way of everything else in the world.
#23: And THAT'S a game-changer.
None of this "nurturing a writer", developing a talent. No thought of quality or literary merit, no attempt to disguise their greedhead motivations. You think the shareholders give a shit about "the next Don Delillo"?
I've read interviews with a number of first rate, celebrated authors who claim that in the present publishing atmosphere their books wouldn't have a chance and they truly despaired for good young writers trying to find a venue for their work.
25: You think the shareholders give a shit about "the next Don Delillo"? Only if the writer can make enough bank to give the agents and editors their requisite cocaine and hooker money. Probably why I've been seeing on every It Writer coming down the pike being called "the next Thomas Pynchon." Everyone from Neal Stephenson to David Foster Wallace Granted, both those writers had talent of their own, but Pynchon is like Joyce, there is no Next Pynchon or Pynchon for the Nineties or whatever. What makes Pynchon so wonderfully maddeningly great is that you can not duplicate his output. Sure, Cryptonomicon was a doorstopper with an intricate plot and a fair share of the action took place during World War 2, but equating it to Gravity's Rainbow sounds more like a marketing ploy rather than anything critically intelligent.
#17 OK kswolff, I admit it, I'll never be one of you. I checked out the two books you suggested and don't feel inclined to try either. I did read Joyce in my youth, when I was experimenting with literature but I no longer wish to read books that are hard work. I'll slide back to Writers/ Readers and Brits and be back to see what you are discussing next month.
In the end, it's what makes you happy that you should read. For me, that's a mix of the fun/mindless fantasy fluff and the challenging works of great authors.
Whether you enjoy a book has little connection to whether it is a good or bad book.
For me, one important (though admittedly not always easy to discern) dividing line between what I think of as "good" and "bad" books is whether the book exists primarily to make money, as a commercial item, or primarily to think about and allow the reader to think about something important. (We'll all define 'important' in different ways, but I mean intellectual, moral, social, political questions, considered for their own sake.) Ultimately, it's a moral judgment I'm making. For me, it's a moral misuse of writing to mold it into widgets. When I feel that a book has been written primarily to sell as many copies of itself as possible, I get offended and call it bad.
#30.If I'm not supposed to enjoy a 'good' book why read it at all? There's another thread going on Proust and I can't manage him either. I did take Ian's advice and read the Alexandria Quartet but I felt Durrell was writing for himself, not readers. Sometimes we need to write to help us clarify our own ideas or just to wallow in language. Neither makes a 'good' book, does it?
Books,( like the BBC?) should enlighten and entertain. That's why the books I like, and write, contain both human relationship and political issues.
Is a good book a memorable book, or one you want to keep and read again?
If I find one I want to tell you all about I'll let you know. Meanwhile I'll check out some other suggestions on LT. Thanks,folks.
FWIW, reading this thread has prompted me to order 5 books, all by authors I've not read before.
"enlighten and entertain" seems as good a criterion as any. The reader's expectations are the major factor, I think. Profit motive clouds the issue; I like Trollope and Dickens and they wrote for money, for sure. It's okay for a good writer to make money doing it.
I like reading older things just because their assumed standards and valuations are different than present day. Present standards are going to look laughable down the road a generation or so, too. This doesn't, however, determine whether I rate a book as "good" or not.
I think there is such a thing as a "good" and "bad", but also prefaced on what the reader is looking for. Some of this falls under genre conventions, marketing savvy on behalf of publishers, what the reader is in the mood for, and a quantifiable level of craftsmanship. It's a little different for non-fiction, depending on whether its a memoir (itself a slippery bastard of a genre; a wily combination of truth, fiction, self-justification, and authorial license), history, current affairs (relevant topic vs. the cruel and fickle inherent immediate obsolescence -- that isn't to say those books are irrelevant or useless, but I see them as the mayfly of books), popular science and technology books, etc, etc, into infinity.
For me, and this is an entirely individualized, subjective thing, I enjoy a healthy variety of books: Warhammer 40K tie-in novels; Great Literature; graphic novels; Victorian erotica; and collections of book reviews and popular criticism.
I assert that a book (or any cultural product for that matter) should be judged on its own terms. Not a huge fan of Westerns, but is said book a "good Western"? If a genre book fails to hold up to the standards of its own genre, then it can be bad. (Notions of kitsch, irony, and the reactionary outrage of hipster douchebags complicates matters.) Fifty Shades of Grey isn't a "bad" book on, say, moral grounds -- although it's not necessarily an ode of women's liberation (then again, should a book be a delivery device for something as ephemeral as a political or economic position?) -- just that it's written terribly and it's more about lifestyle porn than, ya know, "bow chicka bow wow."
I enjoy variety. I couldn't read lowbrow trash like Warhammer 40K novels all the time nor could I endure reading Great Literature (talk about something with a malleable, if not chameleon-like boundaries) all the time. I'm currently reading a graphic novel by Terry Moore, an LBJ biography by Robert Caro, and snippets of Finnegans Wake, because I'm a language nerd that way.
So ... in summary:
1. Depends on the reader.*
2. Depends on craftsmanship.**
*This excludes the fallacy that "Popular = good." This excludes the Philistine Defense, "Well, it's on the New York Times Bestseller List, it has to be good and I should read it." And its mirror image, the Hipster D-bag Defense, "Well, I read Denis Johnson before he was cool." A book's goodness or badness has nothing to do with numbers. Well, almost nothing.
**What about works that are intentionally poor in craftsmanship? Parodies, satires, etc. A book can be good if it imitates a particularly bad book with dead-on accuracy. But the Author is doing that intentionally and it all depends on whether the Reader "get's it." (Here's another thing: Dorothy Parker has written some incredibly good book and play reviews that are considered timeless. On the other hand, the bad books and plays she reviewed, the reader really wouldn't know about, at least on average, at least now -- 2012 -- as opposed to when they were published. When they were published, reviews, like any other periodical writing, has its own built-in disposability.)
#30.If I'm not supposed to enjoy a 'good' book why read it at all?
Let us review. I said, "Whether you enjoy a book has little connection to whether it is a good or bad book."
Nowhere did I suggest that literary merit is something you are not "supposed to enjoy." You may enjoy a book that is blindingly bad, or fail to enjoy a book that is demonstrably good. Taste remains personal.
Taste remains personal.
Great literature trumps all.
You got it, A.J.
38: Let us review. I said, "Whether you enjoy a book has little connection to whether it is a good or bad book."
Let me second that. I'm not a fan of either Jane Austen or Ernest Hemingway, but only a complete moron would dispute that either wrote bad books. Just not my taste is all. Although it's easy to make that assertion with authors in the Western Canon, it gets dicier with more contemporary authors. Since I'm not a psychic or a prophet, I don't know whether Norman Mailer will be an enduring author? Will people still read him 10, 50, or 100 years into the future? (Or will even be reading for that matter? After 100 years, will we be scrabbling about in a Peak Oil-Mad Max future or will we sitting idly by, scanning the technical charts for the Mars base?)
As time catches up, the question of "What is Great Literature?" becomes foggier, or at least more challenging to ascertain with absolute certainty. William Shakespeare? Duh, of course. Jonathan Franzen? I dunno.
I don't know either Karl, but you gotta admit, Franzen can sure write an endearing Christmas story...
41: What can I say, I've never read any Franzen and, considering my Everest-sized TBR pile of other stuff, I probably never will.
Sorting out this debate could be akin to trying to swim in treacle.
Everyone who has replied so far has put good and bad in quotation marks: and with good reason. We haven't yet decided what part of the book we are applying the terms good and bad to. Do you mean good technically (grammar, spelling, punctuation), good structurally (story arc, plot, pacing, characterization), or good content (relevant subject matter, ethically sound, thought provoking).
Ideally, I think a good novel would have all of these things, but if you asked me to name one book that had all of these points in perfect order, I couldn't name one.
#30. I stand corrected, but haven't we established a lot, thanks to LovelyPride? It seems that the word' 'good' can mean so many different things that we will never all agree. Ian has suggested a classic book with exceptional language, while also telling us it is' not to everyone's taste.'
