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?