I recently sat down to write the obligatory “The Future of Literature” post that everyone seems to be rolling out now that we’ve crashed into the new year with reborn opinions and increased senses of self-worth and optimism. However, as I was doing so, this one phrase kept cropping up again and again; even when I realised it, and actively tried to avoid it, I still found it heavy in my thoughts with my fingertips desperately looking for synonyms in order to maintain my sentence structure.
So, with that in mind, I thought I’d take a little break from my other writing and try to nail down my own ideas of what this phrase really means, if it has any kind of objective meaning at all.
What Is A “Good Book”?
You see, it may seem like a simple question, but I really had trouble defining it to myself. What, after all, are the actual qualities of a “good book”; does it have any? If it doesn’t, then are these novels, so often described in this manner, really anything more than an illusion or, at the least, an ideal that we constantly strive towards – not as writers but, instead, as readers?
The obvious idea is that a creative work described as good is down to personal opinion – “curling up with a good book” just basically means that someone is going to read a book that they think is enjoyable, right?
But there are thousands of other factors to be taken into consideration when describing a book, including; the narrative, the tone, the style, the setting, the characters and their development, any political, philosophical or sociological thought behind the premise; what kind of an impact the book has on the reader, on the world, how other people react to the book, its value for money, what’s going on in your life at the time you come to read it, or any one of numberless other features can go into the experience of reading.
Logically then, the definition is entirely subjective; but does subjectivity really mean anything?
The “Good Book” As A Patronising Term?
To me, even the phrase itself sounds extremely patronising. “Good” doesn’t indicate any kind of growth, meaning, change, literary evolution; to me, a good book doesn’t have any value aside from the enjoyment to be gained during the read. Good work isn’t a work of art, it doesn’t have any redeeming quality, it won’t last forever, it won’t be held as a standard of fantastic literature to inspire people for a thousand years or more.
When I think of a good book, I think of trashy literature – the kind of stuff that we could throw away and it wouldn’t matter. For all the effect that good books have on our personal enjoyment, I can’t really imagine someone leaning back after finishing the novel and resolving to change their life; resolving to commit to some new ideal, resolving to be a better human being.
Good books, you could say, do not really encourage resolution in the real world because they intrinsically feature their own resolution; the beginning and the end of a thing. How could they inspire change, when you lean back, happy and satisfied – perhaps a little sad that the experience is over?
The “Good Book”, Personal Marketing and Social Media
It seems to me, that the major role of these novels in modern society is something for people to be seen reading, or something that they can claim to read. It’s absolutely ideal for social media, for example, simply because it is an ideal. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and all the others are absolutely fantastic when it comes to perpetuating ideals like these, when it comes to sharing moments that you control in order to present such a perfect existence.
We’ve all seen the pictures that people pose, with a coffee or a glass of wine sat next to candles and expensive chocolate and a quasi-romantic novel, normally with a cartoonified image of the protagonist on the front cover. These same images are often represented through some nostalgic looking filter, as though to suggest that the simple act of sitting down and reading is something noble and honest in a world of digital fakery.
Good books, then, could be considered a form of advertising; content for a personal marketing strategy to suggest a particular identity – a brand, as it were. Of course, this is a technique which actually works as well, simply because people live within their own crazy, ragged lives and they want to believe that a better life is possible.
Who Reads “Good Books”?
Now, this is extremely sexist, but I tend to think of “good books” and a certain type of woman. I am hugely aware that I am straying into dangerous, offensive territory here, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a male post a filtered picture on social media with the phrase “good book” attached – I don’t think I’ve ever heard it said by a man either.
Perhaps this is because these kinds of novels tend to be fictional romances, and there is something hovering in the back of the reader’s mind which suggests that the thing they are reading isn’t a “good” piece of writing at all, but something enjoyable to read that passes the time, allows them to relax, and encourages them to escape from the day-to-day existence they find themselves in.
Good books often go hand-in-hand with peace and quiet, and perhaps it is simply part of the pressure that modern digital communication places on gender. Just like men are pressured by the demands of the digital age to show off their masculinity, perhaps women are encouraged to show off their femininity.
I’ve started to see the “good book” as something as a plague on the possibility of many readers, simply because something is saying that this is what the person should be reading. But, then, maybe these readers are just looking for something positive in their life, as an alternative to mainstream network television in which every problem needs to be resolved in an hour or so.
Honestly, I can’t be angry at those who choose to read these books that I would not really feel guilty in calling pointless – not simply because I have no right to, but because they are reading; they are connecting with another human being’s narrative through the written word; and I love that.
The Writers of “Good Books”?
I tend to think that no writer starts out with the idea of writing a “good book” – I mean, no writer worth a damn anyway. Any novel, poetry, non-fiction, script, whatever; if it starts out with the definition of being good then what’s the point? Anyone can walk into any book store in the world, and find a dozen “good books”, normally on some kind of BOGOF offer as well.
Personally, I’ve never really been concerned with writing something that is, simply, good. I mean, I’ve still got years left to try and create something good, if I ever become so desperate, but should creating something that the reader will enjoy be our primary concern?
If you’re a writer, and you want to create a “good book” that people will enjoy, is that enough? I’m hugely interested in the different motivations which turns people into writers, and I really think that the motivation behind the creative act is often just as important as the creation itself.
Anyway; what do you think? Do you have a working definition of a “good book”? Do you think that they have a part to play in the history of literature (if we believe that literature in of itself has some redeeming quality) or are they for personal enjoyment and nothing else? But then again, is personal enjoyment enough to qualify as great literature?