What Is a Good Book?

As one writer [and I can’t remember whom or I’d credit him or her] once said to me, “Everyone wants to have written a book that sells, but few of them want to actually write it.” Computers and spell-checkers have changed this a great deal, and now piles and piles of material appear on the internet and upon the doorsteps and post-office boxes of editors and agents and authors cornered at conventions. And almost all of it by volume, at least, not only according to me, but to the renowned Patrick Nielsen-Hayden, is, shall we say, less than acceptable.

But what is good writing? Is it measured by awards or sales? Or both? If so, in what proportion?

An editor once told me that there are two kinds of awards, those that a writer gets nominated for by one relatively small self-selected [and often self-important] group or another and those measured by the author’s royalty statements. Now, over the years, what I’ve observed is that the excellence of a book is not measured exclusively by either group. In fact, personally, I’ve discovered that I tend not to find the majority of either the “critically acclaimed” F&SF novels or the runaway F&SF best-sellers as those books that I would personally judge as the best in the field. But then, both critically acclaimed and best-sellers tend to be, although not exclusively so, at various extremes in the field, and I tend to err on the side of flaming moderation.

I’m so moderate, in fact, that if someone corners me and starts to rave about a book, and I mean rave, as opposed to discuss, my initial reaction is that I probably have no interest at all in the book. This may not seem fair, but to me, it’s a workable system, and one that complements those certain reviewers whose recommendations are a sure sign that I don’t want to read that particular book. There are other reviewers, none of whom to my knowledge rave about books, whose recommendations I take as seriously as any, but the bottom line is relatively simple. I just open the book and try to read it.

I’m more interested in how well a writer writes than the personal or financial details of his or her life. I don’t buy or read books based on the appearance and lifestyle of a writer… but it’s clear that a growing number of writers and particularly so-called recording artists are selling their works on the basis of their appearance and media-charisma, or their internet blogs, rather than upon the excellence [or lack thereof] of their work.

Yet for all my interest in moderation, I’ve found something rather unusual that suggests moderation is decreasing. In reviewing the “reader reviews” of The Magic of Recluce on the internet sites of both Barnes & Noble and Amazon, I’ve discovered a very interesting pattern. I was obviously pleased to note that 60% of the readers rated the book with either four or five stars, but also, more than half the reviews (51%) were either one star or five stars. Less than fifteen percent were three stars, and although the book has been in print for almost sixteen years, almost 90% of the one-star negative reviews were made in the last six years, as were nearly 65% of the negative two star reviews, while the rave five star reviews, the mostly favorable four star reviews and the “on-the-one-hand, on-the-other hand” three star reviews, all showed a consistency across the entire rating period. Put another way, although roughly 14% of the total reviews were one-star negatives, almost all of them were posted in the last several years.

I’m obviously not going to do this kind of analysis for other authors, but I wonder if this occurs with other books that have been in print for years. It also suggests to me that there’s a growing close-mindedness and intolerance for books that don’t meet the expectations of what seems to me to be a growing body of readers… and that seems rather sad to me, because I’ve always thought of reading as a way of opening horizons, rather than reinforcing closed preconceptions.