As for 'bad' books - if you take LovelyPride's terms that is much easier - poor grammar etc. poor plot,
characterization, etc and (dare I suggest) boring content, or does a book only need a few of those to be 'bad?'
Just to add to the mix-can a book be 'bad' to some people and'good' to others?
>44: Structure and technical skills are very inflexible. A book either has good pacing or it doesn't. It either has good grammar or it doesn't. But when it comes to content, I think a book can definitely be bad to some and good to others.
Everyone has different experiences, and so they are going to react differently to the same idea. A person who did well in school (both academically and socially) might sing the praises of a book that applauds formal education. But someone who feels that they took very little from their formal education or who didn't fit into the social cliques might throw the book in the corner proclaiming, "what a bunch of teacher's pet ass-kissing!"
44: A book can indeed be bad to some and good to others. My books are brilliant to me, but clearly not to most people.
My high school English teacher told us, "There are no bad books, just bad readers!" But even as a 15 year old, I didn't buy it. There are bad books out there. Plenty of them. Usually they are the books which disprove the saying 'you can't judge a book by it's cover', because those books, you really can. (If not from the cover art, then from the jacket blurb.)
Really great books are also fairly easy to spot. You can tell in the first chapter, sometimes the first page, that the writing is special. That this book is one you will remember, and tell your friends about, and write a glowing review of on LT.
Personal preference really has little to do with it. Maybe you like French cuisine, while your friend prefers Italian. That's personal preference. But you can both agree on what is a well-cooked Italian dish, and what is not.
#47 madpoet, the quote from your English teacher reminded me of a quote: "There's no such thing as a dirty book: it's just the way you read it."
I come down on the, "there are bad books" side of the discussion.
In my opinion, there are many ways in which a book may be bad. I will not include the topic dealt with in a book as a reason for it to be deemed bad, as to do so would be walking into subjective value judgements, rather than focusing on objective facts.
A very poorly edited book (and I include editing for content, flow, grammar, and punctuation, etc...) is likely to be a bad book.
A book that includes numerous factual errors will be a bad book.
I will also pin my colours to the mast in relation to self-published fiction. Without the filter of a good editorial process, the proportion of self-published books that are bad vastly outstrips the proportion of bad books published through the traditional publishing world (although some of the current publishing companies are trying hard to catch up with the self-publishing world in this regard). The probability of a self-published book being bad through the absence of a good, robust editing process, makes it not worthwhile to start looking for good fiction from such sources.
45: I don't agree about pacing being 'good' or not. I think it's a very subjective issue based on taste. I have thought the pacing to be perfect in a book such as Porius where a lot of other people would say it is way too slow for their tastes.
Another thing that differs is what kinds of weaknesses a book may have based on genre. Books that contain anachronisms may be "bad" from the historical fiction standpoint, but if they are not that kind of book, the anachronisms may be deliberate and add to the book's "good"-ness (e.g., The Once and Future King). Books may have hysterically false plot points in them from the point of view of, say, a weapons specialist, or a police officer, but non-specialists still enjoy them and they may have other things to recommend them.
I read a fantasy once that was epistolary. Various fantasy readers did not like the epistolary format which they saw as being too confusing. I thought that was what made it "good". Another critique the regular fantasy readers had, which I had not thought of because I don't read a lot in the genre, was that the linguistics of the various different races/ethnicities were random and not convincing enough.
There are levels of craft in writing. The more you write, the better you get at it. Some people are gifted writers. So if there are good and bad writers, there must be something intrinsic to books which makes them good or bad for everyone. Such as idiot plotting, cardboard cutout characters, inept prose, tin-eared dialogue, etc.
>52: I agree with your remark that there are levels of craft in writing, but I have a hard time with your remark that a book is "good or bad for everyone". There have been plenty of books that are horribly written that have a huge fan following. Fifty Shades of Grey ringing any bells? How about the Twilight series? Some people seem almost wilfully blind to completely crap writing.
53: Some people seem almost wilfully blind to completely crap writing.
Or put in different terms: they are either congenitally insane or irretrievably stupid.
#53 The vast majority of people do not read books critically. They don't care how good or bad they are, they only care about the story. That's why so many people incorrectly insist that whether a book is good or bad is wholly subjective - they're basing that on the story and their response to it. Which is, of course, subjective. But it also ignores all the objective criteria by which aesthetic judgments can be made - the level of craft and/or talent on display in the prose, the structure and the way the story is presented.
Incidentally, Fifty Shades of Grey does not have a fan following. It has been hugely popular due to a clever marketing campaign.
#49.This is difficult. I ,too, have read some very poorly written self published novels over the last few years but those that have been edited competently can compete with books published in the traditional way. There was no way I would think of producing a book that would not stand up to the same review process as any produced by standard publishers. I recognise the star system is largely based on taste and I know there is a limited market for different genres but to suggest self published books are not worth considering is blinkered, to say the least.
I'm afraid I lean towards pgmcc's view. Just yesterday I wavered for 20 minutes trying to decide whether to respond to a Hobnob with Authors post, in which the self-published author urged people to try something new! and open their minds! She also claimed that she subverted all stereotypes.
Meanwhile there were several grammatical errors within the post -- and there was even one in the thread's subject line. Seems to me she reinforced the stereotype of the self-published author; either she was careless, or she doesn't actually have a handle on grammar. Either way, there is no way I'm wasting my time.
I do concede that there are exceptions, and that some self-published authors are likely well worth reading. But I don't have the time to wade through hundreds of self-publications just to get to one good one. I count on the editorial process to find things worth publishing and to help polish them so they are as strong as possible.
(I ultimately did not respond. I did not think my criticisms would be welcomed, and understandably so.)
Unfortunately, the vast majority of self-published stuff is godawful...and that casts a pall over those writers who chose go the indie route as an alternative to traditional publishing.
It's hard for a good indie author to rise above all that self-published trash--the hobbyists and wannabes who insist on polluting the literary gene pool with their offal.
oldstick, I am not saying there are no worthwhile self-published books. What I am saying is that the absence of a robust editorial process increases the likelihood that a self-published book will be poor. I have read many self-published books, both fiction and non-fiction. A couple of them were quite good, even excellent, and generally well edited. The rest were self-delusional drivel. (The good self-published books tended to be non-fiction.)
My experience however, has led me to the conclusion that the time invested in searching for a good book among the myriad of self-published titles does not yield an acceptable rate of return. For that reason I will not seek out self-published fiction titles again.
Non-fiction is a safer bet when looking at self-published books.
What I feel the fiction self-publishing industry, if I may call it that, requires is an independent body that will provide editorial/evaluation services and that will provide a rating for self-published novels which will indicate whether or not a book attains certain minimum standards. Such a body would have to be totally ruthless if it is to maintain any credibility and if its rating scheme is to be of any worth. If a book is total rubbish it should not be saying otherwise. If it rates a book as being of high quality the reading public should be able to believe it.
In the absence of such a referral system, which would have to be funded by the writers, I will only read a self-published novel, or book of short stories, if someone whose judgement I value recommends it, or if, as has happened me in the past, a friend or associate puts the emotional squeeze on me to read their book.
With regards to being blinkered, I have been looking around the self-published fiction world with eyes wide-open and now prefer to have them shut tight.
57: I really agree with you about the grammar. It is really distracting when there are grammar errors in a book, and it can completely spoil the book for me. Self-published books by people without a firm grasp of grammar are painful. Such writers need to have a friend who knows grammar do some editing. Unfortunately I guess it's sort of the Dunning Kroger effect - people who don't know grammar will not recognize that they are flouting it.
Spelling errors, particularly homonyms like "reign in" (argh) are also really distracting, and sadly, more and more of these seem to be getting through to the end product even with professionally published books. *sigh*
58: Yes, I expect a lot of your fans get to know you through face to face meeting or reading your blog, or meeting you on LT. I would not know about self published people unless I met them somehow, and would not try to find them out. I do like to look at the Small Press section in Powells and wonder if small presses can help with this issue in doing a professional job getting unknown writers out there.
