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How to Critique a Novel
Critical Performance Indicators (CPIs)
In every novel the writer invites readers and critics to judge subjectively the merits of the work.
After reading the last page, the critic must decide if the novel on the whole merits a subjective recommendation for other readers to consider.
Whenever one shares with other people that one has read a certain novel, inevitably these questions come back:
Was the novel any good? Did you like it? What was it about?
Your answers can be fully informed by surging against the novel with the questions that these critical performance indicators beg.
On Plot and Narrative Stamina
The plot or story line is often the singular measure expressed by unsophisticated readers to judge the worth of a novel.
In my opinion the greatest novel of the 20th century, Joyce’s Ulysses, portrays brilliantly one day in the life Leopold Bloom in Dublin.
The role of plot among serious readers of novels assumes its appropriate share of the critique: it is one of many CPIs that determine a novel’s worth. If anything, the merits of the plot alone tend to be vastly overblown. Why?
The plot of a work of is generally a literary device or mere contrivance. If a plot were not contrived, then the work would be presented as non-fiction, wouldn’t it?
While it’s true that novelists often focus upon what they know best and draw that knowledge from real-life experience, the plots of so many writers of our day are laughably, overly contrived.
Take the fiction of romance novels, the murder-mystery, the action-thriller, true-crime or average horror novel.
Who can read them with a straight face? Realistically, life is rarely about a convoluted plot unless it occurs over a longer time-frame.
A short-term plot replete with twists and turns may lack credibility. Life is full of chaos, I grant you, and there exist intriguing points when random chance plays upon one’s character to shape the direction of action. Lives intersect and influence each other for better or worse. Hap can and does occur on an epic scale in war and natural disaster, for example. But the causes of the action in life make sense if one can step far back enough to assume an omnipotent perspective.
A skillful novelist may take real-life experience with uncommon twists of fate and weave a credible story line from it. Certainly, that is a primary objective of most novelists. The most popular novelists leave a trail of bread crumbs in the final sentences of each chapter hoping to drag you into reading the next one to settle one plot point only to dangle as bait the enticement of another.
A great novel’s plot never feels contrived: that is, one can’t sense the artifice of the plot structure to the extent that it intrudes upon the reading. No reader wants to feel jacked-around by a novelist trying to hatch a credible story line. Lesser novels often depend upon overt, voluminous plot point points and greater novels transport readers gracefully through the story line.
Even a wild story line can be accepted if it’s crafted to invoke the “willing suspension of disbelief,” an ancient criterion of writers who invite their readers to suspend logic in favor of coming along for the experience of the ride. If a reader is unwilling to suspend disbelief, then the craft of the story line has not succeeded and the artifice of the plot has become a stumbling block for the novel.
The great novelist, Isaac Beshevis Singer, lined his apartments with newspapers to which he turned for credible but uncommon story lines. Hemingway, of course, was a news reporter for the Kansas City Star and some novelists consider fact much more fascinating than fiction. By taking a story line from real life, a writer is more assured of its credibility to a reader as long as it’s integrated seamlessly into the bigger picture.
However, while taking news stories and embracing them for story lines may make for credible story lines, if the novelist doesn’t actually live the news story, then the story line risks becoming more distant and less intimate.
Story lines involving life experiences with uncommon and unexpected twists of fate tend to offer the most light and heat to the plot of a novel. Hence, Hemingway was so devoted to leading an extraordinary life that his everyday experiences in Paris, Key West, Cuba, Africa and Spain informed his Nobel Prize winning novels.
A successful novel often carries with it near the conclusion a sentiment by the reader that s/he wishes it would never end. The best novels seem to evoke this sentiment in their readers and the novelist earns points for having woven the tapestry of the plot skillfully.
On Stylistic Invention
If the plot is often the most over-rated criterion of a novel’s worth, then stylistic invention is the most under-rated and sublime criterion.
Most modern novels are straight-ahead narratives with traditional sentence structure by diligently trotting out subjects followed by predicates.
The true test of the real genius of a novelist is often reflected in the innovation evident within an author’s narrative style.
Serious writers introduce stylistic invention to the English language and are so gifted in their writing that they contribute new writing styles. Our language grows vibrantly as a body of work whenever the new dynamics of such stylistic invention invigorate it.
Tolstoy uses a straight-ahead traditional style with epic sweeps.
The style of Proust, for example, embraces syntax with long, flowing, lyrically beautiful sentences that build a rhythm.
The narrative styles of both Tolstoy and Proust invite and reward brisk readings.
Hemingway was all business with short, direct sentences in his search to write the truth to which he awakened in his life in the moment that he sensed it.
