It’s hard to know what makes for a good novel until you read a few mediocre ones…

51-RYEARqaL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_After a string of books that I put down halfway through, I’ve been thinking a lot about what makes novels good and what makes them mediocre. It’s actually a topic that comes up surprisingly little for me, because most of the books that I read are so self-evidently good that the question doesn’t need to be asked.

That’s the real answer. A book is good when it convinces you that it deserves to exist. The contours for ‘deserves’ are very broad and very different from person to person, and that’s as it should be. Different people want different things from books. Different people have different reading histories.

Many people seem to be content, in their reading, with a few well-drawn characters and a plot that hums along well. But for me that’s not really enough. In fact, I will dispense with one or both of those things if a novel has something to offer. For instance, whenever I read Agatha Christie I’m struck by the flatness of her characterization. Other than a few nervous tics and odd phrasings, Hercule Poirot has no personality. And in most of her books (at least the ones I’ve read), it’s hard to believe that the characters contain enough passion to be able to murder anyone. But she shows you something new. Even after 80 years, her plots are cunning and inventive.

And some books have neither plot nor character. I recently read Yasunari Kawabata’s Snow Country, which was about…I think it had something to do with geishas? Who can tell? Who can remember? But even months later, I’m left remembering that train rolling through the snow. There’s a beauty to his settings and to his words that stays with you.

For the reader, there’s really no reason to figure out what makes one book good and another bad. In fact, I think it can a deleterious quest. Readers can convince themselves that they want one thing, when really they respond to other things entirely. For years, I thought I hated quiet, domestic stories, because I liked ‘exciting stories where things happen,’ until I eventually went back and actually looked at the stories I’d responded to and realized that, for me, the most exciting events in a story occur when a character whom you care about does something that surprises you. I’ll always remember, for instance, a scene at the end of Sinclair Lewis’ Main Street where the protagonist and her husband finally sit down and talk about the distance that’s grown up between them. I’d never read anything like it. They bulldozed through an entire book’s worth of antipathy and had the first honest talk that I think either of them had ever had.

For the writer, though, there’s a certain allure to systematizing goodness and badness, because it allows you to reassure yourself that, no matter your book’s individual faults, it’s at least attemptingto be good. Because that’s the real failure in most mediocre books. It’s not that they tried for something and failed. It’s that they didn’t even try.

I just read, for instance, Aravind Adiga’s Last Man In Tower. In many ways, this is not a good book. It’s meandering. It contains too many scenes of the characters doing the same things. And there’s little in it that’s surprising. The book certainly doesn’t compare to his stylish Booker Prize-winning first novel, The White Tiger, or his keenly-observed story collection Between the Assassinations. But it’s also not mediocre, because it has glimmers of ambition. The main character, Yogesh Murthy, is a man who’s holding out against a real estate developer who wants to buy up his co-op building (making Murthy and all his neighbors rich) in a redevelopment deal. And although our sympathies are with Murthy–a man who doesn’t want to be displaced from his home–his reasoning is also so twisted and crazed (albeit still human) that we’re left feeling angry with him too. It would’ve been easy for this book to be mediocre. Would’ve been easy to make his neighbors seem simple and greedy and for Murthy to seem pure. And maybe the book would’e been more readable if he’d done that. But Adiga made choices that disallowed that reading. And that’s why the book deserves to exist.

But is there a lesson here for the writer? Not really.

I do think there’s a failure of nerve involved in the creation of a mediocre book. But I still have no idea know how to recognize or guard against that failure of nerve. I suppose that, as in most things, you just try your best.

I actually learned nothing from assembling my list of all of the novels that I really love

Anyone who hasn’t read this ought to read it. It’s one of the best books I’ve ever read. I have no idea why it’s fallen out of fashion.

I’ve spend several days looking at the list that I put together a few days ago. And as far as I can tell, I’ve basically learned nothing.

I can tell because I actually had an epiphany about my own work the other day. Which is that the works of mine that I enjoy are the ones in which the character strongly wants something and takes an active role in pursuing it: they’re books where the inciting event and subsequent plot complications are mostly things that the character does. Basically, they’re stories in which the character is just as much antagonist as protagonist.

Now, that sounds like a no-brainer, but many of my favorite books are actually not like that. For instance, take Revolutionary Road. Nothing happens in the book. It’s all about this couple wishing they could break free from suburbia and run off to France, but they do basically nothing to further that goal. Or in Buddenbrooks, everything happens in a very stately fashion. The family’s rise and fall has little to do with anyone’s particular talents: it’s all a matter of the operation of fate, and the pleasure of the book comes from watching the operation of different personalities within this milieu. Or take The Privileges. People do things in that novel, but nothing really matters. In fact, that’s a novel that tricks you, because you expect dramatic things to happen. For instance, at one point the husband gets involved in this embezzlement scheme. But it actually works out fine. The novel just skips ahead a few years and he’s suddenly extremely wealthy. That book is more about the experience of living. It’s about what it’s like to exist in these moments. Which is why the most beautiful part of it is the beginning, when this young couple are getting married in hot and sticky and somewhat unpleasant circumstances, and even though you know they’re not comfortable, you can also feel the majesty of the moment. Or what about Things Fall Apart. That’s a novel whose main character is completely satisfied with his life until the village  oracle decrees that his son needs to die. Or let’s take The Magicians. The book is basically about how Quentin gets lots of wonderful things, but is perpetually dissatisfied and basically has zero idea about what will make him happy.

