. . . good?
That’s the question all creatives ask themselves at one time or another. Whether we’re writing a book, painting a canvas, or creating a song, a sculpture, or even a garden, at some point, we all stop to wonder – is it good?
Readers want to know that too. Lately, I’ve been working a few days a week in the local bookstore in our little village. It’s been an interesting opportunity to learn about publishing from the book-selling side of the aisle. And something that happens regularly is customers come in and ask, ‘is this book good?’
It’s a challenging question to answer because good is difficult – I’d argue nearly impossible – to define. Must a book be an award winner to be deemed good? Must it be literary (whatever that means)? Does a likeable (or unlikeable) character make a book ‘good?’ Should a good book have lyrical prose or spare writing? Be a certain length? Have a linear plot line or one that’s more innovative? Does a good book deal with weighty subjects or sweep you away in a froth of escapism? Should it have a happy ending . . . an ambiguous ending . . . or an ending that makes you think?
Good, I’d argue, is subjective. For instance, I don’t like to eat anything custard-related, so no matter how well-prepared, I’d never find a crème Brule or a Spanish flan ‘good.’ One of my friends strongly dislikes yellow, so any garden with a lot of yellow isn’t good for her. Art – books – are different, you say? I don’t think so. Good, by definition, is open to individual taste, and even that can vary depending on timing and circumstances.
As an example, I always enjoy books by Lianne Moriarty. Yet a few years ago, when my dad was hospitalized, and I was dealing with multiple weighty issues around that, I had to put her novel Nine Perfect Strangers down. It’s a thriller with ten points of view, and it’s dark. I didn’t have the concentration to follow ten characters and a good read for me then was something more uplifting. Conversely, I’m not usually a fan of gothic or vampire novels, nor do I like New Orleans as a setting (I don’t know why), but years ago, I ripped through Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles series and loved it. I don’t know if the novels would hold up for me today, but back then, I called them a good read.
One of the definitions of good, as stated by The Cambridge Dictionary, is ‘being of a kind that is pleasing or enjoyable.’ For me, as a writer, that means being satisfied or pleased with what I produce and knowing it’s the best I can do at that moment. For me, as a reader, it means immersing myself in a story or narrative that enriches my life in some way, regardless of the techniques it uses to do that.
Good, in the end, is a feeling that’s hard to measure or define. But feeling is the keyword there. And in the words of Paul Sweeney, “You know you’ve read a good book when you turn the last page and feel a little as if you’ve said goodbye to a friend.”