55: Yes, the stupid porn book was really a marketing phenom. It is a fad like the Rubik's Cube, or the Pet Rock.
I'm afraid I have to agree with the above about self-published fiction in general. This makes me an appalling hypocrite. I set up my own publishing company because I was informed by those agents who liked my first book that they wouldn't know how to sell it. I was eventually reasonably successful, achieving national distribution, and even briefly attracting some Hollywood interest.
The book was professionally enough produced not to scream "self-published" at potential reviewers, and it was able to get some very nice reviews. However, this wasn't easy, as many reviewers had strict "no self-publisher" policies. Those who did give it glowing reviews would not have touched it with a barge pole if they had known it was self-published - and frankly, who could blame them?
I sense a softening of the attitudes of reviewers as I begin to approach them with the sequel. This could just be because I have a little bit of a track record and can point at the reviews for the first book, but I think there's also a reaction to the fact that some more "reputable" authors are going indie. Having said that, it's still going to be a long haul, made even more difficult by the piles of crap foisted on the world by the "self-publishing" companies.
Oh dear. That had to hurt. I do enjoy reading nasty critiques.
I was surprised by people in the comments' funny ways of dissing Coelho though. Disparaging his name, its spelling, or the newspaper he talked to (he is Brazilian, the name is Portuguese, and he gave the interview to a Brazilian daily, and what the heck is wrong with that?)... this is not a contest about nationalities after all, and Brazilians presumably can have opinions about English language lit as well as anyone else.
I actually agreed with the single commenter who said he liked them both but for very different reasons. I have read Coelho books that I enjoyed (although I also really disliked one of them and it sort of put me off of him as it was a later one). They are simple parables for the most part. That is way different than what Joyce was trying to do with Ulysses, which I am very glad I took the time to read, but there is room in this world for both of them.
I also noted that someone in the comments said that Coelho was mistranslated when he said that "Ulysses is a twit," what he meant was "tweet" meaning that it could be summarized in 140 characters or less I guess. I disagree with that pretty strongly and think his works are more easy to summarize "in a Tweet" than Ulysses, but it is a very different statement than what was reported in the article.
I think it's sad that modern writers feel the need to publicly attack classic writers for any reason. Why would any writer want to discourage people from reading any work? Shouldn't they be encouraging readers to read works on their own merit and make their own assessments? As far as I'm concerned Coehlo is just displaying his personal insecurity.
I think the clue to Coehlo's insecurity lies in the phrase "self-proclaimed 'literature wizard'". Anyone who feels the need to both attack a writer who isn't alive to defend his work and give themselves a fancy-sounding nonsense title really isn't all that confident in their own abilities.
64: I think it's sad that modern writers feel the need to publicly attack classic writers for any reason. Why would any writer want to discourage people from reading any work?
For the market share, obviously. Writing is like any other business and part of a successful business is remaining relevant to your consumers. Hence the hilarity of Paul What's-his-name attacking James Joyce. "Self-proclaimed 'literature wizard'"? Girlfriend, please. Flapping one's wings doesn't make one an eagle, just a self-proclaimed nimrod.
Hell, Cliff attacks writers left and right. It's practically a cottage industry with him. Luckily he has standards .. and doesn't proclaim to be a wizard of any kind.
65> You do realize that I was criticizing him for his self-proclaimed title as well, right? There was no need for the "Girlfriend, please" remark since our opinion was the same.
As for market share, that argument only works if you are competing for the same kind of readers. The people who read Coehlo are not the same people who read Joyce. I read two of Coehlo's books and found them to be very pop psychology with very little understanding of the human psyche. Joyce, on the other hand, has a very strong understanding of human psychology (even though he does use far too much Christian-Judeo imagery and references for my taste). Coehlo attracts best-seller buyers and Oprah's-Book-Club readers, Joyce attracts English majors and classical literature fans. Hardly the same audience. Even though there can be some overlap, it's not enough to make it worth his while to publicly attack him.
Well, I've read both. And I did like a few of Coelho's books. They are popular because they are simple parables. I definitely thought the Joyce was a much harder reading experience that was a lot more challenging. But I actually did enjoy both in very different ways.
Aren't books really just like wine? The one you like the most is the best one?
>69: you do realize that a comment like that in a literary snobs forum could set off an explosive reaction.
70: CliffBurns becomes CliffExplodes. Then there's Oldstick of dynamite.
I agree with the emerging consensus (oops, suddenly no longer a consensus due to #69) that books have objective qualities that make them better or worse. Nonetheless, I'm not sure I'd classify them as being "good" or "bad" because to me it's more of a continuum than a dichotomy. If we're taking all the world's books and sorting them into two piles, many would be hard to sort depending on how good we require them to be for the good pile. As a continuum, however, I think most people would agree that, say, Kafka's The Trial is better than The Satanic Verses, which is better than Portnoy's Complaint, which is better than Neuromancer, which is better than The Hunger Games, which is better than Fifty Shades of Grey, which...um, kind of ends the example. Essentially a literary version of the great chain of being, rather than the saved and the damned.
^72, I think you'd be surprised how many people would rate The Hunger Games higher on your scale than that. ;-) I wouldn't have bothered to read it except that too many people whose literary tastes I respect recommended it to me.
The criteria are not objective.
Rather, there are criteria agreed by broad consensus, and standards that, although subjective, are also supported by consensus. We generally agree that a more complex narrative is "better" (more sophisticated, more interesting, etc.) than a simplistic one, and we agree on certain standards that allow us to say what is complex. Then we make subjective judgments using those criteria.
Remember that exploding head scene in "Scanners"? I just experienced something similar.
>62 I'm not a big fan of James Joyce, but even I would say he's a much better writer than Paul Coelho.
If you have agreed standards, then any judgment made according to those standards is by definition objective. After all "objective" means "agreed upon by all parties present (or nearly all)" as well as "not influenced by irrational emotions or prejudices" (Wiktionary).
Critical readers can see the craft in fiction. The more trained and/or experienced they are, the easier and more discerning that process is. Judging the application of craft is objective, though it is not exact.
There are elements which are subjective - story, for example. You can't say one story is "better" than another. But you can say: well-drawn character (objective), likeable character (subjective).
Re #74, #77: Thanks, Ian. Exactly, by objective I don't mean that it's mathematically derived, or handed down by a supreme being, or anything else outside of human readers; I mean that it's generally consistent across literate, thoughtful readers, as opposed to something subjective, which varies haphazardly from one reader to the next. If, for example, I enjoy a novel because I just went through a divorce and the protagonist's divorce helps me understand my own, that's a purely subjective reason for liking it, so I shouldn't mistake my subjective reason as signifying the book is better or worse for readers as a whole. On the other hand, if the book has nuanced characters as opposed to ones who are one-dimensionally good or evil, or it uses a rich vocabulary of apt words as opposed to describing everything as "nice," I'd say it's an objectively better book.
Durrell and Hemingway are both regarded as "good " writers, yet their writing could not be more different. One is lush and complex and often purple; the other is Hemingway. So we can't have an agreed standard that accepts complexity as a yardstick. There must be other factors at play which can be generally agreed upon.
I didn't suggest that complexity is the sole yardstick. Criteria and standards, not criterion and standard. Consequently, things that are polar opposites can be considered good.
The really objective thing to do is establish the list of criteria to be used in evaluating books. There should then be an agreed means of scoring a work against each criterion. We also need a range for each criterion stretching from good to bad.
Having scored a book against the criteria we can plot it on a spider diagram which could be used to compare the work with other works that have been subjected to the same analysis.
Has anyone ever attempted such a quantitative method to the analysis of literature?
I'm sure the thought of such an approach would have many literati writing in agony.
@78: I don't know if it will help you place de Sade, but if you need help locating Sparks he's right next to Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Shakespeare, Austen, and Hemingway — particularly Hemingway. According to Sparks anyway.
(I originally found that interview via a link at librarything so it might be old news.)
