Yesterday's rehearsal was cancelled due to ice, as were most of the Valentine's Day plans of most of the county - many restaurants were closed all day. Our street didn't get plowed till late this afternoon, after pretty much every person on the block had called the streets dept. and complained. So we got plowed and salted about half an hour ago.
Meanwhile, not exactly a rant, but sort of a lecture; I've said parts of this before, I think. Our topic for today is: Why do I like some books and not others?
One of the few things my late mother and I were ever able to agree on was what factors are important in determining whether a fiction book is any good. We didn't always agree on the relative weights of those factors, nor did we rate a given book the same under each factor, but at least it helped us discuss books in terms where we could make some comparisons and give some clear examples of what we liked. So, the three factors we agreed on were:
1. Good writing - not just spelling and grammar, although those are important, but elegant turns of phrase, literary allusions, wit and humor, and other things that indicate that the author him or herself is well-read and is aiming at an audience who appreciates the written word.
2. Plot and character - some people might choose to separate these, but we lumped them together, because character development is one kind of plot. There should be something happening in a book, some movement, a goal. Even if that goal is only the character's realization that his or her life has been wasted. There's a bit of overlap with good writing here in that the characters should have different enough personalities that when there's a conversation, we can tell who is talking; the characters shouldn't all sound identical. (Later Heinlein, for example, fails this test spectacularly - the only way to tell who is talking is to count back even or odd lines until you reach a point where a name was mentioned.)
3. Interesting presentation of novel ideas. This one's especially important in science fiction, but it matters in other stuff too - murder mysteries should not be identical plots with the names changes, or just the location changed. There might be new takes on political ideas, and it's possible to put old wine in new bottles and make it look interesting, too. So novel ideas doesn't have to mean new inventions - it just means something that makes me think about something in a way that I haven't thought about it before, or that makes me think about something I haven't bothered thinking about before.
Now, for a book to be good enough to bother to finish, roughly, it should be at least "average" - as measured by "all the other books I've ever read before" - on at least two of those factors; for a book to be *good* it should be at least average on two of them and well above average on at least one of them.
It's that "all the other books I've ever read before" that varies from person to person, of course, and that makes every person's evaluation of the three criteria slightly different. But, it also gives us a talking point for explaining why we give a certain weight to one of the factors. We can give examples in that category from the book we're discussing, and then give examples for comparison from other books. Without these defined criteria, we would find it difficult to say why we like one book better than another.
Some examples of how particular books get weighed:
Take Jack Chalker, who frequently complains in his introductions that he is something like the world's most popular unrecognized science fiction writer. Well, I can tell you something about why that might be. He's not actually a very good writer. While his spelling and grammar are adequate, his sentences are nonetheless clunky, and his dialogue unrealistic. Why do people keep buying his books, then? Because of criteria 2 & 3: his plots move right along, something happening every minute. Even if the characters are sorta cardboard, or stereotypes, or never learn, at least they're always doing something. And his ideas - Well World, for example - are novel enough, and new things pop up in the descriptions of them often enough, to reach a satisfactory score on that count. So even though he scores rather low, though not abysmal, on criterion #1, he scores adequately on 2 and 3, so his books are worth finishing if one happens to pick them up. Now, you might disagree on whether there are enough novel ideas to reach an adequate weight on #3, because you've read a different set of other books than I have, so you might conclude Chalker isn't worth reading. And that's fine, for you. At least, though, we know why we disagree, and we each know something more than we knew before about what books to recommend to each other and what not to.
Or how about Margaret Frazer's Sister Frevisse mysteries? Some people see those as just rip-offs of Peters' Brother Cadfael, and so don't bother to read them. For me, however, they reach adequate or better on all three criteria. I consider the writing to be somewhat better than Ellis Peters' - and that may simply be a matter of personal taste. As far as plot goes, both series have adequate plots and lots of interesting characters, and at least 2 or 3 characters in every book have distinct enough personalities to be worth investing some time reading about them. To my way of thinking, Frazer's books have fewer cardboard background characters than Peters' - some of the other monks in the Cadfael series never do become anything more than a name and a vague job duty. OTOH, the saintly Sister Thomasine character in Frazer's books bugs me - too good to be true. As far as novel ideas/interesting presentation goes, we hit an interesting comparison there. The Cadfael books certainly are novel, in that most of us know nothing about that time period, and so everything we read is new and different. However, some of it is alien enough from our own understanding of how people work, how they are motivated, that I just can't sympathize with them or believe that they'd act as they do. Even if it's probably accurate, I can't understand it. The Frevisse mysteries are set about 3 centuries later - early 1400's - and that puts us just enough closer to the modern world that things are more understandable. More people are literate, there's a middle class, I've heard of the kings and queens mentioned - and that's just enough familiarity that when something I'm NOT familiar with gets introduced, I have a framework to fit it into, and can add it to my understanding. With the Cadfael books, I don't have enough edge pieces to make a framework for getting the middle jigsaw pieces together very well, and even when I do, I know I'm still missing something. With Frevisse, I have more of the edge pieces, so when I get additional jigsaw pieces, I get a clearer picture. In other words, I can understand the new ideas better because I have more old ideas to hang them on.
See how having those three criteria makes it easier to talk about "what I like about this book" ? Feel free to appropriate this method and pass it on. I think if more people did their "book reviews" using this, we'd all get a lot better idea of what to read next, she says modestly.