Jun 20, 2009

What Makes a Book "Good"?

When I lived in Minnesota, I belonged to a book club that met at the local Perkin's (like Denny's) every first Thursday. We started at 8:30 pm so we knew the children were in bed and went late into the night. The almost empty restaurant often rang with our laughter, and it wasn't uncommon for other customers to shoot annoyed glances in our direction. One night a couple walked up to our table while we were in a heated discussion. The woman asked if we had read "Plain Song" and said it was her favorite book in the world. We decided it must be kismet and chose to read it the following month.

I got the book from the library and sat down to start it. I wish I could say I put it down, but I read with voyeuristic interest the story of a little boy in a small town and the sad sexual encounters he was forced into. It was horrific, and we met the next month all shaking our heads, wondering how anyone could think that was their favorite book. I'd forgotten about this experience until I read Marsha's recent post, and I had to ask myself again, "What makes a book good?"

Some LDS writers feel that if there is anything close to immoral behavior depicted in a book, then it is not moral. Personally, I disagree. I think that often the depiction of evil can illustrate the depth of a character's redemption and bring a realism to the piece that can give it great power. The problem lies in the fact that the majority of pieces that "cross the line" often do so without having any lofty motivation behind those scenes.

When my mother passed away, I inherited much of her library. One small volume was entitled "On Moral Fiction" by John Gardner. I opened it for the first time this morning and found the definition of what I had felt. Gardner says " true art is moral: it seeks to improve life, not debase it." In contrast he speaks of trivial art which "has no meaning or value except in the shadow of more serious art, the kind of art that beats back the monsters and, if you will, makes the world safe for triviality."

In trying to write fiction that sells it may be tempting to create trivial art, what Gardner called "frothy commercialism." In this venue sexuality is cheapened, and I think wrong- the difference between porn and Rueben's nudes or Michelangelo's David.

Last year I listened to a popular film executive who worked on "Transformers." He talked about the heart of great movies. He emphasized over and over that for a movie to be lasting it must illustrate some "great truth"- love, loyalty, honor, trust, patriotism. He believed that the classics of film have all done this and that is why people are drawn to Star Wars (use the force) and Wizard of Oz (there's no place like home.) Without some powerful epiphany, writing doesn't become true art.

Most of the women in ANWA are far more concerned with true art than "frothy commercialism" which is probably why I'm so drawn to them. I admire the pure quality of their writing. I've got to admit that I personally find it easy to be sucked into "popcorn fiction" (no nutritional value) which, if it's clean, I suppose has it's place. That is, as long as it doesn't twist truth and portray evil as though it was good, which seemed to be Marsha's frustration.

In playing with words, it's imperative that we respect the ideas behind them. Whether we choose to write light romances or heavy historicals, we need to take care that our narrative ultimately elevates the reader. My favorite line from a movie is in "As Good As It Gets." In the film Jack Nicholson plays a depressive who is interested in a single mother. She is ready to leave him when he turns to her and explains that the night she became his friend, he started taking his medication. He says, "You make me want to be a better man." That is exactly what I hope my books do for people and in my opinion is what makes a book "good"- because it encourages me to be a better person by reading it.


  1. Wonderful blog, Christine!! I totally agree with you. And there really is nothing wrong with some clean "popcorn" fiction. However, it is so wonderful to actually FEEL differently, particularly in an uplifting way, for having read a book. I'm glad I've read plenty of books that make me rethink things and make me want to be a better person... your writings and comments do that for me, by the way! :) Nice.

  2. I truly loved your post, Christine. It really helped me to clarify in my own mind what I had been feeling about where to draw the line on "questionable" books. We had just discussed this morning a recent highly popular book series and whether or not we felt it appropriate to let my 11 year old daughter read the 4th book or have her wait. I believe I will reread it with this thought in mind and then feel more comfortable in my decision. Thanks!

  3. Loved your post, Christine! Thank you for sharing these great insights into our writing!

  4. Very good, Christine. And I love a "good" book. If a moral transgression is portrayed as such, (but not graphically) with difficult consequences yet rising above and gaining forgiveness, it's good. What I hate is an 'in bed' scene that's treated as a normal action and part of the dating process.

    I've felt strongly that the media is responsible for planting ideas in impressionable minds, and at least partly responsible for the one thousand, one hundred eleven pregnant students I had the privilege of teaching (over a 16 year period). I could get on a soapbox and sound off, But I don't. Maybe I'm also responsible.

    At a school board meeting in Mesa, many years ago, they discussed whether or not to add sex ed to the curriculum. I asked my students about it, and they all agreed that, "If sex ed means learning about sex, it's a waste. Kids know that. But if they had a class in how to make decisions, how to improve self-image, how to say 'no' and be believed, how to cope socially, and stuff like that, it would be great."

    I presented their input at the board meeting. They decided against sex ed in the curriculum.

    Nevertheless, the school for pregnant students kept on growing.

  5. What a truly superb blog. This was definitely one of my absolute favorites of all time. You were so eloquent and so profound and completely wonderful. I think I need to simply copy the whole thing and put it in my favorites folder. There are eternal truths and those truths are true no matter what. Thank you soo much!

  6. Great post, Christine! Thank you for stating this so clearly and positively.

  7. I'm late to the comments but I just read a wonderful book and in it the author through a character said paraphrased, you Americans are so naive, you won't accept that true evil exists. I think it's very important to protray evil as it is. And I use it in my writing as well.

  8. Thanks Christine. I decided early on that I would not be a "Sell Out" and that I would write wholesome stories. This is still my goal today. I have watched as one of contemporaries has gone on to make a trillion-bazillion dollars in what I consider soft-porn. I think I choose to sleep at night.


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