Foundations of Good Literature
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.
- 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?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.