Re #83: I've never read anything by Nicholas Sparks, and because of his comments in that article, now I'm even less likely to start. I suppose he's right that he might belong next to Sophocles, but only because of the cruelty of alphabetical order. (I shudder whenever I visit the library and see an army of Danielle Steel massed against Stendhal's left flank; because the Stendhals are vastly outnumbered, I check on them every so often just to make sure they're OK.)
Re #82: I haven't heard of anyone attempting that for books, though I remember hearing of a musicologist who developed what he considered an objective, quantitative way of rating musical works.
I attended a talk by a manager from Kodak many years ago. He was describing a quantitative method for measuring culture using the approach I described above.
The only cultures he had figures for were English and Mexican. He had been working in Ireland for about five years and said he imagined the Irish culture was closer to that of the English. We were all amazed as we all related to the results he had for Mexico.
86: He had been working in Ireland for about five years and said he imagined the Irish culture was closer to that of the English. We were all amazed as we all related to the results he had for Mexico.
Why should that surprise you? They are both fervently devout Catholic nations that have a long history of enduring colonial thuggery from economically dominant global empires. I'm sure Nicholas Sparks does good business in both places. Because after a day of bone-breaking drudgery and limited career opportunities, you want to wrap yourself up with some worthless literary drivel.
My wording was perhaps not the best. Our amazement was at his saying the Irish were likely to be more like the English than the Mexicans after his having spent five years here. The similarities we saw between ourselves and the Mexicans were more to do with our not having a word that conveys the same sense of urgency as the words siesta or mañana. We saw no match with the English.
BTW you are grossly out of date. Your comment, They are both fervently devout Catholic nations , is no longer true for Ireland. The clerical child abuse has reduced the catholic church to a much hated organisation. If the Pope were to visit Ireland now there would be major protests and possibly violence.
have a long history of enduring colonial thuggery from economically dominant global empires. That bit was spot on.
88: Actually the French Canadians and the Irish relate very well together too because the "long history of enduring colonial thuggery..." thing. The fastest way to get a French Canadian to buy a new book or see a new play or film is to tell him it written by an Irish writer. And Saint Patrick's Day is celebrated as joyously in Quebec as Saint Jean Batiste Day.
#89: In the words of a famous Frenchman, "Vive le Québec libre!"
I'm in France at the moment and the weather is fantastic.
Sorry guys, I just can't look at this thread without starting to sing - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kr1I3mBojc0
90: You realize those are fighting words here, right?
I'm in Montreal right now. We're in the middle of an election with the usual sovereigntist noise. Perhaps, when it comes to promoting political movements you know nothing about, you might STFU.
Typical Anglo-saxon response to Gallic pride. Silence to the ones different from you. Somewhere the soul of TS Eliot is smirking with glee.
#94 Was that, by any chance, a typical American response to . . . um, whatever it was a response to?
95: Usually opening fire with an AR-15 in a movie theater and then saying something about "legitimate rape." Then again, typical Americans are dumber than livestock and have aesthetic tastes that would make Thomas Kinkade shudder in abject horror.
Surely, as snobs, we should be more outraged by pgmcc's writing "Vivre Quebec libre!" when he presumably means "Vive le Québec libre!"
Close enough for most groups, mon vieux, but hardly the kind of thing expected of a snob, what?
Let's hear it for Charlie DeGaulle:
Tbbbssssppppppp! (Classic raspberry, with extra vile and spittle added for effect)
"You take care of your Bretons and we will take care of our Quebecois."
I forgot who said it (probably the prime minister of Canada at the time that De Gaulle made his pro-Quebecois independence statements) - but I first learned about it when studying in France (1988), so I heard it in French, which made it sound much more elegant. Something like vous vous preocupez de vos .... etc. No accents or French spell check on my computer and it has been too long.
By a strange coincidence, I'm reading De Gaulle's memoirs. He was effective as a leader, but comes across as a pompous turd. His chauvinism seems to have actually led him to believe his exaggerated versions of the role of the Free French in driving the Germans out of France, although he occasionally hints that the Americans may have helped a bit. And his behaviour towards British SOE agents who played a vital role in arming and organising the maquis was disgraceful.
94: Do tell me all about my "typical Anglo-Saxon response to Gallic pride," since you're an expert on the politics of this province. Promoting the French language doesn't bother me -- in fact, I like that Quebec is dominantly French. But I'm not keen on the pur laine attitudes held by many sovereigntists, including the current PQ leader, who has proposed among other things that residents of Quebec who do not pass a French-language proficiency test should be denied "Quebec citizenship" and its attendant rights -- including the right to petition the National Assembly. "Silence to the ones different from you" is, by odd coincidence, precisely the thinking of hardcore sovereigntists.
AJ, I did not know you lived in Quebec. Really? I have a friend who lives in Montreal and this is on my top ten places I would really very much like to visit. How neat. So do you speak French fluently? I imagine you do? How francophone is it there, is it hard for non-French speakers to deal? Pardon my absurd ignorance about my neighbors to the north...
I don't live in Montreal, but I'm there now. I lived here as a student and now work for a Montreal-based company, so I visit often, but my home is in Ontario.
Montreal is actually quite easy to get by without speaking French, as most people are bilingual at least at a functional level. In restaurants, etc., you are typically greeted with "Hello / bonjour," so you can pick your language. The unique feature of Montreal is all the people who switch languages in mid-sentence -- very entertaining to listen to. My own French is poor -- I can get by if I must, but can't keep up with Montreal's rapid-fire and idiomatic spoken French.
If you visit Montreal, you should also visit Quebec city. You will find much fewer English speakers there, but don't let that deter you.
103: I would second that about Quebec city. In my opinion it's the most beautiful city in North America. I had an image derived from history books and expected to be disappointed when I visited. I wasn't - it was exactly as I had imagined it.
I had the same experience with language switching in Brussels. While Flemish and French tore lumps out of each other in the provinces, or even in the suburbs, the Bruxellois communicated in whatever was most convenient. To me it was most striking on the football (soccer) field. One player would shout at another in French, and the reply would come back in Flemish, or switch in mid-sentence.
Thank you for correcting my French. I won't make that mistake the next time.
I find I can remain silent no longer but must make some comments on your post.
Firstly, the posting is based on an incorrect assumption embodied in you words political movements you know nothing about. I know quite a bit about the situation in Quebec and I remember watching President de Gaulle’s speech on television when it was made. Where I lived at the time the sentiment was well received as it resonated with many of my compatriots.
Secondly, I find it very aggressive that the first thing someone tells another person is to, “STFU”.
Thirdly, to use uncouth language in one’s first comment to another person strikes me as rude.
Fourthly, having lived through thirty years of de facto civil war in my own province, during which time my experiences included being blown out of my bed by one of the several bombs that damaged my home, being beaten up by sectarian thugs, having suffered numerous humiliations at the hands of the army and the politically controlled police force, and, worst of all, having friends and neighbours injured and killed in the bombings, shootings and sectarian/political murders, I found it hurtful to be told I know nothing about the situation in Quebec.
In the interests of peace and reconciliation, and to uphold the civil tone in which most LT thread discussions are conducted, I forgive you your ignorant, aggressive, rude and hurtful posting.
106: Don't worry, that's just AJ's God Complex rearing its head again. Unfortunately, that god happens to be Moloch in search of tasty child-flesh.
105: Thanking me for correcting you. That's a bit like Tom Brown's Schooldays, when you were expected to say thank you for the benefit bestowed in the receipt of six of the best. Oops, I might be straying into Fifty Shades of Dreck territory here.
106" My wife is from Ireland, so I can relate to what you are saying, although, being in the Republic, she never directly experienced any of the horrific things you mention.
108 I am never averse to personal improvement, although having attended a school where the cane was still liberally in use I may not thank you for six of the best.
My wife is from the Republic, where we live now, and I lived in the North. It took a long time for her to meet my family as every weekend she was due to travel north a hunger-striker would die and all hell would break loose.
What part of Scotland are you from? My grandmother was a Glaswegian and my father was born in Hamilton.
