What makes a book ‘good’?


Nicholas Royle, Manchester Metropolitan University

How many copies of Fifty Shades of Grey does it take to make a fort? A branch of Oxfam in Swansea, south Wales, received so many unwanted copies of EL James’s erotic novel, that staff decided to build a fort out of them in the back office.

Well, why not? Once the hottest book in publishing, Fifty Shades now can’t be given away fast enough. Relief at last, perhaps, for all those high-brow academics and frustrated authors – myself among them – whose hearts sank when this fan fiction-derived tale became the fastest-selling paperback of all time in Britain and went on to sell more than 125m copies around the world.

But was it any good? Critics seemed to think not, but just as publishers will tell you a good review does not necessarily sell books, nor, it seems, does a whole series of bad reviews harm sales of a book once momentum has been achieved.

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When I was a child listening to the Top 40 countdown on Radio 1 on a Sunday evening, there was no doubt in my mind that the higher up the charts my favourite singles climbed, the better those particular songs were shown to be. In my ten-year-old mind there was a straightforward correlation between commercial success and artistic quality. A single that reached number ten was pretty good, but one that went straight into the chart at number one and stayed there for four weeks was clearly better.

At some point I must have given voice to this theory, because my elder sister once told me that “just because one song is higher up in the charts doesn’t make it better than another song that’s lower down.” While I reeled at this news, she did happily agree that Slade’s Cum On Feel the Noize was nevertheless the best song around at the time.

Making good

So what does make a book – or a film or a song – good? What gives a work lasting value? There are methods of assessment; you can apply criteria. As a lecturer in creative writing, who marks novels written by MA students, I would say that, wouldn’t I? But as a reader – and as an editor for a small publisher – I obviously have my own, subjective views on what’s good and what’s not so good.

The lesson my sister taught me has stayed with me over the years and I’ll admit that these days I’m suspicious of anything that seems to be enjoying too much success. Was Zadie Smith’s award-winning White Teeth really that good? How about David Mitchell’s acclaimed Cloud Atlas? Fifty Shades of Grey? I don’t know, because I haven’t read them. There are lots of interesting-sounding books out there, but why should I feel obliged to read the same ones everyone else is reading? Is the culture really nothing but a huge book club?

Zadie Smith has won plenty of awards for her books – but prizes aren’t everything.
Steve Parsons/PA Archive/Press Association Images

It’s frustrating for publishers working hard to launch new careers (they’ve long given up trying to sustain flagging ones) when they know that only a tiny number of titles will account for the vast majority of sales.

One first-time author of my acquaintance whose debut novel was published in 2015 to a small number of enthusiastic reviews and poor sales feels so disappointed by the whole experience he often talks of jacking it all in. Is the Fifty Shades phenomenon part of that problem? Would I rather that great literature was achieving that level of commercial success? Well, yes, but can we as a society agree on what is great literature? I don’t think we can and I even prefer to think that we shouldn’t, being inherently suspicious of the exclusivity of the canon.

So, let big houses continue to publish bestsellers. They make money and keep people in jobs and maybe, just maybe, there’s a trickle-down effect. Profits from big books may enable risks to be taken on smaller ones. EL James donated £1m of her royalties to charity.

And so what if we end up with mountains of unwanted books? As long as we continue to build new roads (and that’s a whole other subject), we’ll continue to need unwanted books. When the M6 Toll opened in 2003, building materials supplier Tarmac revealed that 2.5m Mills & Boon novels had been pulped and used in the manufacture of the asphalt.

Swansea’s red-faced consumers of James’s “mommy porn” may not have donated 2.5m copies of Fifty Shades to Oxfam, but a quick calculation, studying the photograph of the house-like construction that has been tweeted all over the world, suggests it takes about 600 copies of Fifty Shades to make a fort.

The Conversation

Nicholas Royle, Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing, Manchester Metropolitan University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Reading Good For You


I think that most people that read a bit could tell you that they believe reading is good for them. They will tell you it’s good for the soul, it provides brain food, provides an escape to another world, etc. The link below is to an article that looks at 6 reasons reading is actually good for you.

Why do you think reading is good for you? Share with us your thoughts via the comments under this post.,/p>

For more visit:
http://presentnation.com/health_news/12000167/

Good Writing vs Good Storytelling


Lauren Rosewarne, University of Melbourne

A friend – both close and a little odd odd – gave me a novel a few days before I left on a long haul fight.

In The Unlikely Event.

Judy Blume’s first novel in fifteen years, I like to believe that the gift was based on a debate we’d had about Michael’s name for his penis in Blume’s Forever. As opposed to her thinking I’d want to read about plane crashes. While on a bloody plane.

(Ralph. For the record. Although I maintain, stubbornly, that naming a penis Roger just makes more sense).

