The Two Breeds of Novel

Posted by hlinfield on September 19, 2013 at 10:45 AM

What qualities make a good novel?

Is it well-thought-out prose, perfectly placed words and pauses, ideally crafted sentences, a depth to the writing that can make the simplest turn of phrase seem profound?

Or is it a story line that grips the reader and pulls her in and keeps her there no matter how cliché and no matter how lazily thought out the words on the page?

Clearly we’d like both well-crafted writing and a gripping story, but that doesn’t always happen. Most people would have no problems giving the latest tome by Salman Rushdie a two-star rating if they weren’t captivated by the story, even if they acknowledged his masterful writing style, but how do you rate a book that draws you in, that you find yourself compelled to read in one sitting as the hours tick by and the calls of laundry and children go unheeded because you just can’t leave the story... yet the craft of writing, the placement of words, and even the editing leaves way too much to be desired?

A novel I read recently employed some of my biggest pet peeves:

1) An overabundance of green eyes, visible even in the dark, and even of a variety of shades - lime and jade no less! (As supernatural elements were afoot I’m inclined to forgive.)

2) The misuse of ‘then’ and ‘than.’ (Insert gasp of shock by all grammar snobs out there.)

3) An inability to grasp the simple difference between ‘me’ and ‘I.’ (Insert a head shake and sigh of defeat by every English teacher out there.)

And that doesn’t even touch on the other examples of poor editing: commas used incorrectly, misplaced modifiers, and just generally lazy writing.

BUT!! (And this is a big BUT!) In spite of these annoyances I consumed the book in one long sitting, annoyed when my kids came inside to ask for bandaids and drinks, annoyed at the phone for ringing, annoyed at having to make dinner, because I JUST WANTED TO KEEP READING!!!

What is the purpose of a novel?

Some novels teach us about life and love. They make comments and observations about important issues, and the ones that entertain us at the same time? Those are the novels our critics laud, as they should.

But some novels simply entertain us. They tell a story. That’s it.

I wish the rating system on Goodreads and Amazon were divided into these two categories: Novels that are Just Stories and Novels that are So Much More. In good conscience I cannot rate a book like Twilight (a gripping story with mediocre writing) higher than Wuthering Heights or the latest collection by Alice Munro. At the same time, I enjoyed reading Twilight more, and I say this not as a sixteen-year-old girl but as a mature lover of literary classics.

I tend to think of novels as being from two different worlds. Most independently published, fast-paced genre fiction lives in a world of pretty valleys. There’s lots to see and do and it’s a great place to visit. You get in easily and you leave just as quickly. You go there for fun, not really expecting your life to change much.

And then there’s the mountain range where the classics live. Sometimes it’s a hard trek to get to the top. Sometimes you don’t make it. You abandon the trip half way up, or even in the foothills. You might even make it all the way to the top and wonder why you’re up there and figure it would have been nicer to just stay down in the valley where it’s fun and you don’t have to try so hard. But most of the time if you do make it to the top, the view around you is amazing. You can see down into the valley and it looks so quaint, so insignificant from where you stand.

I still don’t know how a person is expected to compare a mountain book with a valley book. Maybe I should just take a page from the American Kennel Association and evaluate each breed on its own merits. I'm only sorry that Amazon and Goodreads don't recognize that the two worlds do, indeed, exist.

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