Fourthly, having lived through thirty years of de facto civil war in my own province, during which time my experiences included being blown out of my bed by one of the several bombs that damaged my home, being beaten up by sectarian thugs, having suffered numerous humiliations at the hands of the army and the politically controlled police force, and, worst of all, having friends and neighbours injured and killed in the bombings, shootings and sectarian/political murders, I found it hurtful to be told I know nothing about the situation in Quebec.
The fact that you think your experiences have any relation at all to Quebec neatly proves the point. Quebec is nothing like Ireland. There is no civil war, there are no sectarian thugs, and the "oppressed" Quebecois in fact run the province and have for many years.
Is there any possibility that we might get back to the subject of this thread at some point or should I just stop checking in?
I thought I had read a 'good' book and then, three days later I had forgotten what it was about. I'm finding writing reviews is odd, too. If I write one straight after I have finished a book I give it a certain number of stars and then, if I consider it later, I would rate it differently.When should one review a book?
I think it does help to have a bit of a "cooling-off period" before trying to write a review. If I write something immediately after putting the book down, it tends to be either a one-line off-the-cuff opinion or an over-detailed listing of all the minor faults I supposed the book to have. Waiting 24 hours or so gives me the chance to put the book in context a bit and to think about what it would be worthwhile to say.
Re the question asked by pgmcc in Message 82: I did a quick Google search and came up with Frederic Lyman Wells. "A Statistical Study of Literary Merit with Remarks on Some New Phases of the Method." Archives of Psychology, No 7 (1907): 5-30. http://www.brocku.ca/MeadProject/Wells/Wells_1907.html Wells got a group of graduate students to grade authors for "Charm (Ch), Clearness (Cl), Euphony (Eu), Finish (Fi), Force (Fo), Imagination (Im), Originality (Or), Proportion (Pr), Sympathy (Sy), Wholesomeness (Wh)"
I imagine there must be some more recent work of the same type out there somewhere. With so many digital texts around it should be fairly easy to program a computer to judge at least Eu and Wh...
thorold, thank you for that reference. I look forward to hours of entertaining analysis.
> 19 -- I recall reading somewhere about "the Beavis & Butthead Aesthetic," which is:
"We like stuff that's cool. We don't like stuff that sucks. Stuff that's cool is stuff that we like. Stuff that sucks is stuff that we don't like."
Apply that aesthetic to what you read on the Internet, and all the comment pages instantly make sense. A couple of people who think like that are currently on staff at LT.
>115. So you're saying that we're living in the Beavis & Butthead age. I think you might be right there.
I prefer the Dylan version: I ain't no monkey but I know what I like. Do all discussions of what constitutes good lit come down to this? It's just a tautology? Good lit is what I like. I like good lit.
Before any person can appreciate sculpture, painting, literature -- beyond "I like this" or "I don't like that" -- a person has to acquire the language -- the argot -- of the painter, the sculptor, the writer. In the case of literature, one has to know and describe what is right or what's wrong with a text.
If all the would-be critic knows is "This is boring," he can't articulate nature of the problem: "The 6,000-word essay is made up entirely of six-letter words laid out in 8-word sentences, all of them written in the passive voice."
If he doesn't know there is such a thing as a metaphor, how does he know the metaphor is misapplied?
And so we come to the Beavis & Butthead aesthetic: "We like stuff that's cool. We don't like stuff that sucks," etc. They don't know how to criticize because they are "functionally illiterate." They speak the vernacular don't know how to use it except to order pizza or score dope. Increasingly, they don't even know how to get laid -- why do you think the numbers on rape and sexual abuse are soaring? We're talking about several generations of Americans who are reverting to the lifestyle of Neanderthals: Knock the broad on the head, drag her back to the cave. . . . You all get the idea, I'm sure.
People who cannot or do not read simply do not understand: every book is a textbook of one sort or another. You want to learn to cook, you have to read some cookbooks. You want to be a well-driller, you have to read some books about geology and drilling rigs and ground water. You want to build a house, you have to learn to read blueprints and use tools.
EVERY BOOK THAT HAS EVER BEEN PUBLISHED -- EVERY BOOK IN THE WORLD -- is a tool. If you can't use the tools, then you can't learn to do anything at all in anything but a slipshod, half-assed manner. The real bitch of it is that all of the tools and instructions can be had, free of charge, from the nearest public library or Internet terminal.
How's that for a rave?
Solomon sez: I like to look at paintings that make sense to me. I don't like to look at paintings that don't make sense to me. Paintings that make sense to me are paintings that I like. Paintings that don't make sense to me are paintings that I don't like.
> 119 -- Does that help? 8-)
#118 Nice rave, dekesolomon.
While I would disagree with some of your comments I must acknowledge a good rave when I see one.
One comment I would disagree with is, "Before any person can appreciate sculpture, painting, literature -- beyond "I like this" or "I don't like that" -- a person has to acquire the language".
I would say many people appreciate pieces of art including books, to varying degress, without knowing the language of the artist (in the sense that you use it). What they may not know is why they like something, or they do not know the jargon necessary to converse with people who have studied the language, but they will appreciate the piece, perhaps even in ways the learned critics have never thought of. I agree they may not appreciate every element of a piece of art as they may not be aware of the difficulty of producing a piece of work in a particular way.
Your rave, taken at face value, could be interpreted as a manifesto for elitism (I am not suggesting that is what you had in mind) if taken to its ultimate, logical conclusion. One could infer from your comments that it is a waste of time letting members of the general public into art galleries and museums.
Keep up the raves. Throw in the odd rant or two. I have found some rants to be very odd, my own included.
>118 Quote: "Your rave, taken at face value, could be interpreted as a manifesto for elitism..."
But isn't the reverence of stupidity also a form of elitism. Take the purposeful misspelling of words that became popular in the '90s. Originally, it was ironic. Most hip hop artists and rappers had come from impoverished backgrounds, and they were poking fun at the assumption that they must be stupid because they were poor. But not all of their fans took it that way. Some their fans took it quite literally and began purposely misspell words as a badge of honour. Sort of a "if you're too intelligent then you don't really belong and you don't really understand" statement. Playing dumb was a mark of superior understanding of the "real world": an elitist statement if I've ever heard one.
#122 Good point, LovelyPride, although, and here I condemn myself to elitism, I never listened to much hip hop or rap. I did, however, listen to one of eminem's albums and was quite taken with the content and the message.
Elitism is encouraged in this group. We think it a valuable attribute...
> 121 -- It's in my mind that -- where the majority are concerned -- maybe we should forget about lit crit entirely and start talking in terms of "This is a good story," or "I don't like that story." I mean the world is full of books and films that were justifiably panned by critics but became popular because they tell a story that -- for one reason or another -- appeals to the masses. In the realm of awful books, think "Uncle Tom's Cabin" or "Huckleberry Finn." In the realm of awful movies, think "Zorro" or "Robin Hood." There are plenty of awful stories that people simply wish were true (Let's not talk about religions.) and therefore never get tired of hearing. In that sense, the entire realm of fiction is little more than evidence of mass insanity. Then there's history and biography. Sum it up and the masses may be right: Textbooks are one thing but anybody who reads for recreation is some kind of a nut who (for whatever reason) is driven to fill himself or herself (Romance novels, anyone?) full of bullshit.
Come to think of it: Maybe we should forget the whole thing. Beyond being scary, it begins to be an embarrassment.
> 122 -- and what about the email geniuses i mean the ones who wrote everything in lowercase misspelled everything and never used any punctuation deeming all such stuff an idiotic waste of time they thought everybody who used spelling and punctuation correctly was a mental dirtbag and fair game for euthanasia after the anarchist revolution that was coming to a theater near us soon and in the process of killing all our parents would save the human race from us and the survivors would all enjoy free avocado-apricot espresso lattes forever at the starbucks two blocks over pass the granola bars and the energy drinks
With the hydra-headed swill-beast of populism and the Tea Party ravaging the country and raping our literary heritage (but is it a "legitimate rape?"), I'm all in favor of elitism and elitists. Yes, we are better than you. We can read and our placards have proper spelling and grammar.
