What makes a book GOOD or BAD?

I finally listened to the “Summer Reads for Kids” episode of On Point that aired earlier this month. Visit the website to listen to the interview: http://www.onpointradio.org/2010/07/summer-reads-for-kids. It’s a great discussion which raised a lot of questions for me.

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins came up in discussion. Interviewee Pete Cowdin felt that, though he enjoyed it, he considered it a “guilty pleasure” but not necessarily a good book. Theoretically I can see his point (though admittedly I really enjoyed it) but does that mean that all guilty pleasure books are inherently bad?

Huge blockbusters influence the entire publishing industry – we’re wading through mountains of paranormal romance novels about girls dating vampires, werewolves, zombies, pixies, demons, etc. I get irritated at the huge stacks of Twilight in big bookstores while so many other books aren’t getting much attention, or even a space on the shelves. Big sales certainly does not mean good writing and exemplary literature. But what is the criteria of great literature? I have my own ideas of what works for me, but that doesn’t mean that I know what deserves to be labeled a good or bad book. And if readers are to make up their own minds, is there really any use in making this distinction?

The market influences writers, too. I can’t imagine that SO MANY authors just happened to be writing about vampires in time to jump on the Twilight bandwagon – not that I blame them for doing so. In the NPR interview, Esme Raji Codell expressed the sentiment that children should come first for the author, not the marketplace. I agree: if every writer catered to the whims of the marketplace then publishing would stagnate – there would be no growth, no freshness. But if our readers are salivating for more indulgent, guilty-pleasure stories, how bad is it for us to indulge that desire if that is what we truly want to write?

Published in: on July 11, 2010 at 11:28 pm  Comments (4)  

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  1. Oh, I heard that on NPR too. I wasn’t sure how to feel about Cowdin’s remark. It seemed like he wants children reading only Great Literature, and anything else is considered a guilty pleasure. Maybe Hunger Games isn’t Literature, but it’s not fluff either. And when it comes to action and tension, Collins is a master!

    • I agree, I loved it and didn’t feel particularly guilty while reading it:) I do need to give a shout-out to Monica Edinger, the other interviewee, who mentioned The Hunger Games and has a great blog: http://medinger.wordpress.com/. She wrote a great blog post about how, especially in the summer, as long as kids are reading something that’s great. Even if it’s not “great literature.”

  2. As someone who reads a fair balance of guilty pleasure books (probably far too many vampire novels for my own good though) and “good” literature, so I’m with you 100% that there should be some sort of balance. That’s how I’ve always tried to train myself as a reader – if I catch myself reading too many silly vampire novels in a row, I know it’s time to take a break and read something different – preferably written prior to 1950 (and quite possibly longer than the spare 250 pages of my paperback quick-read guilty pleasures).
    I’m also with Anna- Hunger Games certainly isn’t fluff. It can be heavy at times, and even if it doesn’t count as literature (i’m suddenly reminded of the Great Harry Potter Debate in my AP Lit class, that later branched into the Great Lord of the Rings Debate), Collins certainly is a skillful writer.

    • I would have LOVED to been present for that Harry Potter debate!! That’s what I find so interesting about this discussion: there are people who think Harry Potter was brilliant, others who see at base and derivative. So many books could fall into the “good” or “guilty pleasure” category, depending on who is doing the reviewing. While I want to write good quality books, I also want my books to be read and enjoyed. And if “fluff” does that for a lot of people, then maybe it has some worth.

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