It's All Good (or is it?): What Makes Good Literature
As I have been writing fiction more consistently lately, I have spent a lot of time thinking about the literature I read and what constitutes "good literature". I have a number of friends who are really hard to please when it comes to literature (you know who you are) and I cannot tell you how many times we chat about what we love and hate about a book. I recently read an article that addressed the fact that some writers do not like to read, and I find that notion rather peculiar. How does one learn about their craft if they seldom pick up a book? If you converse with a successful doctor or lawyer, I am certain that many of them will tell you about the successful people they studied and attempt to emulate. Shouldn't writers think of their craft in the same ways? For me, personally, I remember some of the earliest books that captured my attention enough to make me want to read more and consequently write more. When I was in middle school, my friends and I read V.C. Andrews books. We loved the entire collection: Flowers in the Attic, Petals in the Wind, If there Be Thorns, and so on. Without a doubt, we were engrossed in the dramatic lives of the Dollanganger family. Since then, I have changed and altered my taste in literature a dozen times. In the last decade or two, I have read a variety of books ranging from Alice Walker's first novel, The Third Life of Grange Copeland to Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones. I fall in and out of love with characters, and back in love with them again. I curse characters in the margins of my book (I figure that's the only way a character will ever know of my disapproval of their actions). And, more often than I should publicly admit, I have been known for throwing a book across the room out of frustration with a character's behavior. Last summer (thanks to a historian-friend of mine), I picked up my first romance novel, Always and Forever, by Beverly Jenkins and absolutely fell in love with her writing. I found myself reading four more of Jenkins' novels during the entire summer. I especially love the way Jenkins connects historical events like slavery and western expansion with romance. There is definitely a time when I never would have entertained a romance novel, but finding one that speaks to my "readerly" (is that a word?) needs, changed that completely for me. While there are books that I have read a dozen times and will probably read again, there are many more books that I will never re-read and wish I could get the time and money spent on reading them in the first place. Still, I recognize that there is yet another component to my reading experience that influences how I receive a book, and that involves where I am in my personal life at the time of a reading. For example, right after I gave birth to my baby girl, I made the mistake of reading Dorothy Allison's Bastard Out of Carolina. Although reading material that has subject matter involving rape (and the rape of a young girl, no less) is difficult for many of us to read, reading this book postpartum made it even more complicated for me to get through this novel and evaluate it for its literary merit. In the past, I read literature with unpleasant subject matter, but my response to this particular book at this particular time had less to do with Allison's novel and more to do with me needing sleep and rest (oh, and the fact that five days before I expelled a human from my body). The point is, there are a number of aspects of our reading experiences that make impact how we feel about a book. It is possible to hate a book upon initially reading it, and to fall in love with it at another time. As much as I appreciate Toni Morrison's writing, it has taken me several attempts to get through a number of her works. One of her novels in particular, Paradise, has actually become my favorite. And, believe me, I hated that book when I first tried to read it! So, what is good writing to me, you ask? I am going to cop out of answering that question directly by describing some of the qualities of writing that make a work just plain bad to me. Some characteristics of bad writing (for me) are as follows: * poor editing!!!! * Curse words or violence that is unnecessary or that is so overwhelming that it is distracting * Writing that has too many cliches * Underdeveloped characters * story lines that are trite and overdone * Characters that I do not care about These are some of the qualities of bad writing that simply irritate me as a reader, and I recognize that there are exceptions even to the rules I make. Who knows, there could very well be an author out there who uses cliches in such a way that I am not annoyed. Until I read their work, I'll probably be annoyed. Tell me about some of the best fiction you have read and what makes it good. What about the crap you have read? What made you hate it so? Also posted on Diving Into Beans

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