Blog Hop: Objectively Good–or Bad

book blogger hopThis week’s Book Blogger Hop question is a very BIG one: To you, what qualifies a book as good or bad? Are some books objectively better than others, or is it purely a matter of opinion?

I don’t think this one can really be treated as an either/or question.  There are some qualities of a book that, generally speaking, will make a book good or bad–but there will be exceptions to every rule, and there will be dissenting opinions on every book.

Trying to be as broad as possible, I would say that, for me, a good book requires characters who are complex and believable according to human nature; an avoidance of overt stereotypes, including (perhaps especially) gender stereotypes (although archetypes are completely acceptable); a plot that is both interesting and plausible; and writing that demonstrates a command of language and grammar and (at least a smidge) of the beauty of words.

So it follows that a bad book would have flat or implausible characters who may be stereotypes, a dull or impossible plot, and poor command of words.

But I already have a problem right there, because Edgar Rice Burroughs is one of my favorite authors, and he has completely flat, stereotyped characters more often than not (but he has thrilling plots and landscapes, and a beautiful way with words).  Like I said–exceptions to the rule.

It all gets much more wobbly though, because one person’s complex character will read flat to another; one reader will find a plot gripping while another finds it dull, while a third will say it’s full of implausibilities anyway; and gorgeous prose to one person will seem incredibly dense to another.  And this doesn’t even address the subject of whether a book has something profound to say, and whether it can say it alongside good plot and characters, or at the expense of those, and whether that choice matters (I say yes, many would say no).

Whew, it makes me wonder how I dare state public opinions on any books!  I think implicit in writing a book review is the understanding shared by reviewer and reader that this is my opinion, one I hope would be shared by the majority of the people who self-identify as interested in the same kind of stories I like.

And there, I think, I stop!  Would you like to take on this question? 🙂

11 thoughts on “Blog Hop: Objectively Good–or Bad

  1. Good answer, and very thoughtfully presented!

    Yes, I do think there’s such a thing as a “bad” book. Badly-written, that is. If an author shows a poor grasp of the English language, misuses words, employs poor construction, overuses cliches, and so on, they may have a good story, but they don’t have a good book. Not yet, anyway. (I am of course assuming the errors are not deliberate – but you can usually tell when someone doesn’t know how to write English well, and when they’re employing a specific voice for effect.) Other things that make a book “bad” are plot holes big enough to drive a truck through, or characters who are very inconsistent or can’t be differentiated from each other. As you pointed out, there’s always an element of subjectivity in anyone’s response to a book. But decent writing (not great, just COMPETENT), a plot that hangs together reasonably well, and characters who, though they may be somewhat flat or stereotyped, at least make internal sense — those qualities constitute the bare minimum that for me separates a tolerable book from a bad one.

    Re horror: I’m absolutely with you; I won’t read it either. But the one Stephen King I did read was very good from the technical standpoint — the plot worked, the characters worked, the writing was compelling. The man knows how to tell a story! He just doesn’t write stories I want to read. So if I were asked, my response would be “He’s good, but I don’t like his books.” And that’s how I try to approach my reviews, too: balancing my emotional response against as objective an analysis as I can manage.

  2. I usually try not to qualify books as good or bad, but describe them so that they people to whom they would appeal can find them. I know I like focus on character and setting and get exhausted by too much plot action or focus on language to the exclusion of plot and character (which people who like literary fiction like most). If you look at the best-seller lists, you’ll see that most Americans, unlike me, prefer plot-driven books. I think, though, that a book is bad if it’s trying to be, say, a plot-driven book and the plot doesn’t work – and I have seen plenty of books where I couldn’t figure out a good audience.

  3. I’d say the best qualifier is humor. Since humor is subjective, it’s probably the most direct way for an author to communicate to their audience that this book is intended for them. Second to that, or perhaps on par with, is depth of information. Finally comes subject matter—what a little brute.

  4. What a fascinating answer! I think you’ve really nailed it; judging a book as good or bad is a combination of objective and subjective factors. Something you’ve added to this general rule, though, is definitely true — there ARE exceptions to every rule. I can see why you would love Burroughs for his exciting plots and landscapes, as well as his beautiful writing style. I read “A Princess of Mars” years ago, and was thoroughly swept away!

    In the final analysis, this is a very complex matter, and there is indeed a lot of subjectivity involved. I think it’s the blending of objective and subjective factors that make this so complex, too. For me, if I don’t like a given book or genre, I simply don’t care how well-developed the characters are, how beautiful the style, how engrossing the plot; I still won’t like the book. For instance, I absolutely LOATHE the horror genre. Edgar Allan Poe is considered a great writer, but I can’t stomach him. I had to read two of his stories in high school, because he’s part of every American Literature course. So I KNOW. The stories were “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Cask of Amontillado”. I consider them the products of a very sick mind. Another horror writer I can’t stand is Stephen King. I made the mistake of reading one of HIS stories once, the title of which I can’t recall. But it left a lasting, and horrible, impression on my mind. I wish I could forget it…. And reading “The Exorcist”, several years ago, left me unable to sleep well for an entire week!

    Of course, there are readers who would strongly disagree with me, readers who actually LOVE the horror genre. To me, this is totally absurd.

    So this is indeed not an easy question to answer at all! I think that you have attempted, and succeeded, in giving a very interesting, well-thought-out basis for your own judgement criteria.

    Thanks for your thoughts!! : )

    1. Thanks for getting into the question of genre on this subject! I thought about trying to unpack that here too, but decided I was tackling enough aspects for one post… 🙂

      As a rule I agree with you about horror…but again with the exceptions, because I actually like a handful of Poe stories! That said, I’ve never felt compelled to go out and read more of his…

      There’s a horror writer in my writing group, and while I respect what he does and can see that it’s well-written and effective for its type…still not something I’m going to want to read! Leading me to sometimes give feedback like, “I would definitely keep reading after this first chapter, if I wasn’t me…” So I guess that means his stories are objectively good, but subjectively bad-for-me!

      1. You’re very welcome, Cheryl! Yes, I think that genre is an important aspect of this question, as well.

        I love the diplomatic way you have critiqued the horror writer’s work! Lol. You were honest and courteous. He knows you don’t like his genre, but yet, you’re objective enough to judge his work on the basis of excellence of craft. Kudos to you!

        BTW, I’d be interested to know what you thought of my own answer to this question. When you get a chance, could you come over to my blog and take a look? I’d really appreciate your thoughts! Thanks!! : )

  5. dianem57

    In the end, what is a “good” or “bad” book is a subjective opinion. I would hope book reviewers are more trained in the art of writing, and well-read in a variety of genres and literature that spans time, than the average reader. That gives them some professional knowledge of what’s conceivably “good” or “bad” in a book. However, the reviews I appreciate the most are the ones that give some sense of the plot and characters, and what the author is trying to say with the story than just a technical review of why the book is either “good” or “bad” from a literature perspective. I can make a better decision as to whether I want to read the book if I have an idea of what it’s about. Still, no matter how well-received by reviewers some books are (horror, gory murder mysteries, very tangled family dramas all come to mind), I’m not going to read them. Those are not genres I ever read and I don’t want to start. And even if a book is panned by reviewers, if it’s by an author I like, I’ll read it anyway, and probably enjoy it. So my conclusion is that reviews and others’ opinions of a book can help me decide whether to read it (that it could be a “good” book), but the tipping point for me is my subjective opinion about it. That takes the risk of picking it up and spending the time to see if it really IS a “good” book for me.

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