What makes a book good?

I’m taking amMedia Literacy class this term, and something came up in the lecture yesterday that really made me think.

What makes a book good? What makes a book worth reading?

My teacher showed us two passages from two different books and asked us to compare them. He wanted us to think about which one was more cognitively demanding.

Here are the passages:
From A Princess of Mars (A John Carter book) by Edgar Rice Burroughs

I am a very old man; how old I do not know. Possibly I am a hundred, possibly more; but I cannot tell because I have never aged as other men, nor do I remember any childhood. So far as I can recollect I have always been a man, a man of about thirty. I appear today as I did forty years and more ago, and yet I feel that I cannot go on living forever; that some day I shall die the real death from which there is no resurrection. I do not know why I should fear death, I who have died twice and am still alive; but yet I have the same horror of it as you who have never died, and it is because of this terror of death, I believe, that I am so convinced of my mortality

From The Map of Time by Felix J. Palma:

Andrew Harrington would have gladely died several times over if that meant not having to choose just one pistol from among his father’s vast collection in the living room cabinet. Decisions had never been Andrew’s strong point. On close examination, his life had been a series of mistaken choices, the last of them threatening to cast its lengthy shadow over the future. But that life of unedifying blunders was about to end. This time he was sure he had made the right decision, because he had decided not to decide. There would be no more mistakes in the future because there would be no more future. He was going to destroy it completely by putting one of those guns to his right temple. He could see no other solution: obliterating the future was the only way for him to eradicate the past.

What are the difference between these two passages? I see the first as very straightforward and intriguing while the second uses more flowery language. Of course they have different points of view. Both the narrators are thinking about mortality.

But for some reason, my teacher tried to say the second was better. Because of words like “unedifying” and “obliterating” and “eradicate.” Because of longer sentences and more complex phrases.

He thought the first was typical of an action/adventure novel and moved faster. I seriously wasn’t sure if he’d read the same passages I did, or if he’d ever read an action/adventure novel before. Because the John Carter of Mars one, to me, definitely seems different than the typical action book. It’s a man considering his immortality and fear of death in a journal-like narration. It’s been a while since I’ve read a science fiction that doesn’t delve right into the action.

This discussion reminded me of how again and again, especially in the academic world, I’ve seen this arrogance about literary fiction versus genre fiction. I took a Fiction Writing class here and although I totally loved it and the teacher, the professor didn’t want us to write fantasy or science fiction or romance short stories. I didn’t mind, in the end, but I wondered why he would restrict us to a genre we may not want to write in. If we were going to dedicate our careers to writing fantasy fiction, why should we waste 6 weeks on a completely different genre? Of course, a few students didn’t listen. We had a fantasy short story, a post-apocalyptic one, a horror, and the professor didn’t mind. But it still made me think.

There’s an idea out there that books that aim to entertain are somehow lesser than books that aim to make the reader think. I say they serve different purposes, and one does not make the other a lesser quality.

Plus I’ve read dozens of books that do both! Dystopian and science fiction novels deal with political issues and sometimes ask the question of what it means to be human. Romance novels show us the emotional journey of two characters and how they overcame their fears and doubts to be with the one they love. Fantasy allows the readers to imagine and create and see characters in epic battles with impossible choices.

Why should these genres be looked down upon just because they don’t take as long to read or because the reader doesn’t have to look words up in a dictionary?

Here’s another author that completely disproves my teacher’s point: Ernest Hemingway. He never used flowery language. His prose was simple, but his characters and his stories were moving and spoke to readers.

Also, the Map of Time (the second passages he quote) is a Historical Fantasy/Steampunk novel. So I bet it has just as much action and adventure as John Carter. It’s just going to have a different style of writing. Bigger words does not mean better books.

It’s all relative, really. Everyone is entitled to his or her own opinion. My teacher obviously thinks The Map of Time is better than John Carter. It’s just when people are condescending to authors, books, or readers of other genres that I get irritated.

So, in short, I think we need to stop looking down on certain books because they’re lighter fare, because they only take a day to read, because they entertain rather than twist your mind. Let’s recognize that storytelling varies by author, by book, by reader, and one story does not trump another.

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