Now back to Finnegans Wake and my Victorian erotica.
This cartoon seems appropriate to the conversation: http://www.librarything.com/pic/3481416
I can't remember how to add it into this conversation directly. A link will have to do tonight.
I think I have finally found a 'good' book.The trouble is, it is a translation and the production(in paperback) leaves something to be desired.(spelling errors, repeated sentences etc.)
I'd like a literary snob's opinion. Am I on the right track? It isn't an easy read but nothing like as difficult as Durrell. I'll post a review when I have finished it. It is Night Train to Lisbonby Pascal Mercier. ( another book with a title that has been used elsewhere!) At last I feel I ought to own a copy so that I can read it again. Mind you, it is advertised as a best seller so perhaps it doesn't qualify for attention by this group?
I think you linked the wrong page in your post, oldstick. The page a got was a book written by Emily Greyson. Here's the correct page to Pascal Mercier's Night Train to Lisbon.
Still, it looks like a interesting read. I'll have to see if I can find it. Incidentally, I don't think that a book becoming a best seller disqualifies it from being a truly 'good' book. Every now and then a well-crafted book defies the odds and makes it to the best seller list. It's been known to happen.
> 133 -- Are you sure you don't have that book title mixed up with Night Train to Memphis by Sleepy La Beef? "Tell the engineer: Hold that throttle open!" Yeehaaah!
Hmm. It's certainly not something you could dismiss as a bad book: maybe a bit too self-consciously academic to be a really great book, but you have to make some allowances when the author is (a) Swiss and (b) a philosopher...
I thought it read very well in German.
#134. I think I've fixed the link. I felt something was wrong which is why I complained about books with the same title. I didn't realise I could change it. When will I understand computers? Thanks.
> 133, 137 -- French publishers have it easy. They can make a bestseller of any book (in France, at least) by putting thin slices of stinky cheese between all the pages and dipping the whole press-run in cheap wine before they crate the books and ship them.
OK! I confess: the part about cheap wine was Francophobic. Truth is, it has to be GOOD wine.
138: Don't forget about the part where French publishers distribute those works at topless beaches and their socialist medical centers before they spew anti-American comments and drink Cognac with their Iranian business partners.
Now I'm being faux-Francophobic.
Your point about "cheap" wine is not necessarily Francophobic.
The French are, have been, and always will be experts on wine. I would say they eat, drink and sleep it, but it's probably more appropriate just to say they make a lot of it, sell a lot of it, and drink a lot of it.
That being the case they do not tolerate bad wine. On our many trips to France we have observed the local population and their wine buying habits in the supermarkets. The majority of them go for cheap wine. The fact that it is cheap does not impact on the quality. If it did the French simply wouldn't buy it.
One of my French colleagues has told me the expensive wine is only there for the tourists.
Lots of countries have strong oenophilic tendencies and, to be honest, their wine is often better than France's. I much prefer New World reds, for example. And the Romanians make wine in their cellars and drink it by the litre, and it's all good stuff.
141: Have to disagree with you. There's a lot of good wine from all over the world, but until I was back in France last year for the first time in almost 20 years, I had forgotten just how good their everyday wines are. We were in an area that doesn't figure amongst the great wine regions, but we bought only local stuff and it was all good. I even played a game to see how cheap I had to go before the wine stopped being good. I am Scottish, so such exercises in cheapness come naturally to me. I had to go below 2 euros, and even at that price it wasn't all bad.
There is plenty of good wine here in the US, but it's expensive, and not every expensive wine is good. It sometimes feels as if the wines are priced at random. You can pay $12 for a bottle that's indistinguishable from a bottle that costs $6.50. All to do with how the brand is positioned in the market. A while ago, it emerged that the producers of a comparatively expensive French wine destined for the US called Red Bicyclette were pulling the wool over the eyes of the importers by supplying any old cheap plonk they considered unfit for their French customers. Nobody had noticed for years - neither the importer, nor the consumers.
> 139, 140, 141, 142
Well then, I guess I wouldn't desecrate our Flag if I wash my Freedom Fries down with French wine. Since it's good wine and it's cheap, maybe I should call it Freedom Wine cuz it frees me from giving money to California vintners? Or maybe I should forget the whole thing. It was supposed to be a sarcastic shot at uberpatriots.
I am not an expert but even vin du table tastes great to me if I am in France. I think it is the being in France that makes me happy but the wine does not hurt.
Just to be awkward I like German white wine and South African red. I think Chardonnay is revolting and I haven't yet found a French red that I really enjoy. Guess I'm a 'pleb?'
Let's be honest, the whole wine industry is a fraud. Wine comes in two flavours - red and white (rosie is just a coloured white).
ps...if you are drinking while reading you are obviously not taking either of these pastimes seriously enough.
>147 - that's approproate - Burgess liked a drink. Allegedly he created this - Hangman's Blood.
You could put a substantial sized craft into orbit with that concoction. Sheesh...
Not about wine.
It's like asking if there are good and bad fishing lures. Every fisherman will agree the Rappala Minnow and the Little Cleo are classic good lures. Not everyone will agree on which are the bad ones.
Does this mean that if you fish with a Little Cleo you will always catch a fish? Believe me, it does not.
Good books and bad books are judged so in comparison with recognized good books. There are many species of books and all have their recognized exemplars. The canon of exemplary books changes constantly with time and culture. The efforts of critics, reviewers, and professors, though often applied in a scattershot manner, bear their only real fruit in the consensual identification and constant ongoing modification of the canon.
All readers have their own private canons. The reliability for other readers of their judgments depends on how well versed they are in the general culture's canon (at any given time and place).
Whether an individual reader likes or dislikes a book has no bearing whatsoever on the history of literature.
"Whether an individual reader likes or dislikes a book has no bearing whatsoever on the history of literature."
Well summed up.
>152 Good books and bad books are judged so in comparison with recognized good books. There are many species of books and all have their recognized exemplars. The canon of exemplary books changes constantly with time and culture. The efforts of critics, reviewers, and professors, though often applied in a scattershot manner, bear their only real fruit in the consensual identification and constant ongoing modification of the canon.
I come very late to this thread, I realize, and you all seemed to have hashed out where you stand on things like technical expertise and craft vs. story on what makes a book good or bad.
I do think there is such a thing as good and bad writing, good and bad books. The question I ask when I am thinking about a book is "Is the whole more than the sum of its parts?" For the books I think are good, the answer is yes. For the books I think are bad, or mediocre, the answer is no.
Questions of style and usage, pace and storytelling, intent and execution all come into it, of course. But in the end it seems as useless to score books by these particular attributes as it might be to score a man's kindness or bravery by his weight or cholesterol levels. The very dissection loses sight of the whole.
Which is why the particulars of usage or style (I'm thinking of the complaints made by BR Myers in a different thread) are only one factor in my assessment of good writing, and not even necessarily the most important factor. And why Coehlo (who I have read, and found trite) will never be Joyce, the epitome of the writer whose work as a whole far exceeds the sum of its parts.
Away back in the hoary and horrid 19th century, Thomas Macaulay wrote an essay titled On the Royal Society of Literature, in which he stated (among many other things):
"Literature is, and always must be, inseparably blended with politics and theology; it is the great engine which moves the feelings of a people on the most momentous questions. It is, therefore, impossible that any literary society can be formed so impartial as to consider the literary character of an individual abstracted from the opinions which his writings inculcate. . . ."
I've got that in a book of assorted essays I bought just a few days ago. Because it's Macaulay, it's probably posted somewhere on the Internet. It's worth a read to anybody who's interested in books and in lit-crit.
155: Macaulay may have a point taking literature as a whole. However, on the level of individual books, he's on shaky ground. There are plenty of works that are not "inseparably blended with politics and theology."
It might have been different in his day, of course.
But I note that one of our faves, Anthony Burgess' EARTHY POWERS, definitely would make Mr. Macauley's final cut.