JP Donleavy invented a pointillist syntax, which focuses upon the pixels of the imagery. The style of Donleavy is so deliciously rich, densely inventive and compact with its truncated syntax, that he beckons to be read more slowly. He is a 30-year, single-malt Scotch meant to be sipped “neat” and savored.
Joyce and Faulkner wrote with stream of consciousness to enable their readers to climb inside the minds of their characters and see the world through their eyes with raw images at the threshold of their awakening.
Some writers abandon grammar altogether. William Gaddis wrote JR in dialogue only without identifying his speakers to compel his readers to become so familiar with the speaker’s voice as to identify the speaker by voice alone. I have dubbed this narrative technique as “stream of voice.”
In the best novels every character speaks with a highly distinctive voice – so much so that it should be easy to identify who is speaking solely by the tone and style of each character’s narrative voice.
Is the writer agile in the seamlessly integrated construction of the novel?
Do the words flow with lyrical beauty or strength of voice or pure power in the writer’s command of the language?
Do you revel in the writing and sense that the sentences are well phrased, witty and even brilliantly expressed?
Does the dialogue sound to your ear as authentic to the extent that, if read aloud, the dialogue sounds credible and real?
If the novel is a straight-ahead narrative with a traditional sentence structure, is it soundly constructed?
The writing of gifted novelists can stand on its own without the professional midwives of contributing writers and editors. In the case of writers who have formed corporations in which several writers contribute to their brand and editors take over the final draft, to whom would you lavish credit for the novel – the corporation?
It may seem absurd but many best-sellers are manufactured with this process like boxes of soap and cans of soup for mass consumption. My best advice is not to waste your time with such novels but rather to find a masterpiece by a serious writer whose intellect, wit, perception and sense of humor will stay with you a lifetime.
Point of View
Great novelists often experiment to good effect with point of view (POV).
Huckleberry Finn is a good example in which the narrative point of view comes substantively from a young boy living on the Mississippi River.
In Gunter Grass’s The Tin Drum the narrative point of view is expressed by a mentally challenged boy ensnared in dramatic circumstances during the siege of a German post office.
The Sound and the Fury is narrated in many places by the stream of consciousness of an idiot.
The primary question about POV is: does the narrative voice of the novel intrigue you?
Each novelist has an opportunity to bring readers into the microcosm of a virtually endless number of points of view in the narrative voices chosen to relate the story.
Great novels often engage readers with an unexpected point of view, which enriches the book.
The primary question relative to character development is simply whether the characters have been more skillfully drawn as round figures or appear to you as flat figures or stereo-types.
Round characters are skillfully drawn and assume real lives of their own. They are uniquely drawn individuals with idiosyncrasies of speech, dress, body, beliefs, social situation, age, gender, wealth and action.
Flat characters are human archetypes or stereotypes who act predictably and are most often drawn by lazy, inexperienced or uninspired novelists.
If the writer is a woman, can she draw male characters credibly? And if the novelist if a man, how distinctive are the women that he portrays?
I am always intrigued to read women novelists who embrace the challenge of writing a novel in which the protagonist is a male. The men characters of Annie Proulx, for example, in The Shipping News are highly credible. This realistic rendering of one gender of writer for a character of the opposite gender, especially a protagonist, requires consummate writing skill.
Jeffrey Eugenides in his Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Middlesex, creates a protagonist who is a hermaphrodite in which the reader senses both masculine and feminine traits and behaviors blended with compelling portrait work within a single character.
The women of Hemingway earned him a fair amount of critical heat for personifying stereotypically male perspectives of them.
Within a novel you may want to perceive how unique each character is. If they seem similar to each other, especially those minor figures who may be hastily drawn, then the novelist has missed an opportunity to add humanity to characterization. I would emphasize that in every character --whether the role is large or small -- an opportunity exists for skillful portrait work to breathe life into their souls.
The characters of Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County in Mississippi are truly unique. Ditto for Elizabeth Strout in her Olive Kitteridge as she created a small Maine village with her one-of-a-kind characters: Olive meets a new set of townspeople in nearly every chapter and they all have different crosses to bear in their lives.
Balzac possessed true genius for character development in his novels where the characters of one novel invariably intersect with the characters portrayed as protagonists of his other novels. Balzac strived with his ambitious character development to populate as a microcosm of humanity his own Divine Comedy.
One measure of a great novelist is that the novels are character-driven and that as a reader you become engaged to the extent that you care emotionally what happens to the characters.
Whether you love a protagonist or hate an antagonist, if you genuinely give a damn about the oncoming fate of a character, then the character has been credibly and creatively drawn by the novelist.
How well does the speech of the dialogue play in the novel to the extent that it could be read as a stage play or movie script?
