It would be so convenient if we could classify books as either good or bad, as vegetables or candy, as Literature or Dross. Sometimes I really want to. Many of us have been on both the giving and receiving end of this campaign: “That’s trash!” or “I can’t believe you actually read that stuff” or “Those kinds of books will rot your brain.” We got it as kids, we get it as adults (and give it, perhaps). I think it’s good to question the merit of what we’re putting into our minds. But I also think it’s wise to challenge how we determine the value and quality of a book.
So we don’t have to name names, let’s invent two fictional works of fiction for our bout and put them on two extremes.
In the first corner, we have an excruciatingly profound work of literary fiction, All the Perfumes of Arabia (or APA). Geoffrey T. Neville toiled over APA for the first fifteen years of his adult life. After surviving World War 1, Neville despaired over the brevity of human existence, how our actions haunt us forever after, and the lack of redemption. What makes this book an enduring masterpiece is not only how Neville crafted the story but each sentence, each word, every comma (and of course, omitting any semicolons or exclamation marks, and using adverbs and adjectives sparingly). The Pulitzer Prize committee said of APA, “Neville takes an unflinching and unsentimental view of post-war America. His stark prose and flawed characters lead us to questions without answers, enveloped in a story both tragic and mundane, leading to the inevitable tragic and mundane ending.”
In the other corner, we have Hunger Bay, a mass market paperback found in your local grocery store. It is the eighty-eighth book penned by Plum Savage and took her a total of three weeks to write. Hunger Bay follows the same formula as sixty-seven of Savage’s other books, though this one has a spicy Cajun flavor. Javier, a brilliant and devastatingly handsome but world-weary doctor, flees his past for southern Louisiana. There he meets Bebelle, a strikingly beautiful Cajun woman, who goes crawfish hunting in loose peasant blouses and torn skirts, barefoot, her tanned legs bare up to her thighs, her black hair wild and loose. They are compatible emotionally and physically, but his past and her strict daddy keep them separated (except for a few choice adjective-ridden encounters) until at last Bebelle helps Javier forgive himself for his past, and in turn Javier helps Babelle’s father into a crocodile’s mouth. At last, Javier and Bebelle fall into each other’s arms forever, in a way that employs lots of adverbs and steams up your reading glasses.
So. Which book is the good book and which is the bad?
All the Perfumes of Arabia is embraced by critics, lauded with awards, studied in college classes, and seventy years after its publication is still in print, published in a “Desktop Classics” series, cover art featuring a painting by Renoir. Surely that means it’s a good book. Right?
Does Hunger Bay deserve the National Book Award, need to be required reading in college literature courses, turned into an Oscar-worthy movie, studied in depth and lauded as a terrifyingly gorgeous study of human nature and work of art? I would say not. Does that mean it's a bad book?
What is our criteria for a good book?
- How long the writer took to write it?
- How long ago it was written?
- Whether or not it has a “happy” ending?
- If it can be read quickly or takes careful studying to be enjoyed?
- How many adverbs are employed?
- What lessons the writer wants to teach us?
- How many awards it received?
- Which genre it espouses?
- Whether or not it follows a formula?
There is no doubt there's a difference between the reading experience of those two books. I think when we expose ourselves to art, our minds are enlivened, our world changes. I don’t think I’d classify Hunger Bay as art (but I could be wrong). But is art for art’s sake the only reason we read? Should it be?
So, if those two books existed in isolation, if no one ever read them, it might be pretty easy to say Hunger Bay is trash and All the Perfumes of Arabia is fine literature. But something happens, some profound chemical reaction, when a reader is introduced. The reader takes the text and changes it just by reading it. The reader tells herself a story from the words on the page. It is a unique story only for her. Say Nancy Jones reads Hunger Bay and passes a pleasant afternoon, enjoying the experience but forgetting the story soon thereafter. Or perhaps Nancy finds correlations in the relationships between Bebelle and her own life, makes connections she never has before, and comes away knowing herself better? Or what if Nancy hadn't read a book in 20 years, but Hunger Bay captured her and she discovered she liked reading after all. Maybe she'll keep reading grocery story mass market paperbacks, or maybe she'll even end up reading APA and loving that as well. For Nancy, was Hunger Bay a bad book?
Worth of story and quality of writing are difficult to measure. This isn’t mathematics, there are no absolutes. The only way to measure the quality of a book is by its effect on the reader. And every reader is different. There are some books that have survived the test of time. They were brilliant, insightful, and moving not only in the year they were written but continue to be so year after year. Shakespeare survives because his plots, characters, and words continue to resonate. Jane Austen feels as vibrant, funny, and delicious nearly 200 years later. But I know many readers who can’t stomach either Shakespeare or Austen. For those readers, they are not great writers. And what about books written recently. Do we really know what will survive? Perhaps Stephen King will still be read 300 years from now when all the National Book Award winners are long out of print. It seems kind of pointless to try and judge a book by whether or not it will last. It seems more worthwhile to measure its impact now, reader-by-reader.
I would like to submit that there are no bad books. There are no bad genres. I personally get the most out of reading books that are not only marvels of storytelling and wonders of wordsmithery, but exciting and new and full of vibrant characters who make discoveries and take journeys and fill me with hope. And other people want to read quiet, odd little tales of existential horror. Again, we’re all different.
There are loads of factors in deciding if a book is good or bad for a particular reader, a major one being age appropriateness. A three-year-old might clutch Knuffle Bunny to his chest and beg for it to be read over and over again. At age thirteen, he could read it and think it's stupid, pointless drivel. At age thirty, he could read it to his 3-year-old and fall back in love. During those years, Knuffle Bunny wasn’t the one who changed.
I used to be pretty elitist. And I still believe passionately that there are some books that are just fun and some that are works of art, and the reading experiences for both are different. I do believe it's positive to expose ourselves not only to books that are fun page turners but ones that express in words the unexpressable, that make us see the world in a new way, that tickle us with words and create metaphors that make the floor feel as if it's falling away from under us. Both have a place on my shelves.
So, who won our bout? I guess that’s for each reader to decide. For writers especially, I think it’s wise to read all kinds of literature. But at this particular moment and phase in my life, I would struggle to get through either of those books. I know other readers who would eat them up, and I would never feel comfortable telling them that either book is bad. But as for me, I think I’ll go read a Diana Wynne Jones.