Recently I went to my shelf of not-yet read fiction to look for something to read. I have a collection of novels in waiting, some purchased after reading reviews, others impulse purchases. I'm careful to keep my impulse purchases limited to second hand shops because the failure rate is high. It is my own fault for purchasing on impulse and not taking the time to read a few pages before putting a book in my basket. The first book I tried was almost abominable. I wanted to like it. It promised a very good escapist plot but after three chapters I gave up. I went to Goodreads to see what others had to say and saw that reviews were divided into the 'it was awful' group and the "I loved it" group. This happens to some degree with every book. Not every book is for all readers, but the difference was clear: people who expected quality writing, well developed characters and a plausible plot were unhappy with the book.
I set that book aside and reached for something more promising, something that was praised by literary critics, had won some sort of prize and described a plot that sounded intriguing (although so had the first one I tried). I read two chapters and tossed it aside. This time I couldn't say there was anything very bad about it, perhaps this time it was simply not my taste, didn't hold my attention. The style was a simple prose style which I often like but I've seen it done better. Perhaps that was the problem, or maybe it was just not my taste.
But I don't have to choose books this way so ending up with books that are disappointments is sloppy work on my part.
This is the part where I sound like a snob. Not everybody knows bad writing when they see it and this is why plenty of mediocre or quite bad books get published and even sell well. This is the same for television shows, movies, food and art and some would argue this for coffee, wine and chocolate. I will confess to some opinions in some of those departments also.
After I attempt to convince you to read this book pictured at the top of the page I will explain my thoughts and opinions on writing and literature in general and continue to sound pedantic and pretentious because it's my specialty.
The third time I was lucky. I picked up Vincent Lam's Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures.
This book was also an impulse buy. It was not on my list but I know why I picked it up. In addition to the description on the back cover, it was a Canadian writer and had won a prize. Of course the second book I tried and gave up on had the same credentials. I was beginning to wonder if I was just in a picky mood, perhaps a bit tired of fiction. But I read three sentences and was hooked.
I won't promise that you will be hooked in three sentences. I had just tried to read two inferior books so this one may have looked disproportionately better. Like all books it has good and bad reviews and I have since read a negative critique of the author's more recent novel. Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures is not a new novel, having been published in 2005. It is a collection of connected short stories but I found it read as a novel, telling stories that progress forward in time about the experiences of a group of slightly connected medical doctors. It begins as two of them are applying to enter medical school, tells stories of their experiences as student doctors and as young, beginning doctors and the author is himself a doctor.
Each story shows us both what it is like to be a medical student or beginning doctor, but also gives us character sketches, showing us that doctors are human beings, flawed, sometimes likable and sometimes not, making both mistakes and admirable choices in life. We seem them in brief glimpses over about ten years, allowing for growth but also leaving us to assume what they might become.
The writing is smooth, suited to the characters, the events, sometimes first person and other times third person, often times invisible so as to let the story unfold without impediment. This is what good writing should do. It neither intrudes on the plot nor outshines the characters, but allows both to fully engross the reader and never rudely intrudes by way of being clumsy or awkward. My only complaint about the book is that it ends rather abruptly. Given how much I enjoyed it overall this does not amount to a very large complaint. The final story/chapter is a bit confusing but I think that might be deliberate. The story ends with an emergency room doctor working night shift and then returning home exhausted, needing to sleep but coping with this not being the way the rest of the world is functioning, he is out of step, out of time, perhaps a bit disoriented. His shift comes to an end and he is thrust back into the regular world and as the book comes to an end the reader is thrust back into the world too.
A More Personal Note
My Quick and Dirty Book Selection Method
1. Has it won an award? Good
2. Is it published by Penguin? Good
3. Is it endorsed by Oprah? I will need extra convincing to read it but if I do I will search endlessly for a copy that doesn't have her name on it.
4. Was a movie made? If so I must buy a copy that does not have the movie cover.
These days I read mostly non-fiction, which is perhaps a little strange for someone with an English Lit degree but I really only discovered that there is great non-fiction out there about ten years ago. Prior to that I only understood non-fiction as text books or autobiographies. Perhaps the genre has improved significantly and that accounts for the shift in my reading habits but I am quite willing to blame it all on my former ignorance.