When a character speaks, is s/he credible in her speech?
If the narrator were a child, for example, would her narrative aptly reflect the immature, idiosyncratic speech of a child?
Does each character speak with a unique narrative voice?
If the characters all sound the same – the same syntax, level of sophistication, vocabulary and dialect -- then the novelist hasn’t done enough work in drawing the characters.
For example, while a group of Harvard professors at dinner may share a sophisticated dialogue, a male Harvard Professor of English, may not sound or read with a similar speech to a Southern beauty queen, butcher, Army General or Texas bull rider.
In many lesser novels, without knowing who is tagged as the speaker, one character’s speech could be spoken by any of them. Again, similarity of voice is usually an indicator of an immature or socially isolated novelist.
In the brilliant, National Book Award-winning novel, JR, by William Gaddis each speaker is unidentified. At first glance the novel appears impossible to read until by the individual speech patterns one can identify by the nuances of the voices exactly who is speaking. Gaddis compels his readers to read the dialogue closely to understand the story line. And within a few pages the nuances of the dialect signal clearly the speaker.
Faulkner had a brilliantly distinctive ear for dialogue. So did Hemingway. Ditto for Thomas Pynchon and JP Donleavy. To my ear, the characters of Henry James often sound similar to one another but he wrote primarily about life in high society. It’s a flaw in a novel if the author’s voice, or the protagonist’s voice as a proxy for the author, sounds the same as every other character within the novel.
Setting a Sense of Place and Time
Novelists always have an opportunity to add richness to their work by creating a nuanced sense of place and time to their work.
Tolstoy in War and Peace for example captures with equal grace the grand ballrooms of St. Petersburg and the battlefields of Russia during the invasion and defeat of Napoleon.
Marcel Proust in his epic masterpiece, La Recherche Du Temps Perdu, captures elegantly both the salons of Paris and the beaches of the French Coast.
In his hilarious novel, The Sotweed Factor, John Barth brilliantly depicts the life of colonial Chesapeake Bay.
The novel need not be a period piece in order to convey a rich sense of time and history to add value.
The Russian novelist, Lermontov, is particularly adept in conveying a sense of place and time in his novel, The Hero of Our Time, about military life in the Caucasus Mountains between the Black and Caspian Seas.
One mark of a great novelist is whether the novel strikes you as authentic: is it real?
A novel is both art and artifice: the most gifted writers take readers upon an incredible journey and the audience is delighted or at least willing to tag along for the ride.
The least gifted novelists ask their readers to swallow too much artifice and their audience may resent it.
As a brief digression, I have always felt privileged that the readers of my novels have agreed to spend precious time with my books. They welcome me into their homes and read me before going to sleep at night and on long journeys or difficult commutes. They recommend my books to friends and family whom they love and whose intellect they value.
Out of respect for my readers, I feel deeply that I owe them an authentic reading experience – one which is immersive. I want to add heat to the novel without becoming vulgar and light without becoming abstract. I give my readers very high marks for their intelligence and give them credit for choosing my work, which may challenge them as it resides outside the mainstream.
I have little patience in reading other novelists who have no qualms about brutalizing their readers with meaningless violence and laughably contrived, story scenarios.
Inexplicably, many novelists feel compelled to burden readers with brutal and abhorrent plot points in order to sell to the reader that the fictional contrivance is real. While I fully understand that tragic circumstances become crucibles for characters and may bond characters to readers, some of the worst vacuums of verisimilitude emerge from novelists who try too hard to project reality in their fiction.
I find this problem so distracting, irritating and even so downright laughable that I find it impossible to read most novels from true crime, horror, romance and murder-mystery sub-genres of the novel. I would rather jam my finger into a light socket than read the novels of some best-sellers: I find their contrived melodrama on the whole to be high comedy and can always use a good laugh.
When I read In Cold Blood by Truman Capote, I wanted less to kill the murderers than the novelist.
Most best-sellers in these genres are riddled with contrivance and the absence of verisimilitude diminishes them in my estimation of their worth.
Many best-sellers ask far too much of serious, discerning readers and feed them pap unworthy of their audience.
Few best-sellers will be remembered after they are dead and those few will be dismissed as intellectual lightweights or commercial hacks.
A judgment as to what is real or not is a highly subjective call. Even if an aspect of a novel may seem outrageously contrived, like Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, readers will forgive it and offer the writer the willing suspension of disbelief if the writing, overall, is sufficiently worthy or thrilling or meant as parables like novels by Orwell.
When this criterion is applied to the crafting of dialogue, I would also mention that lesser novelists are contrived in their construction of dialect.
