Hazel McHaffie

What makes a book good?

I’ve been chortling quietly to myself this week as the Man Booker process has reached its grand finale with the announcement of the winner. First there was the criticism levelled at the panel of judges. How dare they dumb down the competition by choosing readable books? How dare they?  I mean!

Then, the winner, Julian Barnes, is famous for having scorned the whole MB enterprise as ‘posh bingo‘. Bet he’s not repeating that this week!

And now one of the judges, Gaby Wood, has gone to print saying that ‘Almost nothing happens in the book.‘ That’s the winning  The Sense of an Ending she’s talking about. OK, she does go on to qualify her remark: ‘yet it becomes a psychological thriller of extraordinary technical virtuosity.‘ But even so, I think I’d be miffed if someone said nothing happened in my books.

Which brings me nicely to a post written by Simon on Stuck-in-a-book on 7 October. Yes, I know, two weeks ago. But I needed time to mull this one over. And I’ve been much exercised by this matter during those two weeks.

Simon asked the question: How would you rank the three main components of a ‘good’ novel: plot, character and writing style? Of course, the evaluation of ‘good’ is a very subjective business, as he acknowledges. But that makes your own answer to the question the more intriguing.

OK, have you thought how you’d answer? Before contaminating your opinion with his answer. Or mine, come to that.

I’ve been doing a lot of reading of late – not least because it’s that time of year to think about filling the Christmas shoe boxes for Operation Christmas child/Samaritans’ Purse, so I’ve been rattling off woolly hats like a veritable conveyor belt. I concentrate for much, much longer if my hands are busy too. But the more books and bonnets I finished, the more difficult I found it to separate out those jolly old component parts. The best books are a clever amalgam of all three. Can they be assessed as ‘good’ without that balance?

What’s more, the boundaries can be less than distinct. A character can’t be well drawn without skilled writing … can it? And a storyline can reel you in subtly if it’s well written – it doesn’t have to be an overt edge-of-the-seat-whodunnit kind of plot if the writing is seductive.  But if either characters or plot are badly written they aren’t going to appeal.

Simon chooses writing style as definitely most important, and from what I’ve just said, I guess I’m initially concluding much the same. He puts character second, but relegates plot to way less important. In his words he ‘can happily, contentedly adore a novel where nothing happens – so long as the writing is good and the characters well-drawn.

And that’s were we part company. I would say at the end of such a volume: ‘So what?‘ There needs to be some tension, some kind of change or resolution, to leave a satisfied taste for me. Something more memorable and  substantial to hang onto other than beautiful phrases and clever metaphors. I like the characters and what happens to them to linger after I’ve returned the book to my shelves.

I also think the balance can change according to the genre. A mystery or thriller can’t work without plot. A romance doesn’t gel without character. And if the storyline is really gripping in any genre, the writing doesn’t have to be spectacularly good to keep those pages turning. Sheer story-telling ability has a power that transcends minor anomalies – though they might irritate at some lower level.

Still with the genre issue: I know that in my own books, the balance of the three components was different in the reflective diary of Adam as he contemplated his own death in Right to Die, compared with the search for Viv’s rapist in Vacant Possession. Writing in Doris’ voice as she sank into dementia in Remember Remember, required a different approach from that of Dr Justin Blaydon-Green when things started going pear-shaped in his infertility clinic in Saving Sebastian. But characters have been important in all of the books, whatever the genre. If you don’t care what happens (which is not the same thing as liking them) why should you bother to read on?

So, at the risk of sounding totally feeble, I personally can’t rank the three components. They all matter to me. It depends. What about you? You can reply to Simon instead if you’d rather. The idea came from him. But if you’re angling to judge the MB books next year … think … very … carefully … before you commit your thoughts to the ether. Simon’s still in the running I should think.

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