I am also a bit of a lit snob, which is not to say that I do not enjoy a book purely for the story and the ride it takes me on, but I seem to be much picker than average about the quality of the writing and there is no way to say this without sounding like I am bragging. So often someone tells me of a book they enjoyed, suggests perhaps that I should read it too, and so often it is the sort of book I would most likely turn my nose up at. On the other hand, I find some novels a bit pretentious and I have rejected plenty of award winning novels after initially giving them a try.
Somewhere a measurable standard of good writing probably exists but in many ways personal taste is involved. I reject many books based on my opinion that the writing is not good ( and in case you are wondering if the writing seems much like my own it probably goes down in my esteem ) but sometimes the writing style just doesn't appeal to me or the plot development doesn't.
There isn't an exact definition of what makes something literary fiction as opposed to the other kind. Genre fiction can put lit-snobs off but that's too bad because some genre writers are very good. I don't think writing quality is really what drives book sales though and surely Fifty Shades of Gray attests to that.
In points 1-3 I've outlined what I think makes a good piece of fiction. Point four is what makes something literary fiction.
1. The writing either stands out as poetic or in some way impressive and beautiful or it is so smooth it disappears and supports the plot and characters invisibly.
This means I might enjoy spare prose or complex prose, sentences that have a musical quality in some way, a rhythm in a sense.
The language should be appropriate, so that if it is first person it sounds believable as a person would be expected to think and speak. Third person narration allows for more complex phrases and colourful vocabulary because we don't have to believe the character would think and speak like this. We accept this is the voice of the omniscient narrator.
Good dialogue is difficult to write.
2. The characters must be believable, and redeemable in some way though they do not necessarily have to be likeable. Unlikable characters are tricky, as the reader must be convinced that there are valid reasons or something redeeming underneath it all. No real person is all good or all bad so we must see this reflected in characters, even if they are unlikable overall. One acceptable reason for tolerating an unlikable character as a main character in a story is that the lessons we learn as readers are valuable or we see the characters growth in some way.
Characters must be well rounded in relation to the length of the story. In short stories there are different goals, often we are seeing only a glimpse, often called a 'snapshot' of someone's life or character. The short story character is often meant to illustrate some aspect of human nature. In a novel, there is room and time for a character to change and grow. A character who doesn't ever learn anything, who doesn't show us admirable qualities as well as flawed ones is going to disappoint.
3. The plot must not ask for too much suspending of disbelief. The willingness to suspend disbelief varies between individual readers and perhaps even at different times between one reader. When I can't buy into a premise or believe in the world that is described by the writer, when the characters make choices that seem unlikely, I become separated from the story rather than immersed in it. My bullshit radar starts beeping and it gets difficult to ignore. If a story is clearly fantasy it makes more suspension of disbelief allowable and as a reader I know I am accepting that when I begin the book.
Thrillers and action stories often give us improbably or impossible situations. Sometimes in the name of entertainment we accept these and go along for the ride. I don't think any James Bond fan believes a real person could accomplish the feats Bond does, and in most action movies the protagonist takes more blows to the head than a real person could live through and just walks away. Captain Kirk regularly fought with fierce aliens and only came away with a torn shirt and a small cut or two. My argument is not that these stories cannot be well written and enjoyable but that they are not literature.
4. Literary fiction tells us something about the larger picture of human nature, either examining a particular type of character, a particular life choice, a social structure or morality. It doesn't have to be obvious, but generally literary fiction has a theme or a few themes. Good genre fiction or popular fiction might satisfy the first three criteria I have listed but the themes are perhaps the most important distinguishing feature of literary fiction and they seem to show up even if the writer wasn't giving them primary importance.
The cynical definition of literature is that it is written in such a way that pretentious people could sit around talking about it's larger meaning and what the author probably intended. Sometimes I am one of those pretentious people, but even when I just want to enjoy a good story and go along for the ride, I require it to be well written and I've set the bar high.
In Case You Want to Know
Novel number one was Interred with Their Bones, by Jennifer Lee Carrol. It was not well written despite it's author having a PhD in literature. It's going in the donation bag.
Novel number two was The Reconstruction, by Claudia Casper and it qualifies as literature but just didn't grab me. I have read plenty of literature I didn't want to read, given that I have a degree in the subject. Not all literature appeals to me and this book just seemed awkward and dull but it has mostly good reviews on Goodreads. I might give it a second try though at the moment I seem to have misplaced it.
If you made it to the end of this post I would like to give you a cookie. I'm sorry that I cannot.