Saturday, November 28, 2009

The difference between a good book and a great book

Me working at a bookstore is a bit like a bartender who's alcoholic. Oh sure, customers benefit from our addictions making us something like experts, but it's not exactly healthy for us to be constantly surrounded by the things we crave most.

I have to stop buying books, because I'm not reading the ones I've bought. I get terribly excited about a book, purchase it, and then never actually get around to opening the cover. Fiscal responsibility, I has none. They should put me in charge of a major American bank.

There are things I "need" to read for Teen Book Club (although I had read all but two of our choices.) There are also other books I'm curious about, but not willing to let sit on a shelf for a year. So I take advantage of the employee borrowing option. If I have to read the book by a certain date, then I do.

This is how I came to take out both Beautiful Creatures and Hunger Games. Reading them one after the other enlightened me as to what makes the difference between a good book and a great book for me.

These are both good books. Potentially they could both be great books. Both are written in first person. Both are the first book of a set. Both are fantasy. To an extent, they're both distopian fantasies as neither world is the ideal world for the characters who inhabit it. (Sorry, in order for Hunger Games to be science fiction, there would have to be SCIENCE in it to explain the technology.)

Beautiful Creatures is set in contemporary South Carolina, a gorgeously magical novel about a boy who loves a girl from the "wrong" family. It has a rich setting. The town and the houses are as much characters as the people who dwell there. It is a story based on history, tracing the effects of the past on the present. It is just familiar enough to orient you, and different enough to keep you from being bored.

And, if you sit back and analyze what happens, it should be a very uninteresting novel. Going to the library or attending the Winter Formal is a big deal in Beautiful Creatures. Yet it is fascinating. It is a novel you cannot put down or walk away from. As my manager put it, it is one of those books where you spend your time while you aren't reading it wondering about the characters in it.

Hunger Games is—at its simplest—a survivalist narrative. An example of the ugliness of humanity played out through a general detachment from any sense of morality or compassion. It is a poignant comment on our society's obsession with "reality television" and the frightening way we have become desensitized to violence.

But the world is secondary, never really given an opportunity to become a fully realized member of the cast. Primarily because the Games take place in a human-controlled environment where the protagonist versus nature is just there for plot purposes.

That's the difference. That's what keeps Hunger Games from being a great book. It relies largely on the tension created by placing its main protagonist in mortal peril. Feel suspense in whether or not she lives. Feel sympathy for the horrid situation she's in. Like her because of how she manages to deal with it.

I read Hunger Games fully aware of whether or not the character lives, as will most of us who read it with the knowledge that there's a second novel. You know the answer, so there's no tension to the non-romance parts of the book. The major, driving conflict of the novel loses its bite. Maybe a couple twists happen, but I'm not on the edge of my seat needing to keep reading.

Hunger Games is a good book—based on its thematic content and social commentary. But it's not a great book, because it hinges on a single unknown to compel you to read it. It wants you to identify with a character through shared horror for the circumstances that she's been placed in rather than because you genuinely care about her. You don't really know enough about her to really care for her other than some "she's a good person, she had this terribly sad thing happen in her life" basics that come standard with the majority of protagonists. Furthermore, her very circumstances work against the novel, because they're completely fantastical and alien to most of the people I know.

This is not to say it's impossible to relate to Katniss. It's just really difficult to like her. I don't have time to read novels about characters I don't like.

Whereas Beautiful Creatures is a great book, because it isn't dependent on a single conflict to keep you interested. It employs both likable characters and a rich well-developed setting that can you could reach out and touch.

It is a perfect novel? No, I have issues with technical aspects of it. But they don't get in the way of me being able to enjoy the novel. There's enough going on in the narrative to keep me from being disinterested to the point where I'm conscious of its execution.

Beautiful Creatures is by far one of the loveliest books I've read this year, but Hunger Games left me feeling like I'd gone to a 5 star restaurant to be served a 3 star meal.


Leigh said...

I keep hearing about Beautiful Creatures and am curious to read it. While I liked and enjoyed Hunger Games, I wasn't blown away like others were, perhaps because I had seen a lot of it before in other novels so it wasn't so horrifying to me. But it definitely made me want to read the sequel.

Interesting points about good v. great. There is also an intangible, nonquantifiable aspect to the distinction, one that is hard to describe adequately and one that is hard to reproduce by others. Something original, something sparkling in the story and writing. That's what I hope to achieve someday.

Chandra Rooney said...

There is something intangible, but I no longer believe it's a single thing like the writing or the characters or the concept. There are many factors that come together. :)

Rachel said...

I loved working in a bookstore and I loved working at the library and I LOVE working at the paper. Really, when you got the bug, there really is nothing better.