I hadn’t read any Blume since devouring her back-catalogue in primary school, twenty-odd years ago. Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret? – with its brow-furrowing menstrual pining and complex feminine hygiene appartus – and the title character in Deenie rubbing her “special spot” in the shower. Blume provided me with my first taste of everything salacious. While I’ve never really had idols – nor for that matter even a mentor – reading those Blume books likely did set me on an lifelong journey of skewed discovery.

Prior to opening In the Unlikely Event I read an interview with Blume where she claimed not to be a good writer but a good storyteller.

I’ve been stuck on this idea. About whether there is a distinction. About whether, in fact, it matters.

While I’ve read hundreds of books since novels like Tiger Eyes and Then Again Maybe I Won’t, it’s the Blume books that have stayed with me. Not the most interesting or beautifully written ones I’ve read, but memorable. They spoke to an information-ravenous nine-year-old in an era before the Internet and provided a gentle introduction into the capacity to carve a career from writing about the taboo.

A good writer or a good storyteller?

At 9-years-old I suspect I had no real clue about good writing. Those Blume books lingered on likely because they were doing something that the The Baby-Sitters Club, Enid Blyton, Hunter Davies and Sheila Lavelle books I’d been reading hadn’t. Because we have a tendency to attach disproportionate acclaim to the material we enjoyed in our formative years. Because we remember with excessive fondness our earliest – even if merely vicarious – forays into adulthood.

In The Unlikely Event.

At 35 I’d like to think I’m a better judge of good writing than I was in primary school. This assertion however gets challenged daily when I read gushing praise for books I thought thoroughly wretched or those I adored but got reviewed no further than Amazon.

Equally, when I look at my own writing, some of the pieces I’ve been happiest with are the ones that are least read, and those written in much haste and probably without much heart got devoured. (And don’t get me started about the slew of bizarre (read: bullshit) “good writing” lessons gleaned from too many semesters of Creative Writing at university).

In The Unlikely Event.

In one scene good Greek girl Christina describes first-time sex with her beau, Jack, culminating in him ejaculating on her stomach.

“Like a pool of hot sauce.”

Good writing? Uh, no. Good storytelling? A trickier question.

Something that irritated me throughout the novel were the constant qualifiers: “She looked out the window and saw a moonscape. Or what she thought a moonscape would look like.” Invariably these were the thoughts of her teenage characters. Is it fair then, to think teenagers would actually think of semen feeling akin to, say, a good splash of béchamel on the belly? Mornay? Velouté? Is it good writing if we’re inside the head of a character who isn’t a very good scribe themselves?

To its credit, In the Unlikely Event actually achieves quite a lot. It introduced me to an unfamiliar period in U.S. history – New Jersey in the 1950s where three fatal crashes happened in a six month period – and did so through the eyes of a mind-boggling number of characters. (Too many I thought, but forgiveable).

I finished it, I teared up in the way that I do if any TV show/book/film dares flash forward decades into the future to show who lived, died, thrived. In the Unlikely Event may not be a beautiful piece of writing but it’s a solid read, an enjoyable story and perhaps, if you ask me in a few years, it might even be memorable.

Maybe that’s what matters most in a world where agreeing on “good” is thoroughly fraught.

The Conversation

Lauren Rosewarne, Senior Lecturer, University of Melbourne

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Writing for good in the contemporary novel of purpose


Alice Robinson, Melbourne Polytechnic

Anchor Point (2015), by Alice Robinson.
Author provided

In March 2015, when the days remained long and hot, so dry that the paddocks around my house were tinder, my debut novel Anchor Point was published.

The events of the novel occur under pressure from exponential environmental fragility and climate change.

As 2015 has worn on, cooling, growing bitter, as the rain failed to arrive, I’ve been invited to speak and write on the idea that “writing for good” – writing to enact positive social change – is a valid and important thing for fiction writers to do. A session at the upcoming National Young Writers’ Festival speaks to this topic.

I am deeply touched by the inherent optimism in this notion: that writers and artists who direct their work toward the prevailing issues of the time can somehow alter the real world, for the better.

The lineage of writing for good

Literature is constructive as well as reflective, and there is certain power in this.

Historian and literary critic David Masson, in British Novelists and Their Styles (1859), observed the development of novels written out of “contemporary earnest”:

We have to report, as characteristic of British novel-writing recently and at present, a great development of the Novel of Purpose.

This trend, of course, was not limited to Britain, but it certainly grew in strength across the nineteenth century.

Literary scholar Amanda Claybaugh, in her book The Novel of Purpose: Literature and Social Reform in the Anglo-American World (2007), finds that such nineteenth-century novels sometimes related to social reform movements and sometimes did not. Yet all took their “conception of purposefulness” from the desire to change society.