While it’s true that people speak with nuance and a novelist does well to capture its natural expression, some dialogue loses it verisimilitude when the writer simply tries too hard to make it real.
Long strings of dialogue, for example, embellished in street language may add nothing of value except the novelist’s desire to sound real.
Many novelists of this era delight in lacing their dialogue with profanity, which sheds no light of any value upon a novel. It certainly doesn’t advance the credibility of the writer to subject readers to the prolonged use of profanity: please spare the trees their lives for the contrivance of prolific profanity as a device to lend street credibility unless dealing with the dregs of society in which case it may be totally appropriate. My point is that for all its prolific expression in the novels of the era, profanity rarely, if ever, adds an iota of literary value. When I read a novel injudiciously abundant in expletives, it is usually the telling mark of a work produced by a lesser novelist.
In summary, one of the ultimate criteria of the quality of a work of fiction is that it affords easily credible and unforced verisimilitude.
Depth of Scope – Macro or Micro
One of the most subjective calls is whether a writer is going too deeply or not deep enough in communicating the business of the novels.
Minimalists in the novel like Hemingway or in drama like Beckett purposely create spare treatments. The assumption here is that brevity breeds power, clarity and focus, all of which are virtues in creative writing.
Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea is a brilliant novel in the short form just as Beckett’s Waiting for Godot optimizes the minimalist approach onstage.
Maximalists who write meta-fiction like William H. Gass, William Gaddis, Alexander Theroux, Proust, James Joyce and Tolstoy succeed in part because they possess the intellectual horse-power to bring their readers along convincingly in epic journeys.
It’s possible to respect both creative approaches and recognize their suitability in different creative scenarios.
As a reader you may prefer longer works to shorter ones as I do. For me, for example, short stories don’t offer sufficient depth to enable me to get to know their characters or writers well enough. I rarely read short stories for this reason.
Conversely, a writer as brilliant as Proust offers 4,300 pages of pure genius in La Recherche du Temps Perdu and the same holds true for Tolstoy in War and Peace and Joyce in Ulysses.
I am more apt to read and value serious writers who can sustain a high level of writing in a long novel rather than in a short one. The drive to create longer works represents a substantially larger commitment by the novelist and publisher to the writing. Only truly gifted writers can fully engage readers over longer works: Bellow, Balzac, Thomas Mann, Rousseau, Pynchon, Durrell and Henry Miller all succeed here.
You can make a subjective judgment as to whether you think that a novelist is going too deep or not deep enough for your taste given the scope of the work in a macro- or micro-view.
Immersion: Does the Novel Transport You?
Publishers and agents often seek novelists who can provide their readers with an immersive reading experience. The aim of an immersive reading experience is to bring you into the writing and fully engage you.
Great novelists enliven all of your senses: you can see, hear, feel, smell and taste the writing. The pages fly by and you don’t want the novel to end.
You love or hate the characters and you care about what happens to them. You are apprehensive when adversity or extreme risk or full blown tragedy emerge. You laugh your head off or write down the most witty quotes, determined to remember them for quoting at another time.
When a reader experiences a truly immersive reading experience with a novel, the odds are high the reader will seek another book by the same author. If you have trouble getting past the first 50 pages, then you may be likely to put down the book and never revisit the same author.
Novelists often find that the two pages that they have the greatest difficulty composing and re-write most often are the first and last pages.
Just prior to publication the page most likely to written or re-written is page one: I always write page one last. Why? Novelists want to engage their readers in an immersive reading experience as soon as possible and then sustain it.
It is a common practice of best-sellers to introduce a momentous tragedy on page one hoping that readers will become engaged in the action and bond with the protagonist immediately. This narrative device appears prolifically and predictably among novels on any best-seller list.
It’s page one that sells a book -- more so than any other page. It’s page one which enables you to determine whether you want to commit the time to the read the rest of the novel.
If a novel transports you, odds are that you will treasure the reading.
Great novels impact readers not only at an intellectual level but also invoke emotional responses.
I once read of an agent who said that she would only take on new clients who caused her to weep or to laugh out loud during a reading of the manuscript.
In tragedies look for genuine despair descending unjustly upon the characters about whom you care most through horrific acts of God and man. Villains create the injustice while heroes endure, overturn and ultimately overcome injustice among best-sellers. Such is life as we wish it were and gives novels a satisfying conclusion or denouement.
I shall confess a bias toward satisfying denouements in novels as one can almost always take away something positive even from the grimmest of circumstances – tragedy can be a great teacher and unifier of humanity. The only literary quality, which unifies humans better than tragedy, is comedy.
Thomas Hardy repeatedly created tragedy in his bleak novels by creating an inevitable string of events ending in death or defeat. I often found that Hardy’s tragedy seemed contrived – snakebite on the heath.
