My journey through the world of writing and everything that lies in between…

I must admit, lately it seems I am becoming somewhat of a literary snob. I don’t want to be this way, yet I have the hardest time finishing a book, either due to the actual story not fulfilling up to its glowing reviews or because the actual writing is so poor, I get frustrated with it.

Seriously, it’s been a couple of months since I last finished a book.

Perhaps it’s because of my degree in English (which has yet to prove useful in life, lol) that I find myself more critical of things. Then again, half the books that are considered classics that we were made to read really weren’t, in my opinion, “classic” at all (case in point: anything by Hemingway. I seriously cannot understand how his work has become so lauded in literary circles).

So, I was thinking about it, and I made a bit of a list of what I consider to be the foundations of a good story. It’s pretty simplistic.

  1. There must be a character the reader can identify with. This has been something that I think has been neglected in many popular books and the “classics.” Perhaps that’s why I dislike Hemingway’s stories so much–I cannot identify with his main characters–or any characters really–that he writes about. Example: Frederick Henry in Farewell to Arms. Throughout most of the story I’m pretty disgusted by him and his actions. How then am I supposed to enjoy the story if I’m reading about someone I could care less about?
  2. The story must be compelling. I may really love the character, but if the story isn’t compelling enough for me to keep reading, I won’t finish the book. For me, this is typical of some chick-lit books I’ve read (or attempted to read and just couldn’t get past the halfway point). I’ll love the character, but his/her story just doesn’t catch me enough and the book will seem neverending. This also goes hand-in-hand with #1. If the story is compelling but the characters are distant, it also falls short.
  3. Will I be able to understand the message? Perhaps I’m not a “deep” reader, but some literary fiction (I say some because I’ve read a good number of literary books that don’t fall into this category) makes my head hurt. Questions are good to have throughout a story, as long as they are not drawn out or never answered. This is what I found particularly frustrating when I took a Contemporary Lit class in college. One of the books we read was Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie. It was so confusing I would literally have headaches after reading it. The only reason I was able to make any sort of sense of the book was because of my lit teacher (and some of the more talented lit majors :P). Perhaps I’m just not cut out for such “deep” prose, but I do not care for books that need a doctorate to understand.
  4. Is the message too blunt? The opposite of #3 but are you being inundated with the message at every page? This is something I know as a writer I need to work on as I’m afraid I may be making things too deep for the reader to catch on to. But you have to give readers credit; they can figure things out if the message isn’t too deeply hidden.
  5. Is the story too cliche? Is it a story you can figure out the ending from the first few pages? I know nearly everything has been done before. However, a story could be the typical boy meets girl type yet be original in how it’s presented. It’s difficult, but not impossible–I’ve read a good many books that manage to present what could be a “cliche” topic yet are still successful in my opinion–at least to the point where I finished the book.

Does the story stick with you long after you’ve finished? I believe this is one of the most important aspects of a great story. If it’s a book you’d want to pick up again and again, a story that haunts you hours, days, weeks after you’ve read it–then it’s a great book. Many stories are good but the truly great ones achieve this aspect.

I know as a writer this is everything that I need to live up to as well, at least if I want my book to be moderately successful and not one that people wonder how it was published in the first place 🙂 I think as writers, these are things we should keep in mind.

I realize that all of this probably makes me sound even more like a literary snob/elitist when it comes to reading–and perhaps I am in a way. But as a reader, I’m spending valuable time with an author and their story. It can be incredibly disappointing when the book you had great expectations for turns out to be a dud in the end. Truly good literature can be hard to come by, but when it’s found, it’s equivalent to gold 🙂

Anyway, any comments? Any suggestions of a good book are welcome too as I am always willing to try anything.

Comments on: "Foundations of Good Literature" (18)

  1. Dostoevsky, Gogol, and Turgenev

  2. I love Dostoevsky! I really enjoyed The Brothers Karamazov.

  3. Crime and Punishment is my favorite.

    Gogol short stories are great…rival Chekov’s at times. Dead Souls is a yawner

    Turgenev can be interesting if in the right mood

  4. Thanks again for the suggestions!

  5. … hmmm … experiencing exhaustive ennui but still willing to read anything …. hmmmm … seems to ME like a ‘pacing problem’ ….

    You might (italics) be interested in a couple of short stories on Canadada …. try ‘The Dancing Bear’ … and/or ‘Gone Native’ … and/or for a little ‘pick me up’ try ‘Chez Nous’. …

    And maybe consider reading OUTSIDE of ‘traditional’ literature … give Sci Fi a whirl, seriously.