Fiction can underwrite understandings of what is deemed desirable and appropriate by a given culture; what is unacceptable, what is feared and abhorred. Novels rising from moments of conflict and hardship sharpen focus on the inequalities and struggles of those times.

In doing so, such narratives raise awareness of key social issues and potentially move the culture toward empathy, understanding, change – or else underscore unfortunate cultural resistance, the failure of those things to eventuate.

A literary history

Many examples of this phenomenon already exist in literature across the world.

Author Alice Walker at the 2005 premier of Oprah Winfrey’s Broadway musical The Colour Purple.
Keith Bedford/Reuters

The Colour Purple (1982), Alice Walker’s gruelling novel of gender inequality and racism in 1930s Georgia, was published in the early 1980s. It simultaneously showcases conditions for black women before the civil rights movement and draws attention, by comparison, to the shortcomings of contemporary race and gender relations in the movement’s wake.

More recently, Dave Eggars’ novel What is the What: The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng (2006) lays bare the heartbreaking difficulties and deep resilience of the refugee experience. It portrays the life of one Sudanese “Lost Boy” fleeing his nation’s civil war for the United States.

Children’s author John Marsden.
Glen Woodhead/AAP

In an entirely different kind of book, John Marsden addresses the refugee experience. His poignant and distressing illustrated work for children, Home and Away (2008), sits within the Australian context.

These texts exert complex cultural pressure around contemporary issues, inviting the reader to inhabit the terrible, but authentic, experiences they portray.

Such books write into the heart of historical and current difficulties with intrinsic hopefulness, spotlighting dark times so that they can be seen clearly for what they are.

In contrast, dystopian novels such as George Orwell’s 1984 (1949), Robert C. O’Brien’s Z for Zachariah (1974), Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), P.D. James’ The Children of Men (1992) and Meg Rosoff’s How I Live Now (2004), to name a few of my favourites, wrestle with the future.

Literary possibilities

Offering visions of frightening social, political and environmental breakdown, such novels convey the fear that our legacy will be danger and unrest, the future a terrifying context where humanities’ core qualities – capacity for kindness, compassion, cooperation – will be tested, even altogether razed.

So often these speculative narratives arise from periods of perceived genuine threat to our real-world way of life: slavery; industrialization; the spectre of nuclear obliteration; the AIDs epidemic; the digital revolution. By portraying perilous imagined futures, dystopian narratives help illuminate the cultural anxieties of the present day.

This is also true of the climate change novels currently surfacing in Australia and globally. According to UCLA Journalism and Media Fellow Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow, in her article Cli-Fi: Birth of a Genre (2013), the threat of climate change has become:

too pressing [for authors] to ignore, and less abstract, thanks to a nonstop succession of mega-storms and record-shattering temperatures.

Some novels, like Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake (2003), Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006), Jane Rawson’s A Wrong Turn at the Office of Unmade Lists (2013) and James Bradley’s Clade (2015) imagine grim social, political and humanitarian crises that could arise in response to profound degradation of the natural world.

Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2003.
Stephen Hird/Reuters

Others, like my own, are set in the early stages of environmental and systemic breakdown, when there remains a narrow possibility for turning things around.

Either way, just as the threat of nuclear war felt imminent in the 1950s, making way for the anxious cultural sense that bombs could drop at any moment, climate change is also imminent – and this is reflected in the stories we are telling.

But unlike the threat of life in a radioactive world, the impacts of climate change are now actual, and inevitable. While science can tell us what climate change is likely to look like in various regions from an ecological perspective, we just don’t know for sure what our lives will be like as significant change comes to pass.

Writing for the future

A work of fiction is a guess, a possible response to a question we have no other way of answering.

As another hot summer looms, as I contemplate my little children who stand to inherit the issues we are now failing to adequately address, as I turn in disgust from the governmental inertia around climate change in Australia, it feels clearer now than ever before that fiction writing alone cannot alter the collision course with disaster we seem determined to create.

A firefighter battles an out-of-control bushfire in Western Australia in 2015.
DFES WA/AAP

Whatever optimism there may be inherent in the ability of writing to enact meaningful change in the world, it seems both a heavy duty to bestow to individual practitioners, and too little too late.

When I think of writing for good in the context of writing about climate change, I see that there is power in fiction’s capacity to illuminate unknown futures for those living now, to show what life might be like in climatically altered circumstances, how they could be survived. I see that there is good, also, in recording our cultural despair in fiction as a message to those in the future.

We once imagined the perils of your experience, and we are sorry.

The National Young Writers’ Festival takes place in Newcastle, October 1-4. Details here.

The Conversation

Alice Robinson, Lecturer in Creative Writing, Melbourne Polytechnic

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.