In Disgrace by Booker Award Winner, J.M. Coetzee, a hopelessly contrived despair is pointlessly manufactured by this novelist and descends like a plague with a litany of vivid and brutal images to burden the reader. I have no idea as to the meaning intended by Coetzee of such abundantly ugly disgrace.
Similarly, the novels of Philip Roth often aspire to project the tragedy of everyday life vividly. However, I find that I care neither for nor about Roth’s so often faithless, whining, narcissistic characters and, hence, remain unmoved by their demise. Ditto for Cormac McCarthy who seeks such a bleak world view in End of the Road and No Country for Old Men that the despair seems so contrived and unrealistically dim, futile and pointless that I eschew his books.
Hemingway in a Farewell to Arms creates a true sense of tragedy at the close of the book in the death in childbirth of Katherine after their bold escape from fascist Italy to life in Switzerland. Hemingway has a gift for conveying true tragedy.
The critical take on Henry James is that, while he wrote with a brilliant and lyrical literary style, his novels create far more light than heat. I have never been moved by a novel by Henry James although I greatly admire the strength of his writing style.
The novels of Paul Auster focus on creating a gritty, urban reality and he works hard to build emotions in his readers with too much heat and insufficient light for me. Auster and many New York native sons liberally pour urban grit into a large spoon as the tonic for depicting reality. Their literary assumption is that, if the scenario looks sufficiently grim, gritty or even brutal, then it must be real. However, you can’t put that little literary pastiche over on me: only a writer who lacks sufficient confidence in his literary gifts must contrive an ugly, gritty quasi-realism to his writing, which grit betrays its shallow contrivance.
Jay McInerney balances beautifully in his contemporary novels like Brightness Falls a full measure of intellect and emotion primarily because one cares what happens to the protagonist. When the protagonist fails, I experience his sense of failure and I admire his intellect. McInerney also succeeds in his work because one senses that much of the story line is autobiographical, which may add a sense of reality at the expense of originality.
In Mason & Dixon Thomas Pynchon achieves the same balance emotively – I deeply admire the two main heroes, and laughed and despaired when they did. They are full, round characters who experience a full range of the human joys and hardships of life in their collaboration to survey the landscape during a richly portrayed place and time around the American Revolution.
JP Donleavy in every novel makes me laugh my head off. His protagonists are all bright but bewildered young men overcome with the tragicomic absurdity of life. His wit is genuine, luminous, original and pithy beyond belief.
Ultimately, the question arises as to whether the novel inspires you.
Does the novel move you to empathy about an injustice?
Does it in the end uplift you?
Does the novel give you a new sense of meaning and understanding?
Does it help renew your sense of optimism?
Does the novel fill your standards for an immersive reading experience in which you feel transported by the writing?
I really just don’t see the point of novels which bring a profound sense of pointless despair as a burden down upon readers. Life can be taxing enough as it is: everyone already knows this well enough from everyday experience.
The bigger question is: what of value can one learn from it?
If a novelist intends to come at my invitation into my home and is bent upon heaping hopeless mountains of despair upon me, then s/he is destined for the trash can unless there is some shred of redemption. I do not consider total, endless, pointless, utter hopelessness to show a discerning aptness for verisimilitude in a novel although it’s obvious that hopelessness appears liberally in literature and life.
This may sound impossibly sentimental and is clearly subjective, I confess, but I don’t invite novelists into my home by virtue of the proxy of their literary art to inspire me to suicide.
Is It Inventive?
Great novels burst with invention in story lines, points of view, narrative voice and syntax.
The best novels seem to show their writers’ creative powers by transforming the genre in which they write.
The finest novelists leave the genre better than they found it.
Certainly, this subjective premise seems to hold true for Joyce, Faulkner, Hemingway, Gaddis, JP Donleavy, Pynchon, Bellow et al.
Most novels which make best-seller lists do so because of their inventive story lines. Building a credible plot is perhaps the easiest aspect of the novel to devise.
If you consider the paradigm of Nietzsche in The Birth of Tragedy and were to write an Apollo opposite every Dionysius in the story, then a character-driven story line seems to emerge quite simply enough.
Pairing opposites also succeeds in creating comedy.
I tend to write triangles for dramatic effect in my novels with a sympathetic character torn between the opposite Apollonian and Dionysian figures. It is this opposition or contest among characters which dynamically and organically drives the story lines for both comedy and tragedy. Consequently, critics do well to scrutinize these dynamics as they critically assess a novel.
The degree of difficulty to create inventive plots pales compared to finding new syntax, points of view and narrative voices.
