What Makes a Good Book and How Do You Talk About It?

The zoom book club meetings with posted unattractive snapshots of attendees does not appeal to me, but I’m still a fan of book discussions. Therese Anne Fowler’s A Good Neighborhood would be on my list for a book chat whenever small groups can meet in person again.

Two catalysts motivated me to find this book I somehow missed last year: one was Jung Yu’s review of the book in the Washington Post, comparing it to one of my favorite pieces of literature, A Rose for Emily by Faulkner; the other an inquiry from a friend asking for books about the writing process which led me to think about Henry James’ essay, The Art of Fiction.  

A side note was the current discussion of writers addressing characters’ viewpoints with racial identities different from their own, begging the question whether or not white authors are entitled to create thoughts out of their experience for people of color.  Yu neatly puts this latter to rest with the comment: “Execution, however, does matter. And what Fowler has executed is a book in which the black characters are thoughtfully rendered and essential to the story being told.”

Which leads me to Henry James and his ideas about what makes a novel “good.” A friend summarized his essay into three questions: What was the artist trying to achieve?  Did he or she succeed? Was it worth doing?  You don’t need to like a work to know what the artists were trying to achieve or if they succeeded, but the last question asks for an evaluation – not really whether a book was well written (a construct I’ve often heard argued in book clubs without merit) but whether the book is to your taste – pretty easy to answer and may not have anything to do with the quality of the book.

James noted the novel, for both the writer and the reader, is the road not to moral principles, but to the moral sense.  “Where the novelist is intelligent, the novel will offer an experience that has the potential for shaping and developing the reader’s own intelligence. {The novel is} the great extension, great beyond all others, of experience and of consciousness {and experience is} our appreciation and our measure of what happens to us as social creatures.  If the novel is intelligently controlled, all the necessary moral ground will be covered.”

In an essay on literary criticism, Mambrol wrote:  “Novels should not transmit moral principles and rules as such, but renovate and develop the mind by attempting to engage the reader in the pursuit of intricate combinations of form, content, and germinating subjects.”

Maybe all this is a little highbrow for the book club discussions I have heard but perhaps it would help to steer ideas into a more thoughtful hour of reflection rather than the norm of dissecting the details.

 

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