The following post is one I did a few years ago. Going through my file of old posts, I re-read it and decided to recycle it, as I have so many new VIP members who might enjoy it. I did a little rewriting to update it. Hope you like it.
What makes a great novel? There are as many answers to that question as there are readers.
I once read a book that was chosen by my Goodreads group. From the start, the great reviews came in. The group members were having nothing but praise for the book. One woman did not think that 5 stars, which is the max, was a high enough rating for the book.
Several other gushed that a movie should be made about it, and it turns out that a movie was made about it. I was so excited about reading the novel that I set aside a whole weekend to dedicate to it. Imagine my shock when I could barely make it halfway through, and could not stand it any more. I set it aside for a week, and then forced myself to finish it.
I could not understand why people were raving about the novel. They went on and on about how the character would not give up. You see, he was stranded in Mars and had to survive until he could be rescued. I found it exceedingly boring. It had very little character interaction as he was alone in a desert planet.
There was very little description and no action whatsoever. There was no figurative language, no mood setting, no romance, and it was full of endless explanations of the constant rigging of battery systems, H2O synthesis, and the mixing of Martian dirt and urine and feces to make soil with bacteria for growing potatoes.
The main character’s biggest complain was about having only disco music available. He showed very little emotional depth. I would have given the book 2 stars, and the group would probably have lynched me, if they could.
I can also use the example of a quirky little detective story I recently read. It had nothing but raving reviews of nothing less than 5 stars on Amazon. It was full of action and modern, snazzy dialogue, but by the end of the story, I still did not have a clear image of the heroine because the author never got around to describing her. The storyline was all!
To some readers, the story line is all. They love this book, and they would hate the D.E. Stevenson (Miss Buncle) stories I love; nothing usually happens in them. Once again, what makes a great book? My honest opinion is that the reader makes a book great.
A while back, I read a list of reviews on Facebook, done by students, on great literary works. The person who posted the list dubbed it “Reviewers Who Missed the Point,” or something like that. Someone wrote about how stupid Hamlet was, and someone else wrote about Ulysses being a horrible book. Obviously, the Facebook member who posted the list was making a point about how ignorant some readers can be, and feeling pretty smug that he or she was smart enough to understand great literature.
Well, you know what? I happened to agree with the person who trashed Ulysses. I’ve always thought it was a horrible book. Today, it would have never been published. However, I totally disagree with the one who trashed To Kill A Mockingbird.
The point is that greatness is in the eye of the beholder, just like beauty. Someone will consider a book great if it has dynamic characters who go through great transformations in the course of the story. Themes of redemption and sacrifice abound in such characterization. Characters that are neither black nor white but a little of each, flawed and yet attractive. Such is the tortured character Zadist, in J.R. Ward’s novels; he is a prime example of this duality. I absolutely love him!
Other readers will not find a novel great unless it has a strong story line as its main element; plot, plot, and more plot. Great detective stories are my favorites. I am addicted to the William Monk novels by Anne Perry because of that element. And how about Karen Marie Moning’s early Highlander series? Imagine falling through a crevice to find a be-spelled, gorgeous highlander who has been sleeping for centuries. You travel back in time to save him, but in the past, he remembers you not! Now, plot like that is hard to resist.
I, myself, need to be transported to other realms, other worlds. For me, it’s Tolkien taking me to Middle-earth, or Ellis Peters sending me back in time to a monastery in the Middle Ages or Anne Perry dunking me in the dank, cruel London of late 19th century. I love Monique Martin’s books for that reason; time travel stories are great for this.
Finally, a great book for me must paint mental pictures and do it well. Description can not be sacrificed for the sake of action. A great story must place pictures in my mind, pictures of people, of feelings, of places, of light and dark, of sweet and bitter, of beauty and ugliness. The reason I write is to transfer to your mind the things that are in mine. How can you possible grasp the image if it is not painted for you with my words?
Many writers give new authors the advice of “show, show, show, don’t tell.” Yes, dialogue moves the story. I myself use dialogue strongly and hopefully, eloquently. However, setting, mood, atmosphere, and characters need to be defined with descriptive words; otherwise, you end up with a fast-moving play where at the end, the reader has no idea how to form an image of the heroine!
To answer the original question, “What makes a great novel?” A great novel is one that gives you what you want. One that awakens the “eye of the beholder,” taking you places where you haven’t been before. And don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.