I encourage intrepid, young novelists to venture outside the traditional sentence structure of subject and predicate: it has been done. As a journalist, one may find oneself more restrictively bound by the expression of a literary style in business but as a novelist why not invent new literary styles and make an honest, original contribution to literary culture?
As for narrative voice, I once wrote a novel with an unreliable narrator suffering from narcolepsy and lucid nightmares so that he couldn’t always discern reality when it mattered most. I wanted readers to experience the debilitation of the protagonist first-hand in the first-person singular. The narrative became a shared journey of concurrent revelation to the narrator and the reader.
Consider Faulkner’s genius in the character of Benjy in The Sound and the Fury. Original points of view enable readers to get inside the minds of the characters and when novels become character-driven, this quality enables a more immersive reading experience.
As for point of view, Balzac is a master. Not only do his eponymous characters reappear among his novels but we discern that attitudes about them change from book to book depending upon each character’s point of view. For Balzac character is destiny and life is nothing more than the sum of the points of views of each member of the human race in a “divine comedy.”
Subject Matter Expertise: Does It Enlighten?
War and Peace is a masterpiece not only because Tolstoy was a genius but he was in Russia when Napoleon invaded on the way to Moscow. In fact, Napoleon’s soldiers traveled upon a route which brought them near Tolstoy’s estate.
Tolstoy lived War and Peace, which served as the basis for his expertise. His novel enlightens diligent readers with its epic scope as he writes about subjects that really matter based upon intensely lived and articulated personal experience as well as vivid imagination. He was a brilliant writer highly engaged and focused upon a pivotal, epic flashpoint in human history.
Novels of genius often are bred from the actual experience of novelists who suffered from major catastrophes or benefited from acts of God’s grace which overwhelm the writer.
Vassily Grossman in War and Fate achieves a similar brilliance to Tolstoy’s in an epic novel about World War II and the siege of Stalingrad. Grossman was a brilliant war correspondent reporting on this historic battle between the great armies of Russia and Germany.
Hemingway in For Whom the Bell Tolls was a war correspondent in Franco’s Spain and an ambulance driver in Mussolini’s Italy, which informs his Farewell to Arms.
The simple, germinal experience of everyday life, on the other hand, may suffice in its power to overwhelm sensitive minds to drive great novels.
Proust lived everyday in the uncommon salons of Parisian high society about which he wrote so expertly than he won the prestigious Prix de Goncourt, which launched his literary career.
Thomas Pynchon, the brilliant author of Gravity’s Rainbow and V, served in the US Navy from which experience many of his characters and story lines emerge.
Joseph Heller in Catch 22 writes hilariously about the tragic-comic absurdity of world war based upon his military experience.
Thomas Wolfe wrote compelling novels which were virtually autobiographies of his early life in New York City and the mountains of North Carolina.
The point is that beatific novels tend to have depth when the scope is more focused upon real human experience. These novelists write about what they know best. They enlighten their readers and shed new light on subjects that matter.
Much attention has been paid to capturing quotidian life: such writers seem content to make their stories appear authentic. While verisimilitude is a wonderful attribute in a novel, I really do not see it as the sole reason for being for a novel.
For example, many people adore Jonathan Franzen’s Corrections – Oprah Winfrey loved it. Initially, Franzen attempted to distance himself from her endorsement. But when he discovered how many books he was selling because of her, he made peace. Many trees gave up their lives in this tale of a dysfunctional family, undoubtedly his, in a novel so highly praised by critics and awarded a Pulitzer for Fiction.
In a piece Franzen wrote in the New Yorker, he argues that writers tend to be one of two varieties:
1) a contract writer with a pact between reader and writer to connect at every opportunity or
2) a bellwether writer who strives to take readers to the highest and deepest points along for the journey.
Franzen, like most best-sellers, claimed that he was a contract writer. This award-winning, critically acclaimed novelist managed to find a mystical balance between serious writing and engaging a wide readership.
David Foster Wallace, a brilliant young author, who tragically took his own life, reveled in taking his readers wherever he ventured to go on daunting narrative journeys. Thomas Pynchon similarly challenges his readers with his narrative daring.
Popular writers tend to be contract writers. Immortal writers tend to be bellwethers. Subjectively, you may decide which you prefer.
For the pure genius in the writing, if you were to put a gun to my head and ask me if I prefer Franzen or Pynchon, the answer seems obvious. While I envy Franzen’s royalties, I’ll take Pynchon any day of the week.
Given a choice, why choose a popular novel – a best-seller – over an immortal one?
Why read Stephen King, John Grisham or Nora Roberts? Instead, why not read Kurt Vonnegut, John Barth or Saul Bellow?
