What Makes A Good Novel?

What Makes A Good Novel?

Is it the plot? The profound message? Or just the presence of the fantastical?

Jessica Ma

It's weird how tastes change with time and experience.

When I was younger, I loved to read. I loved Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, Pendragon, and all the fantastically wonderful worlds that the authors created for the imaginative mind of a kid. I was convinced that these worlds must exist out there somewhere, and one day, I would get to be a part of it. From expecting my Hogwarts acceptance letter starting at age 11 to wishing I could meet a pegasus someday, I yearned for my book world and real world to collide. Back then, a good book was any bound stack of pages that could help my mind wander and explore uncharted territories, magic, medieval sword fights, and even Greek times.

Middle school started, and I started to "outgrow" these books. It wasn't that I no longer enjoyed them. I still absolutely adored Harry Potter and enjoyed the creativity of these series, but the harsh realities of an awkward middle school era meant that something is only good if there is drama. Of course, to a middle schooler, every little thing is the biggest drama, but I yearned to read about romance in the midst of my adventure books. The best parts of any book were the moments where the two main characters would finally confess their feelings for each other in the middle of a tough battle, and I would be half incredulous that these people had the time to even think about these things in dire times like that, but also half giddy to finally get the ending I wanted. The books that had both action and romance, those were the good books.

A hero's journey, we would learn in high school, is the integral structure for a good book. From the call to action to the supernatural aid to the return home, we learned that to create a good book, there had to be certain criteria. Books now had a set "grading" system, and the worth of a book becomes uniformly graded across genres. If not the hero's journey, a good book must be able to be analyzed deeply, with long discussions and debates that follow each chapter. With this new knowledge came confusion: were the magical books with villains and goblins and romance not good books because they didn't fully fit this scale? I still enjoyed them immensely, but to society, they were neither prize deserving nor thought provoking enough. The books read in class were "good", but why was I not enjoying the majority of them?

A few years pass, and I pick up my first voluntary book in years. It is a book with little structure, about an ordinary human with an ordinary, even mediocre, life. This character does not go on grandiose adventures and save millions of people, nor do they give any reason for anyone to admire. And yet I was sucked in, reading chapter after chapter of this mediocre person's mediocre life. Parts of the novel made no sense, while other parts felt so incredibly familiar and so relatable that it almost felt like my own life. Was this a good book? The character does not change, but there was an emptiness inside me when the book ended as if I had given a part of myself to the book that I would never get back. At the same time, I grew attached to this story, to the mediocre person and their mediocre life. Weird, I had thought.

So I picked up another book. This book had no happy ending, no exciting progressions, or any monster fighting at all. It was about a poor family from rural Asia and four generations of struggle. The characters face trial after trial, and every time, they seem to lose. From money struggles to identity struggles to struggling to survive, this book depicts them all in haunting ways that leave the reader frustrated, hopeless, and even ashamed. There was no hero's journey, nor was there anything fantastical. Yet I cried when the book ended, not because it was sad (though it was very much so), but because it was over, and I could no longer partake in understanding the lives of these people I had grown so attached to.

I still love fantastical, romantic, and criteria-filling novels. I still anticipate that lost Hogwarts acceptance letter, hope to meet Annabeth one day, and smile at the thought of my favorite characters ending up married. But what we look for in a book changes overtime, and that criteria is different for everyone. Any other person's journey with their favorite books may have completely different components than mine. So how can anyone define a "good" book for anyone else?

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This article has not been reviewed by Odyssey HQ and solely reflects the ideas and opinions of the creator.

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