Is it worth a sequoia?

A few days ago I posted on one of the creative writing groups I belong to on Facebook. My question was, ‘What’s the difference between a good book and a great book?’

Well, almost at once I realised I’d put the question entirely the wrong way. ‘Sales!’ said someone. ‘Marketing’ said someone else. Practice. Experience. A good agent. ‘A great book,’ said someone bitterly (if obscurely) ‘hits the bestseller list even if it’s crap, while a good book languishes unread!’

What I actually meant to ask was, ‘What’s the difference between an extraordinary book – one that is read through the ages and remembered long after its last page is turned – and an ordinary (though perhaps popular) book?

In the novel I’m currently writing, Terentia (a well-known author whose star is fading) gives a talk to a local writing group. Her topic is ‘Why Bother?’ and her thesis is that there are too many words being pumped out into the world. Unless your work is worth a sequoia, she tells them, consider putting down your pen (laptop) and growing camellias instead. Afterwards, a young fan asks her to read her manuscript. Is it worth a sequoia, she asks? Well, no. But why not, asks the fan? And if not, what is?

The girl leans forward, closing the gap.

“So…and I don’t mean to get too intense here…but you said in your email – that is, you implied, that you think my novel is too…average? That it’s not different enough…”

“I’m not sure that’s exactly what I was trying to say,” Terentia hedges. She’s not sure exactly what she is trying to say. Only that the girl’s story hasn’t moved her, perhaps. Why should it? She’s too old to weep over Romeo and Juliet. Over their divorce, perhaps.

“It’s not, I’m not offended or anything. Actually I think if you’re going to write a novel,” the girl goes on with the happy confidence of youth, “you have to be prepared for people to be honest, don’t you think? But it made me think… I mean, I was actually really interested in what you were trying to say, so that’s a good thing. I’m sorry, this is coming out all muddled…” She dimples.

Terentia relents. “No, not at all. Perhaps I should have phrased it differently. What I meant was…”

She is going to say something nice about the book – for instance, she could mention the pleasant nostalgia she felt when she was reading the romantic scenes between Antonio and Claire when the first establish their relationship – but Clement actually interrupts her.

“No, I get it, you don’t have to try to be nice, really.” The girl is a mind reader! “But I was wondering, what do you think makes a novel special? Like, worth it. Worth a sequoia, say?” She laughs.

Terentia is beginning to like this girl. She doesn’t pull any punches.

“Well…” What makes a work of fiction extraordinary? She thinks of the books she has read that she would never, ever burn. Not at the cost of her life (almost). Camus. McCarthy (Cormac, not Mary). The Brothers Karamazov. “I don’t know, exactly, I can’t define it. I suppose it’s in the feelings you have as you read…and whether the book has anything important to teach you. A great book will challenge you, disturb you, move you, and after you’ve put it down, sometimes years after, as you’re living your own life, you’ll think of some character or situation and you’ll be able to apply it to your experience, and it’ll add something…something powerful and deep and…and true.”

The girl is nodding away, making notes on her pad, and Terentia suddenly hears herself, as if she’s up at some sort of lectern. Good god, she sounds like Gandalf, or Umberto Eco giving a Ted talk. What would she know about extraordinary? She’s never reached it, only stretched her hands upwards, upwards…and failed.

“But that’s just my opinion.”

So what do you think? What IS the difference?

Photo by Victoria Palacios on Unsplash

15 Comments

  1. It’s really hard to answer this question without using other words that would need further definition. A great book, one that lasts for years, could be all sorts of different things. It could be unique. Or it could be as simple as simple is. I think of McCarthy’s The Road — a really simple story told very simply, but it is told in a darkly beautiful way.

    I think there is no one definition oif what makes a great book. Books considered great are that way for all sorts of different reasons. And for many people, they aren’t even that great. Many of the great books of yesteryear — the classics — are books that I just can’t read. I can’t get through them. But, many view those classics as being great books.

    1. I think you’re right. I can’t read Proust, or Henry James. I love The Road, it’s definitely on the treasured shelf. Anyway now that I think about it, what terentia is saying to clement is that her book is not particularly original. Or something like that. She’s motivated by jealousy, although she doesn’t acknowledge it

  2. That’s a hard one, eh? When I’m reading a book I instantly know when the writing flows and when it’s more stilted. How? I don’t know, but an academic may be able to analyse it. I would suggest that ‘flow’ may be one of the first requirements, and then the main character has to have characteristics, both good and bad, and/or a situation that the reader can relate to, even if they’re the opposite sex, and even if only in a small part. I also think that subtly inserted details, as opposed to long descriptions, work for me, but I’m a person who is more focussed on a goal than details – which doesn’t mean that I can’t be quite anal about some things 😊 – so that might not be everyone’s cuppa tea. However, I would still say that the kind of details you put into a story do matter. At the end of the day, though, if we over-analyse how we write, we’re in danger of becoming stilted, or even more so, so it’s often a case of just writing, writing and writing some more until we find our flow without even realising it. One tip I heard that sounded quite good, after all that, was to pretend to be writing a letter to someone, even if it’s yourself, in which you’re relating the story. That seemed quite a good tip to me. If only there was an actual formula for it, eh?

    1. Or you could just actually write a letter to yourself 🙂 yeah, I agree with what you say about the craft of writing. What I’m wondering, though, is what makes a book more than just well written. I think I write quite well at times, but along with 99 percent of writers, well known or otherwise, I’m no Orwell or Tolstoy, to last through the ages or be kept on the ‘treasured sacred’ shelf. So what is it that makes a book more than just good?

      1. Yes, the craft of writing was pretty much all I said, wasn’t it? How does one inject that ‘je ne sais quois’ into it, though, that makes it memorable and long-lasting? I suspect it’s a talent that even talented people don’t know how it works. I enjoy writing, but realised that the best I’m going to be is a hobbyist writer. I don’t have the imagination for fiction, but believe that my style is called ‘creative non-fiction’. I’m both resigned and content with my realisation, as it means that I don’t yearn for something that’s not going to be, but focus on enjoying and improving what I AM good at. I don’t expect everyone to follow what has worked for me, as we need some struggle – which, btw, is not always a dirty word – to keep the life juices flowing, but I guess it’s about choosing our struggles wisely 🙂

  3. I would say someone like Dostoevsky is great. I’ve wasted too much of my own life trying to be great at something when I’m not even average. The great works of literature seem to be like tablets of stone that just come from on high.

  4. There’s not much worth a sequoia. I would rate even the greats at no more than a well-established Douglas Fir, and my own efforts somewhere between a patch of dandelions and a strggling camellia.

  5. Hmm. That’s an unanswerable question, at least in the abstract. But almost any reader would be able to name at least one book that’s worth a sequoia. I do like the question itself, though–it’s more focussed than “What makes a book great rather than just good?”

    1. Actually if they had to cut down a sequoia for any book I can think of, I’d decline. But it’s a way of looking at it… to assign art a price, in suffering or loss rather than money.

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