This enigma in the literary tastes of American readers distracts and disturbs me to no end: I just don’t get it.
When I was growing up, my father read popular novels endlessly. He would often consume several large popular novels per week. He spent most of his adult life reading novels of no literary consequence. Decades after his death I still don’t understand why such an intelligent man, who read so prolifically, wasted so many hours of his precious life reading novels utterly without any redeeming value.
Why read a best-seller when you can read a big book?
Some readers may find big books dull and want just to be entertained during a tiresome or taxing commute into a big city or to help them settle into sleep. But after years of reading little books, what do they have to show for it?
Why not commit exclusively to read the best novels ever written by the commanding literary geniuses of all humanity? Why would anyone ever settle for anything less?
Choose to be inspired by novels which have passed the test of time and those destined to become immortal.
How will you recognize a big book when you see one?
Subjectively, I have posted A Novelist’s Top 100 Novels of Genius in a separate blog. If you were a young or middle-aged person when you embarked upon this reading list and devoured them all before you retired, you would have peered into 100 of the greatest minds of literary genius in all of humanity.
Literature with good reason is considered a humanity: it possesses the power to bond us together as human beings and help us understand the human condition.
Subjectively, I prefer to read meta-fiction – the bigger the book, the better. As I have said, better novelists take more time and demand more of themselves as writers to create a big book than a little book: it’s certainly exponentially harder to publish a 450 page novel than a 225 page novel.
Many novelists are lazy and content to crank out 2-3 petty, emotionally charged novels of 250 pages per year.
Best-sellers like Nora Roberts write only three drafts of their novel manuscripts and leave the rest of the work to other writers and editors to finish.
Novels are less often finished than merely abandoned. When I can absolutely and viscerally no longer bear to re-read one of my novel manuscripts, either I put it in a desk drawer to season or publish it. I edited my last novel with 50 iterations.
The seven years that James Joyce spent publishing Ulysses is clearly evident in the brilliance of the writing – the man applied his genius like Turk.
I give credit to writers who must overcome adversity and hardship to publish their novels. Balzac established his own printing press to publish his novels. He wrote from midnight to six in the morning when it was more quiet in Paris. He slept only a few hours and then worked in his printing press during the daytime. In the evening he had supper, took a nap and at midnight continued to write.
One morning, he was walking to his small press when a man advanced toward him pushing a vast bin overflowing with books. Balzac regaled the man and wondered whose books the man collected in such a great number. Reaching into the bin, he pulled out a book and found it was one of his own novel titles. This finding delighted Balzac, at first, until he realized that every book in the great bin was one of his titles: his printing press was being seized by his creditors. Balzac paid his dues and earned his immortality.
Literary immortality can be won only by massive sacrifice.
Serious literary novelists pay for their immortality with serious repercussions to their economic well being, personal health, family and social life for decades of life spent like monks in solitude hunched in small cells. How are the vast majority of literary novelists rewarded for this sacrifice?
Abject poverty, total obscurity and premature death are commonly paid as the price of becoming a serious American literary novelist.
Even when one is considered a “great success” as a published literary novelist, the value of such lyrical success can be dubious.
What comfort did the lyrical success of David Foster Wallace bring him? An early grave. Hemingway? Blew out his brains. Oscar Wilde? Prison. Dostoyevsky? Debtor’s prison. Henry Miller? Dire homelessness. Hart Crane? Suicide by jumping ship. Sylvia Plath? Head in the gas oven.
Genius is also a liability as being is barbaric to serious novelists.
Take the example of the Butterfly and the Diving Bell by Jean-Dominique Bauby who had a stroke. His first doctor, upon examining his new patient’s condition, noticed that only Bauby’s eyes were functional. The doctor then said, “I don’t like the look of that eye” and proceeded to sew the bad eye shut.
Bauby managed to create a new code by blinking his only functional eye to dictate his book word by word to a nurse who served to take dictation and translate. Bauby was a man who suffered for his art.
Consider the plight of Alexander Solzhenitsyn sent off to Siberia for writing deemed politically critical by a repressive Soviet regime. His One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch was born of his suffering and one can read the agony in nearly every sentence.
Does the Novel Improve the English Language?
This question is a relatively simple subjective call to make – yes or no?
Great books add depth to the English language, which culture in America can be valued as the collected work of its literature.
Consider the value to the English language of the American Nobel Prize winners?
Does the Novel Transform You?
The best novels change human perspective.
In judging a novel’s quality ask yourself if you are intellectually different after you have read the book. If not, then the book had no significant impact upon your life. A book which has no impact in your life is not worth the time spent to read it.
With the few years that I have left roaming this elegant earth, I refuse to squander time reading lesser novels when so many masterpieces still await and beckon.
