Some people ask me, “What do you think makes a great book great?”
Some people also ask me if I think polar bears should be allowed to marry penguins. Which tells you what kind of people I hang with.
But back to the other question. The first one. About the writing thing. I guess it’s not too surprising that people ask me things about books. I mean, I AM a writer. My books RUN and Billy: Messenger of Powers have both been bestsellers on amazon.com, I’ve written two movies that are coming out next year, and I’ve been told my birthday cards are to die for. So I do get my opinion asked for fairly often. And, to be frank, even when people AREN’T asking for my opinion… I still give it.
So what DOES make a great book great?
There are a lot of things. But first and foremost, I think, is simply this: a great book is one that people want to spend time with. And I’m not just talking about the time they put in reading it. A great book is one that we think about even when the covers are closed, one whose characters we wish we could meet well after the last chapter has been finished. It’s one that lives within us, and becomes not merely a part of what we have done, but a facet of who we have become.
So how to accomplish that?
Well, according to many high school English teachers, people should read books that they have shoved down their throats with pointy sticks. Sad but true. Sometimes I think that a great many “academics” believe that a book isn’t great unless it’s something that you can only “enjoy” after you’ve spent several years researching the author’s life. Incomprehensibility doubles as ability.
I don’t buy into that.
A great book IS one that lives on, year after year, generation after generation. Fine and dandy. But I also think that a TRULY great book is one that has, not only deep life lessons that transcend time, but also a pure enjoyment factor (and obviously, I’m talking about fiction here). I mean, if you look at Hamlet, it’s not only a classic examination of character, it’s a darn fine STORY, with ghosts, intrigue, thrilling fights, and other “fun” attributes that make it, not just “valuable,” but FUN.
Granted, if you’re looking at a “classic” book that’s been around for hundreds of years, there’s some work to be done. But that’s not because the stories are boring, it’s simply because language changes over time, so you have to be schooled in the way people of that era spoke in order to enjoy what they’re doing and saying. Just like some people don’t enjoy British humor, not because the English aren’t funny (because they are), but because they don’t understand that culture enough to GET the jokes. So there are legitimate examples of “great” literature that you have to prep for. But at their root, truly great books are an entertaining read.
I can remember, when writing RUN (a suspense/horror/thriller novel), I devoured a lot of Dean Koontz and Stephen King books. Similarly, when I was working on Billy: Messenger of Powers (a young adult fantasy), I read J.K. Rowling, Brandon Mull, and James Dashner. Some people actually asked me why I would “waste my time” on such “popular” fare. And the way they said “popular” it was clear they really meant to say “worthless.”
But I disagree. I think that “popular” is a valuable indicator of greatness in art. After all, what is Great Expectations but a book that has remained “popular” for centuries? What is The Three Musketeers but a book that has a story so fun that it has found an audience year after year after year?
Now, that’s not to say that I think everything that is popular is great. There are some books that are incredibly popular that are shallow, trite drivel. But those kinds of things don’t tend to STAY popular. They’re flashes in the pan. A moment where lighting is caught (perhaps accidentally), but cannot be contained.
The “greats” on the other hand, truly captivate us. They reach across time and space to do something that we as humans have sought after since man first began to communicate: to tell a story.
And the better the story, the “greater” the book.
Michaelbrent is a bestselling novelist whose books RUN and Billy: Messenger of Powers have been amazon.com bestsellers. He is also a produced screenwriter and member of both the Writers Guild of America and the Horror Writers of America. His blog is at http://michaelbrentcollings.com/blog2.html, and you can follow him on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/pages/Michaelbrent-Collings/283851837365 or on twitter @mbcollings.