Great books really are timeless.
157: Indeed it would. I think that one would even keep our old friend BR Myers happy.
> 156 -- I believe Macaulay was writing about readers as much as writers. It is the reader, after all, who either enjoys or is offended by what the author has written and it is readers (for the most part) who write lit-crit.
Put it that way, I think Macaulay's knife cuts deeply. It is readers' beliefs and prejudices that, in the final analysis, govern book sales.
One of my Facebook friends posted this the other day: a letter from Edgar Rice Burroughs to an admirer:
> 162 -- "In present times anyone with a computer and a spell checker can be an author."
Solomon sez -- Whut even gave yu thet idee?
Strangely, with the arrival of the typewriter, writing became less florid and more concise. So much for that theory.
In olden times anyone with an inkwell and paper could be an author...
The bad writing of the old days is all out of print, completely forgotten. The same will happen to the lousy books of today. Time is the great critic.
"Time is the great critic." I like that - - it makes me feel better about some of the "bad" books being published, especially modern political screeds. I keep reminding myself that nothing really has changed since the pampleteering days of the Reformation . . . and that it's OK.
>166 it makes me feel better about some of the "bad" books being published,
Many books today are not published, they are merely printed.
166: I think pamphleteering, like Vizzini says about "being paid to start a war," has a long and glorious history... and all those things are so dated a mere month or so after they are available, that there is no need for me to be upset about them.
"Time is a great critic" is terse, but it cuts both ways. If time buries bad writers and bad books (it does, for the most part) still it's true that today's bad writer can agree that "time is a great critic" and conclude that it means the trajectory of his/her own lousy work will eventually resemble the trajectory of Edgar Allan Poe's corpus. With that thought in mind, (s)he'll keep right on wearing out keyboards and killing trees.
Time also buries good writers. The writer who doesn't gain prominence in his/her own lifetime is unlikely ever to be plucked from the dustbin.
Basically, I'm no longer interested in the question of which books are good and which books are bad. It ought properly to be settled with cavalry sabres. Like Dan Brown, do ya? My second will call on you on the morrow, sir.
> 170 -- After seeing the movie, I read "The da Vinci Code." When "Angels and Demons came out on DVD, I watched that at home but never read the book.
I'll probably never read another Dan Brown novel because I sense that if one reads "The da Vinci Code," one has probably read all the Dan Brown novels that will ever be written. The "Angels and Demons" film supports my sense of Brown's work.
I don't blame Brown for what he's writing. He's got himself aboard the Gravy Train and he's sitting astride a winning streak in a very exclusive club car. We'd all like to enjoy similar successes. More power to Mr. Brown, I say, but I'm glad I am not compelled to read the stuff.
What I found most amusing about "The da Vinci Code" was the public reaction to it. One of my neighbors is a Bible-banging fundamentalist. He came over one day (he was going door-to-door as it turned out) and handed me a five-page, single-spaced, typewritten rebuttal to "The Code." After he left I read it just for shits 'n' grins.
What I noticed about the rebuttal is that it went after Brown's novel point-by-point wherever the novel mentioned The Priory of Scion and/or Opus Dei. Never once did the rebuttal offer to refute Brown's assertions about The Council of Nicaea or the composition of the Bible. I gather that authors of the rebuttal believed that because The Priory of Scion was fictitious, everything else in the book was fictitious as well.
Be that as it may, I still admire the skillful use that Dan Brown made of the material available to him and his shrewdness in choosing what to invent and how to plot his book. And (I suppose) if Sherlock Holmes and Travis McGee et al. could find innumerable crimes to solve, Robert Langdon can do the same.
In case Dan Brown spies on us here, I have a suggestion: Matthew Fox recently published a tell-all titled "The Pope's War: how Ratzinger's secret crusade has imperiled the Church and how it can be saved." In that book, author Fox voices his suspicion (not wholly unsupported) that Pope John Paul VI and Pope Benedict XVI were both involved with some "friends of the Vatican" in Langley, VA, and in certain Latin-American governments in an effort to "disappear" (or murder) some 800 Catholic priests and nuns who were teaching congregations "liberation theology."
Be it true or be it false, if there ain't enough in that story for a bang-up Robert Langdon novel, I'll kiss any novelist's bare backside in front of St. Peter's Basilica and give him/her 30 minutes to draw a crowd.
171: I agree with most of what you said. Literary snobs attacking Mr. Brown's success/writing style/pseudohistory remind me of King Lear waving his sword against the sea. A noble effort, but not my cup of tea.
You spoke of the Priory of Sion, etc., and it reminds me of that other author of conspiracies, Thomas Pynchon, an author held in consensus of above-averageness within this group.
I think you're on to something with Bishop Rat and disappearing leftist clergy. While comparing Robert Langdon to Sherlock Holmes may cause Cliff's head to spontaneously explode (if Star Trek: Into Darkness hasn't already done so), I sincerely wish the "Catholic artifact conspiracy genre" (of which The Da Vinci Code and its numerous imitators, derivatives, etc. are part) develop more fully. Pynchon's lit geek doorstoppers represent the furthest extreme of the spectrum, but they don't even have to go that "far" (if one is loyal to seeing literary style as one of linear progression). The Permanent Press is one of the few publishers that have revived the mystery and thriller genres.
Back to the matter at hand, I would love to see the Catholic artifact conspiracy genre pushed farther into the realms of the strange. I'd love to see someone with a gonzo talent, like Mark Hodder or William T. Vollmann, write a page-turner thriller but concoct an utterly bugfnck insane plot with an equally complex pseudo-history. Maybe some turn of the century affair involving Emperor Norton, Nikola Tesla, and Brigham Young.
One also has to differentiate between what book one is assessing as "good" or "bad." Infinite Jest is by all accounts a really good book. It pushed the envelope in style in terms of the novel with the usual critical and public acclaim. Then you have, The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst. A wonderful novel, but it didn't push the genre any further. But it was a great exemplar of a "chronicle," a linear tale of a gay man coming of age in Thatcher's Hobbesian free market bacchanalia of the haves. So "good writing" and "pushing the novel form" are two independent variables. Sometimes they mesh up, sometimes they don't. Like the game of baseball: Some days you win, some days you lose, some days it rains.
#172 So "good writing" and "pushing the novel form" are two independent variables.
I agree wholeheartedly and believe the confusion of these two variables to be part of the explanation as to why so many people rant and rave about books like Joyce's Ulysses.
Some days you win, some days you lose, ...
Some days you're the pigeon. Some days you're the statue.
I did not mean to imply that Robert Langdon is as "good" as Sherlock Holmes. I meant only that Holmes involved himself in a great many mysteries (as did Travis McGee et al.) and there's no reason Robert Langdon could not do the same. In saying so, I do not mean to argue that quantity equals quality, because it clearly does not. I only mean that we could be looking at an avalanche of Dan Brown novels as long as Brown can keep on finding arcane stuff to write about. The-Vatican-as-headquarters-of-Murder-Incorporated is one such thing. Surely there are more.
We don't need any exploding heads around here. Anybody whose head is about to explode, take two aspirins and call me in the morning.
Twenty years ago (and probably still today) there was no shortage of people writing in columns (journals and newspapers) about the impending death of the novel. If they were speaking literally or figuratively is no matter: it simply ain't gonna happen. The novel is a form that will never die.
Even if they're writing about "good" novels as opposed to "bad" novels, I repeat: The novel is a form that will never die. If most writers didn't write "bad" novels, there'd never be any "good" novels. That's because some "bad" writers -- if they persist -- eventually become "good" writers. But all the losers aren't going to quit, so there it is again: The novel is a form that will never die.
171: I cite Dan Brown only as a convenient example: he is exactly the kind of writer who that this discussion applies to.
Robert Wiersema, in reviewing him for the Globe & Mail, accurately pegged why he sells a zillion copies: he is undeniably good at one thing, the manipulative, short cliff-hanger chapter that keeps people reading based on Mark Messier's theory of Lay's potato chips. I thought that was an interesting insight; myself, I've never cared enough to give it much thought.