Audience reach is a criterion but certainly isn’t the only one.
So many genius novels are discovered after the deaths of novelists that this measure by itself is an unreliable indicator of pure literary quality. A whole generation of genius Soviet literary novelists languished unread under the censorship of blind, political brutes.
In America, literary commercialism has had the same net affect to repress real literary genius and financially reward beyond all reason the most expert hacks.
Nevertheless, once discovered, genius literary novels defy all odds and mange to see the light of day.
Miraculously, they persist in their readership over the years as genius novels are bought by the academic community and are studied in English classes in high schools, colleges and universities worldwide.
In America only the poet has more stamina than the literary novelist.
Literary Awards Are a Measure of Excellence.
Did the novel win awards for quality of writing?
Nobel Prize – as the greatest pure literary competition in the world, this annual prize considers the entire body of work of one poet and a fiction writer worldwide.
Pulitzer Prize – it's awarded only to American writers by a panel of highly discerning judges at Columbia University in New York who welcome all entries by US citizen writers and publishers.
Mann-Booker Awards – British empire territories’ literary works are judged here with steep financial arrangements with finalists which preclude many smaller presses and indie writers from entering.
The Critics Circle Awards – they are awarded by a small group of book critics who are influenced in what they select to review predominantly by sales figures and each other.
National Book Award – these awards identified with uncommon discernment and twice recognized the pure genius of William Gaddis and later earned the scorn of serious writers nationwide as it chose to honor the best-selling tripe of Stephen King.
Assessing the Total Literary Experience
Here is more fodder for your consideration in judging a novel.
Can you imagine that the novel will be read avidly by the next generations? In others words does the book have legs?
Lesser books tend to be dated: they cannot withstand the test of time and after only a few years they may seem painfully dated. It’s perfectly fine if a book has a strong sense of time and place, of course, but does the novel have the candlepower to illuminate outside the year or two in which it was published?
Perhaps, this final consideration is one of the most telling: do you admire a novel so much that you wish you had written it? If so, then you may be inclined to be generous in your rating of it.
Now you’re eager to post an informed and well considered review and rating on a bookseller’s web site.
Assume that you are serving as a distinguished judge of a literary panel on the Pulitzer Prize Committee. So now that you have considered these criteria in your surging, how will you formulate a rating of the novel as a total literary experience.
Your review still may seem highly subjective, which may concern you, as you definitely intend to critique with a sense of fair play.
The next chapter offers an objective methodology for rating a novel with the understanding that it is the nature of the beast of literary criticism to be subjective.
Fortunately, there’s no need to rant and rave one way or the other for or against a novel.
The critical rating process may benefit from a simple formula to help you fairly analyze your surging counter-subjectivity and diligently sort out your criteria.
The approach is to rate the novel by 25 Critical Performance Indicators or CPIs – and they are simply the 25 criteria that I have offered for your consideration.
Then there is a simple mathematical formula to help you assign your rating of one to five stars.
Rating a Novel with CPIs
One approach to rating a novel is to apply 25 Critical Performance Indicators against the novel through "surging counter-subjectivity" (defined in my other blog posts) and assign each CPI with a score of 1-5 with a 5 as the highest rating.
Then add up the scores of the 25 CPIs and divide by 25. The net result offers a 1-5 star rating, which can be applied to the novel.
Key Performance Indicator (CPI)
Rate each CPI from 1-5 with 5 as highest rating.
1. On Stylistic Invention __
2. Craftsmanship __
3. Point of View: Does the Narrative Voice Intrigue? __
4. Characters: Round or Flat? __
5. Do You Care What Happens to the Characters? __
6. Do You Love or Hate the Protagonist? __
7. Credible Dialogue __
8. Settings: Sense of Place __
9. Verisimilitude: Is It Real? __
10. Depth of Scope – Macro or Micro __
11. Immersion: Does the Novel Transport You? __
12. Emotive Range: Comic Wit and/or Tragic Depth __
13. Does the Novel Inspire You? __
14. Originality: Is It Inventive? __
15. Subject Matter Expertise: Does It Enlighten? __
16. Literary Contribution: How Big a Book Is It? __
17. Did the Writer Work Hard Enough? __
18. Major Obstacles the Writer Overcame __
19. Does the Novel Improve the English Language? __
20. Does the Book Transform You? __
21. Audience Reach__
22. Literary Awards a Nice Plus __
23. Assess the Total Literary Experience __
24. Will the Novel Be Read by the Next Generations? __
25. Do You Wish You Had Written This Book? __
TOTAL CPI RATING POINTS: ___ /25= __.
__ Stars Rating (1-5)