And all of those books are excellent! They’re some of the best books I’ve ever read!

But they’re not the kind of books that I enjoy writing.

Instead, I prefer to write books with extremely active protagonists. There, my model would be something more like Fallada’s Every Man Dies Alone, which is a novel about two working-class German people who’re sort of cruising along and laying low during the Third Reich, but then suddenly snap (when their son dies) and decide that they’re going to work to overthrow Hitler. Or House of Mirth, where Lily is perpetually given all these wonderful opportunities, but goes out of her way to disdain them. Another example is The Haunting of Hill House, where the action is driven, in my mind, by the way that Eleanor becomes positively obsessed with her fellow Hill House inmate Theodora. Oh, or in Main Street, where Carol Kennicott is living in a perfectly fine town and has a perfectly good husband, but mucks everything up with her constant efforts to improve and civilize the people around here.

That’s the kind of book that I want to write.

Really, it’s not even a question of want. I can’t be satisfied with a work in progress if the protagonist doesn’t drive the plot in that manner. Frequently, that means that my protagonists are either comical or somewhat on the more unpleasant side. Because there’s something unpleasant about a person who just won’t let things rest. There’s something unpleasant about someone who wants something so much that they’re willing to upset a perfectly good situation in order to get it. For instance, the couple in Every Man Dies Alone are embarking upon a praiseworthy course of action, but the way they do it is so foolish and ineffective that you can’t help but feel contempt for them. Or in House of Mirth, you just want to shout at Lily to marry one of these fucking guys already. Carol Kennicott, as well, is a character who reveals an ugly side in the readers of the book. We all think, just like her, that we’re superior to the plebes around us. And we’re all led, by that superiority, to engage in overbearing and arrogant behavior.

In many ways, it’s easier to write a more passive story. For instance, this is not the classic science fiction and fantasy story. In most SF/F, you have a character who is called upon to solve a problem. Luke is told to deliver the message to Obi-Wan. Frodo is told to destroy the ring. They’re given assurance that what they’re doing is important and necessary. And, furthermore, there’s really no turning back point. Once they’re committed to the adventure, all they need to do is struggle to win. Whereas Carol Kennicott’s story is very different. She takes this cause upon herself. And she’s constantly given the chance to back down, but she insists on digging her hole deeper by resorting to increasingly condescending behavior.

But I think these more active characters appeal to me because they’re engaged in the most fundamental human problem: the creation of personal meaning. Luke Skywalker never has to decide what things in life are worth doing. He’s told that he’s important, and he’s told what to do. The guy’s basically handed the answers to all of life’s existential questions on a silver platter.

Whereas a character like Carol Kennicott is heroic, to me, because she’s willing to answer that question herself. She’s willing to say, “I want to dedicate my life to making this town a better place to live.” And she’s willing to constantly reaffirm that statement, because there’s something about it that fills a need within herself.

I constantly wonder whether there’s anything in life that’s worth doing. But when I write a book about a girl who is, for instance, willing to cheat and scheme her way into her school’s valedictorianship, there’s something about that which is, to me, life-affirming. It’s saying, oh hey, I am able to imagine something in the world that’s worth desiring (even though I don’t personally desire it).

So those are all the things that I didn’t learn by staring at that list of books.

George Orwell’s Burmese Days

Considering his stature in 20th century letters, George Orwell is kind of a strange writer. He’s kind of free of distinctive quirkiness. His style and his content aren’t very heavily branded on his forehead the way they are for most writers. I guess the closest thing to a trademark for George Orwell would be his commitment to “socialism”. But Orwell is not even very specific in his politics. His socialism is about 20% vague commitment to redistribution of wealth, and 80% visceral horror of the evils he sees around him.

Orwell, seems (to me) to have three really great talents as a writer: i) the ability to make very confident assertions about the way categories of people (particularly English people) live and think; ii) a talent for aphorism (short, pithy sayings); and iii) a Dickensian ability to write archetypal characters that contain significant psychological complexity, but are vivid and broadly drawn enough to feel like they’re more representative of types than they are specific people.

These three abilities (and probably others which my categorizing impulse has missed) make Orwell one of the most intensely pleasurable writers of the 20th century. I’ve just finished reading Burmese Days, his first novel. I read it through in two sittings, over less than twelve hours. And it was real good.