In general, the discussion of whether there are good books and bad books in general is tiresome. The only thing that is really interesting is a discussion of what makes a specific book good or bad. That is, generalities about popular writers not lasting, etc., are boring; discussions of why a given popular writer is bad, but remains popular, are actually informative (as Wiersema's review).
> 176 -- Mark Twain's "Christian Science" has a relevant passage. At the top of Chapter V, Twain wrote:
Let us consider that we are all partially insane. It will explain us to each other; it will unriddle many riddles; it will make clear and simple many things which are involved in haunting and harassing difficulties and obscurities now.
Those of us who are not in the asylum, and not demonstrably due there, are nevertheless, no doubt, insane in one or two particulars. I think we must admit this; but I think that we are otherwise healthy-minded. I think that when we all see one thing alike, it is evidence that, as regards that one thing, our minds are perfectly sound. Now there are really several things which we do all see alike; things which we all accept, and about which we do not dispute. For instance, we who are outside of the asylum all agree that water seeks its level; that the sun gives light and heat; that fire consumes; that fog is damp; that six times six are thirty-six; that two from ten leaves eight; that eight and seven are fifteen. These are, perhaps, the only things we are agreed about; but, although they are so few, they are of inestimable value, because they make an infallible standard of sanity. Whosoever accepts them we know to be substantially sane; sufficiently sane; in the working essentials, sane. Whoever disputes a single one of them him we know to be wholly insane, and qualified for the asylum.
Very well, the man who disputes none of them we concede to be entitled to go at large. But that is concession enough. We cannot go any further than that; for we know that in all matters of mere opinion that same man is insane -- just as insane as we are; just as insane as Shakespeare was. We know exactly where to put our finger on his insanity: it is where his opinion differs from ours.
That is a simple rule, and easy to remember. When I, a thoughtful and unbiased Presbyterian, examine the Koran, I know that beyond any question every Mohammedan is insane; not in all things, but in religious matters. When a thoughtful and unbiased Mohammedan examines the Westminster Catechism, he knows that beyond any question I am spiritually insane. I cannot prove to him that he is insane, because you never can prove anything to a lunatic -- for that is a part of his insanity and the evidence of it. He cannot prove to me that I am insane, for my mind has the same defect that afflicts his. All Democrats are insane but not one of them knows it; none but the Republicans and Mugwumps know it. All the Republicans are insane, but only the Democrats and Mugwumps can perceive it. The rule is perfect: in all matters of opinion our adversaries are insane. When I look around me I am often troubled to see how many people are mad. To mention only a few:
The Atheist The Theosophists
The Infidel The Swedenborgians
The Agnostic The Shakers
The Baptist The Millerites
The Methodist The Mormons
The Christian Scientist The Laurence Oliphant Harrisites
And so on for several more pages. How Twain's thought applies to us here and our discussion of "good" and "bad" should be evident to anyone. In case it isn't I refer all readers to Mark Twain's "Christian Science," Chapter V, pp 39-46 inclusive.
My father had a great expression which he attributed to an old barrel organ player who had a pet monkey.
"Everybody is mad but me and my monkey, and I've got my doubts about the monkey."
Thanks for the Twain excerpt. Really funny and yes, very at to this discussion!
Ah, right! Everybody's Got Something To Hide Except Me And My Monkey
My dad wouldn't listen to The Beatles. My brother was the big fan.
Or, as BB King says, "Nobody loves me but my mamma, and she may be jiving me too."
Can someone explain the popularity of the Biggles books with the English-speaking peoples?
> 185 -- So far as I'm aware, every literate culture has (or had) its "Biggles." Here in the States, we had "Dave Dawson," to name but one (there were more than a few). Biggles had a pale-faced native American as a flying companion. Pip-pip, cheerio, I say Freddy Farmer was Dave Dawson's wingman. Even our comic book superheroes were pressed into service against the "Krauts" and the "Japs."
All such stuff is popular with boys because it is created for boys, which is to say white, middle-class boys and boys who wish they were white, middle-class boys. The object is to make innocent, little boys grow into murderous, big boys who want to kill German boys (or Japanese boys or communist boys or any other sort of "bad" boys).
Those books and scads of others like them are products of our national propaganda mills. Anybody wants proof that the publishing industry is a slave to government and militant capitalism need look no further than Biggles or Dave Dawson. Karl Marx or V.I. Lenin would have had a lot of fun with your question. And they would have been correct in doing so.
186: The Soviets had the mythology of Stakhanov and Joseph Stalin loved a good western, so I don't think your answer is quite as black-and-white Bolshevik heroes vs. capitalist pig-dogs. Regardless of ruling socioeconomic system, the people love their slapped-together adventures with cardboard heroes.
> 187 -- kswolff wrote -- "The Soviets had the mythology of Stakhanov and Joseph Stalin loved a good western, so I don't think your answer is quite as black-and-white Bolshevik heroes vs. capitalist pig-dogs. Regardless of ruling socioeconomic system, the people love their slapped-together adventures with cardboard heroes."
Solomon sez -- That's absolutely correct. I didn't mean to imply that Soviet communists didn't do the same thing. So did the Japanese and the Germans. So does every other industrial nation since "total war" became a reality in 1914. I only picked the Reds because I like their critique of militant capitalism better than some others.
I don't think the culture has to be literate. Surely The Iliad had precursors in the oral tradition.
188: It's hard to take that critique of militant capitalism seriously when the USSR spent a massive percentage on their military budget and they did the Pan-Slavic conquest thing so well, especially in Hungary in the 50s and Czechoslovakia in the 60s. My only issue is those who don't see a difference between this and, say, the US propping up pro-US-friendly free market dictators, despots, and absolute monarchies. This is less Manichean Cold War brinksmanship than a hypocritical comedy of the absurd.
> 190 -- Then let me recommend Herbert Altschull's book: Agents of Power: the role of the news media in human affairs. Altschull isn't a critique. It just describes various theories of the press as publishing is practiced around the world. It's commonly used in graduate schools around the country.
Read the book. Pick the one theory that makes most sense to you. I won't argue because I don't care which press model you pick. See Mark Twain in > 177.
> 189 -- IreneF -- "Surely The Iliad had precursors in the oral tradition.
Solomon sez -- Surely they did. They had the Greek story on the war and the Trojan story on the war. The Egyptians and the Phoenicians and the Assyrians and the Babylonians probably all had versions of it, too. But none of those cultures had a publishing/propaganda industry, so I'm not sure your point bears here.
The point I'm trying to make is that the sentiments behind warmongering propaganda predate Hearst or any other publisher because they are probably endemic to humans. You don't need to go so far as to assert that publishing is a slave to capitalism.
But we are getting *way* off topic.
> 193 -- IreneF -- "The point I'm trying to make is that the sentiments behind warmongering propaganda predate Hearst or any other publisher because they are probably endemic to humans. You don't need to go so far as to assert that publishing is a slave to capitalism."
The sentiments behind warmongering propaganda do indeed predate Hearst because they definitely ARE endemic to humans. Bards like Homer worked for bed and breakfast. Today's propagandist works for millions of dollars and all the perks that go with the money. THAT'S the difference between Homer and Hearst.
We ARE getting way off topic. That's why I'm done with this.
194: Yes, because both fascism and Communism didn't have warmongering propaganda? And when I think of non-competitive economic systems run by career pacifists, North Korea is the first one that comes to mind.
Still, Kim Jong-il's book on opera is probably better written than anything Nicholas Sparks has come up with these days:
> 195 -- kswolff -- I already gave you your point.
In > 188 I wrote: "That's absolutely correct. I didn't mean to imply that Soviet communists didn't do the same thing. So did the Japanese and the Germans. So does every other industrial nation since "total war" became a reality in 1914. I only picked the Reds because I like their critique of militant capitalism better than some others."
If that doesn't work for you, then you obviously have something else in mind. Tell the group what it is and maybe someone else will argue with you. I quit.
This topic is not marked as primarily about any work, author or other topic.