    If all that fails, go for a moonlit walk with a lover …

  6. This is why I prefer 19th c. lit. Most of the novels had so much more depth. I’ve noticed while I enjoy a lot of modern books, I usually forget most of them almost immediately afterwards.

  7. I loved this post–I found your blog from Lynda’s. I have discovered when I read some books now–if they don’t do many of the things you mentioned–I put them down.

    But–it makes much more pressure on me as a writer to try to write that way–I worry that I never will be able to and want to toss much of what I’ve written.
    What do you do?

  8. One of my all-time favorite novels, which I first read when I was thirteen, is Merlin’s Keep.

    It’s written by Madeleine Brent, actually a psuedonym for English author Peter O’Donnell — something I only found out this year, to my delight and surprise. ( I had no idea!)

    I’m reading this novel again (as we speak), as I do from time to time, and it has the same magic each read. All these years, I’ve never forgotten the characters or the story.

    I’m extremely picky about my reading, too. My time to myself is very precious and limited and anything I read has to have that magic you allude to, or I literally don’t have the time for it.

    I believe any book lacking that magic is a book that isn’t in its last edit — because if something isn’t good writing-wise, you have to play with it and change it and even rewrite it until the magic is captured. However — it’s far from an easy thing to do.


  9. p.s. A great review/synopsis for Merlin’s Keep:

    Em : )

  10. I can relate. I have a useless English degree, too, and when I finished college I was so happy just knowing that from then on I’d never have to read a book unless I wanted to. And there are times where for months on end, it seems, I abandon books right in the middle, if not after the first chapter or two. But lately, it seems, I’ve read some really excellent books – mostly sf and fantasy, and I don’t know if you’re into that. But I recommend: Biting the Sun by Tanith Lee and The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle (honestly, don’t let the juvenile title decieve you, it’s wonderful). Both are entertaining. The first is unusual sf; the second is beautiful fantasy. Right now I’m reading Alphabet of Thorn by Patricia A. McKillip and so far I’m loving it.

  11. O, I should have thought of this when I posted before. You might like The Ladies of Grace Adieu by Susanna Clarke. It’s a collection of 8 or 9 short stories, all set in late 18th century or early 19th century Britain. They’re written in a Jane Austin style and all of them are centered around a (usually dangerous) encounter with the realm of faerie.

  12. OK, don’t be mad at me for posting again! I never do this – really! But you’ve got me thinking about good books I’ve read recently and I just remembered The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis. And of course, The Great Divorce.

  13. Screwtape Letters was great!

    And the other suggestions sound great!

  14. Nice… I snagged a lot of GoodReads suggestions off here! I totally agree that Hemingway is awful.

    Books in the past few months that have stuck with me:

    The Time Traveler’s Wife
    Water for Elephants
    Ghost Orchid and The Sonnet Lover by Carol Goodman (a candy bar read but fun)

    Of course, I read anything and everything that I can get my hands on, and a rarely put one aside before finishing. It feels too much like I’ve left something undone… a personal neurosis I think!

    oh but I’ve read some stinkers!

  15. Me too, I have a nice list of books to pick up now, because of this thread. : )

    And I’ve thought of a few more of my all-time, never dated, story-lives-on-forever book faves:

    The Diddakoi by Rumer Godden

    A Girl named Sooner by Suzanne Clauser —

    — what an *awesome* story, but have the tissues nearby — I think you read this book with your heart instead of your mind.

    DianeGallant — I keep hearing about, and people keep urging me to read The Time Traveler’s Wife. I come across that title every way I turn. I’ll put it on my Christmas List.


  16. Oops — that was a shout out to Sarah for The Time Traveler’s Wife. But I am going to check out Diane’s picks, too.


  17. Hi, Dara. Came here from Zoe Winters…dunno if you’ll see this, as the post isn’t the most current one anymore…but if you’re looking for some good books to read, I have to put my plug in for Georgette Heyer.

    Her novels are the books that started the entire genre of regency romance (in the ’40s and ’50s), and they haven’t been equaled or surpassed since. I like to say that they’re kind of Jane Austen lite. Very sedate in terms of romance, but very sharp, intelligently written, and with a great sense of humor.

    I’m going to have to check out the Susanna Clarke novels that were mentioned above — I read Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, and it blew my mind. If her other books are anywhere near that good…

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