What makes a work of fiction good? It’s a simple question that doesn’t have a simple answer.
A while ago Hugh Howey, best-selling author of Wool, said this as part of an article analysing author earnings:
Consider the three rough possibilities for an unpublished work of genre fiction:
The first possibility is that the work isn’t good. The author cannot know this with any certainty, and neither can an editor, agent, or spouse. Only the readers as a great collective truly know…
The second possibility for a manuscript is that it’s merely average. An average manuscript might get lucky and find an agent. It might get lucky a second time and fall into the lap of the right editor at the right publishing house. But probably not. Most average manuscripts don’t get published at all. Those that do sit spine-out on dwindling bookstore shelves for a few months and are then returned to the publisher and go out of print…
The third and final possibility is that the manuscript in question is great. A home run. The kind of story that goes viral… When recognized by publishing experts (which is far from a guarantee), these manuscripts are snapped up by agents and go to auction with publishers. They command six- and seven-figure advances. The works are heavily promoted, and if the author is one in a million, they make a career out of their craft and go on to publish a dozen or more bestselling novels in their lifetime.
Hugh Howey’s main argument in this article was about self-publishing, but what struck me was how easily he categorised works of fiction into “not good”, “average” and “great” as if these were easily verifiable categories. His assumption was that no individual on their own (regardless of how well-read they were, or whether they were publishing industry professionals or not) can be certain that something is good. He is saying that this knowledge can only come from the great mass of readers as a collective group. The people as a whole decide what’s good.
Is this true? Is the best book the one valued highly by the most people? How do you measure what the mass of readers view is a great book? I’m not quite sure what Hugh intended here, but is he equating “best” with “best-seller”? Does this mean, for example, that the best (not just best-selling) novel in 2012 was Fifty Shades of Grey? That can’t be right, can it? Or is the best book the one with most positive reviews? Or the best positive vs negative review ratio? Or the most downloaded or bought, regardless of price? How do we know there isn’t some masterpiece that everyone will instantly love which isn’t languishing somewhere through lack of marketing or by being over-priced or because it’s written in an obscure language that has relatively few speakers?
The issue is complicated even further by the fact that people’s tastes change. Works considered the best in a period in the past would often not find much of an audience if they were published for the first time today. I know many people who say The Lord of the Rings starts off much too slowly for them. They want more action. Even in more recent times, publishing trends wax and wane. Steampunk novels used to be “great” not so long ago, and now they seem to be considered just “good”. I’ve read articles that say paranormal romance and urban fantasy is not as popular as it used to be and epic fantasy is having a resurgence. “Goodness” is supposed to be an eternal quality, isn’t it? If “goodness” is somehow determined by the vagaries of taste and fashion, does the concept have any meaning?
Is there ever a true consensus about whether a work of fiction is good? Often a sort of group-think comes into play when a work becomes a mega-seller. People read something because other people have read it, and so on, and the book’s status becomes self-generating. But even in the case of these fabulously selling books, there is often a backlash against the work after it has reached a certain level of popularity, where a substantial group argue it’s grossly over-rated. Whose opinion is more valid?
Of course, the most valid opinion of all is the one that agrees with yours!
A version of this post first appeared in Aurealis #74 and on Insane about Books. End-of-year free subscriptions to Aurealis are currently available.