You know, I am a huge fan of social protest novels. I like Zola. I like Sinclair Lewis. I like Willa Cather. But Orwell is somehow unlike them. His heroes are just not good enough. They’re too ineffectual and confused.

For instance, Burmese Days is about a military policeman (named Flory) in the British colony of Burma who has slowly (over the course of fifteen years) cultivated a kind of love for the colony and a kind of hatred of imperialism, and who finds himself in the grip of an inchoate resentment against the other Europeans in his tiny little outpost.

Now, in the hands of most authors, this character would pretty much be Atticus Finch. He’d be intelligent, determined, and brave. I mean, there are a lot of different kinds of Atticus Finches in literature, and I love them all. There are naïve ones, like Carol Kennicott in Sinclair Lewis’ Main Street. There are grimly furious ones like in Jim Nolan in John Steinbeck’s In Dubious Battle. There are even conservative ones like Howard Roark in Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead.

But what they all share is a kind of self-awareness. They are not just characters. They are a visible working-out of the novel’s attempt to figure out some idea or explain some process. They’re as smart and good as one can imagine a person being in that situation. They need to be that way because these novels are thinking about how things can change, and what the process of change will entail: the agent of potential change cannot just be some ordinary sap because we know that if an ordinary sap was capable of doing anything then there would be no need for change.

But I do not think Burmese Days really cares about these kinds of practicalities. Its main character, Flory, is not just ineffectual, he’s also kind of stupid. When he gets tired of the native-bashing at the English club, he goes to visit his friend Dr. Veraswami and engages in an equally repetitive, and tedious conversation on how awful the empire is. And his friend, the honest, noncorrupt, Indian Doctor who represents the best of the subjugated peoples, is not only a huge bumbler as well, he actually takes the British Raj’s side and argues with Flory that his people need to be subjugated

The two of them are a great pair. But they are not a heroic one. They are not Atticus Finch and Boo Radley. They’re not even Scout and Dill. There’s nothing free about them. They do not strive for any illumination. They’re already hemmed in.

In the end of the book, all that Flory has to do to prevent ruin from befalling Dr. Veraswami (the plot of the book is about another Burmese official waging a smear campaign against the Doctor) is speak up. Literally, all he has to do is want to do something. He does not need to persuade a hostile jury: he just needs to use the amazing power that being a white man gives him…but that is too much for him.


Conversely, the second plotline concerns a young woman, Elizabeth, whom Flory attempts to court. For awhile she is interested in him, but for reasons of her own she hates his highmindedness and his political opinions. She falls in with a handsome young officer who only cares about horses and clothes.

They’re two of the villains of the book, probably, but they also don’t fit the template. Usually the villains in books like this are somewhat torpid and blank. They don’t have active desires. They don’t have any beauty or vitality. The life has been sucked out of them a long time ago, and it is only their lifelessness that forms a barrier to change.

But these two don’t seem that way. They almost seem good together. Sometimes it seems like their lifestyle is a gracious, beautiful thing, and that they are more suited to this Empire than people like Flory. Take for instance the beautiful sympathy between them conveyed by the following passage:

Belinda was an Arab mare. Verrall had owned her two years, and till this moment he had never once allowed anyone else to mount her. It was the greatest favor that he could imagine. And so perfectly did Elizabeth appreciate Verrall’s point of view that she understood the greatness of the favor, and was thankful.

And there’s a kind of beauty and honesty to Verrall that is missing from any other character in the book, as the book makes clear:

If you were the right kind of man-that is, if you were a cavalry officer and a polo player-Verrall took you for granted and even treated you with a surly respect; if you were any other type of man whatever, he despised you so utterly that he could not have hidden it even if he would. It did not even make any difference whether you were rich or poor, for in the social sense he was not more than normally a snob. Of course, like all sons of rich families, he thought poverty disgusting and that poor people are poor because they prefer disgusting habits. But he despised soft living. Spending, or rather owing, fabulous sums on clothes, he yet lived almost as ascetically as a monk. He exercised himself ceaselessly and brutally, rationed his drink and his cigarettes, slept on a camp bed (in silk pyjamas) and bathed in cold water in the bitterest winter. Horsemanship and physical fitness were the only gods he knew. The stamp of hoofs on the maidan, the strong, poised feeling of his body, wedded centaur-like to the saddle, the polo-stick springy in his hand-these were his religion, the breath of his life. The Europeans in Burma-boozing, womanizing, yellow-faced loafers-made him physically sick when he thought of their habits.

When the book peers into the heads of these characters, one realizes that things are the way they are not because people want to be ugly and lifeless…but because people want things to be in a certain way. People sit around in the club talking about hunting and fishing and old stories because people like hunting and fishing and old stories…not just because they’re afraid to express all their resentment against the vast imperialist apparatus that has forced them into the wilderness. One realizes that, in other hands, this story could be a beautiful romance, and there’d be nothing sickening about it. It’s part of the genius of Orwell that this indictment of imperialism also contains the hints of that romance.