It All Takes Time

What makes a good novel? Can you predict a classic?

by Kate Wilson



The British summer of 2013 has been, weather-wise at least, a dazzling one for most of us and so this year I found myself particularly sorry to see the light waning and the cold dew weighing heavily on the last of the roses. Autumn is when you notice the passing of time with a sense of nostalgia and loss similar in some ways to the feeling you have when you’ve finished a good book and you wish you could go back to the beginning and read it all again. Perhaps you should, because it’s an alarming thought that if you don’t, by the next day you are likely to have forgotten 80% of its content.[1] That doesn’t bode well for the three thick tomes I have left unopened on my desk since reading them with my book group[2] over the summer.  I mention them here, because I will return to them later to see what I can remember of each of them unaided after a couple of months (no cheating and looking up). These bare semantic tags stored in my so-called ‘primitive memory’[3] encode the impressions I have retained about each book after most other detail has been lost and they will (I am hoping) contain for each book some generic features of what is generally accepted as good (or indeed less good) literature. The books are, in chronological order:


Sophie’s Choice by William Styron, Vintage Books (1979)


The Children’s Book by AS Byatt, Vintage Books (2009)


Capital by John Lanchester, Faber and Faber (2012)








John Lanchester

Books on the Broad Reading Group discussed Sophie’s Choice by William Styron in August, 2013, Capital by John Lanchester in September, and The Children’s Book by A.S. Byatt in October.

Call it reader ego, but I like to think that what I as an individual find ‘memorable’ in a book will generally align with what is thought about it collectively, because we all have similar cognitive processes and aesthetic instincts.[4] If after six months I can’t remember anything about a book I have spent several hours reading, except for maybe part of the title and a few vague

impressions, then that shouldn’t bode well for the book in the long term.[5] You might like to try a thought experiment with a book from your own reading. You will already have rated this book (i.e. you will think of it in terms of whether you like it or not), but how well can you remember it? What aspects of it can you still focus on? Are these the elements you would isolate as being those that define a good (or less good) book?  Choose a novel that has been published in the last year or so if you are going to serve as a micro-indicator of its future staying power– for isn’t this the ultimate benchmark of quality, how a contemporary work withstands  the scrutiny of thousands and the fickleness of collective memory to remain relevant into the next generation and beyond? You never know - you might be predicting a classic, but only time will tell. There aren’t really any shortcuts. A book’s ‘Dance to the Music of Time’[6] is unpredictable, which means that it can be loved in its own time and then forgotten, or forgotten and then resurrected. For these reasons, the pop-cult idol Patrick Morrissey really had some gall[7] in insisting that Penguin publish his autobiography as a classic before it has at least stood the test of his own obituary. But then no publisher will ignore a cash-cow, even if it entails trashing the time-honoured process of validation[8] through which a book traditionally has to pass if it is to have any chance of achieving the highest accolade of being dubbed a classic.


But what exactly is the definition of a classic? If it is a good book which has stood the test of time, what are the characteristics which make it good? This is an extremely vexatious question, as indeed are all questions to do with quality in Art, for there is no straightforward answer. There is, for instance, no Nobel Prize-winning statistician who can use empirically verifiable numbers, say in units of microreads[9],  to measure good and original writing against bad. This isn’t to say that maths hasn’t ever been roped in to support opinion about which books merit being read above others. A case in point is the American Great Books Program,[10] a liberal-arts cross-disciplinary university education project started in the 1920’s, whose later chief proponent was MJ Adler. The Program distinguished 102 ideas common to the works of many great thinkers, whether scientists, philosophers or writers.  On the basis of this ‘finding’, Adler helped draw up a list of Great Books[11] representative of what was considered to be the best of Western thought:


… we chose the great books on the basis of their relevance to at least 25 of the 102 great ideas. Many of the great books are relevant to a much larger number of the 102 great ideas, as many as 75 or more great ideas, a few to all 102 great ideas. In sharp contrast are the good books that are relevant to less than 10 or even as few as 4 or 5 great ideas. We placed such books in the lists of Recommended Readings.[12]

Although Adler’s list has not much credence nowadays owing to the continuing debate about the Western Literary Canon and whether such a thing even exists, lists of books are still popular, as they appear to offer an open, accessible and democratic method of pinning down literary quality. What is more, they have a spuriously scientific feel to them, being specific, measurable and apparently accountable, but as we shall see, all lists carry 

their own bias. Lists seem to prefer being counted in multiples of ten – so we should perhaps add the descriptor ‘decimal’ as well. Take, for instance, the 1999 Poll of the Best 100 Books of the Century conducted by Le Monde. 17,000 people contributed. Or the 2003 BBC Big Read which was based on the top 100 favourite titles of 750,000 contributors.  The German Times Library of 100 Books (Zeit-Bibliothek der 100 Buecher [first drawn up in 1978-80])[13] interestingly remained unchanged into its 13th edition in 2009.  The German TV channel ZDF 2004[14]  conducted their own Big Read (Das Grosse Lesen) with 250,000 people sending in their favourite book titles. Not forgetting the Observer’s 2003 List The Hundred Greatest Novels of all Time[15]Although many new lists appear every year (Guardian editors can’t resist them), far from being an objective measure of quality, each list has its own in-built subjectivity. The Le Monde list is over-represented by French authors; the BBC Big Read is weighted with populist choices where J.K. Rowling figures several times. The Observer List reads like a University English Literature Course (most editors are English Literature graduates) and so on.


So whilst we might be suspicious of newspaper book lists as universal indicators of literary quality, what then of the seemingly definitive lists which are enabled by the infinite resources of the Internet, of the type Books Most Blogged-About[16] in any given year or decade? Despite their apparently global reach, these lists are really no more universal than any other kind of list, because anything which is mentioned on the web is per se only generated by a clique of active and visible web-users (such as on-line book reviewers, literary tweeters and bloggers, wiki editors etc). Constantly recycled lists across many categories as on the Goodreads[17] site, reveal an alarming poverty of content, as well as its in-built female gender bias. So whilst lists are a perennially popular way of inferring and conferring quality, in the end all we can safely say about them, is that they divide books into those which feature on them and those that don’t.


If just counting people’s favourite titles seems a rather hit and miss indication of which books are best to read, perhaps the internet can enable a more qualitative approach, derived from data of reading strategies rather than of reader preferences. Some e-Readers[18] already have the creepy capability (thankfully still in its infancy) of monitoring you as you read your e-books (how many pages per minute? which pages do you linger over? which passages do you highlight? which books do you share? and so on).


Perhaps in the end, it’s the interactive facility of the internet which might help most with decisions about quality. Counter-intuitively, the simple Like/Don’t Like format, so often used in social

media, although an unlikely critical tool, does seem to fit into the way we think about, categorize, and remember books. Even the most thoughtful analysis of a book - as when we discuss it in a reading group or write a review of it – more often than not begins and ends with this much disparaged[19] but simple response. By the time we finish a book (and sometimes before) we have already encoded our reading of it in terms of the amount of pleasure we have got from it: which is a surprisingly emotional rather than intellectual response. What is more, once we have decided whether we like or dislike a book, our opinion of it will most probably be fixed for life. It’s all about how our brains work to encode and store information on a neurological level. Anyone who has got into a polarized discussion over a book will know the tenaciousness of the like/dislike response and will therefore rightly worry about any theory of literature based on taste alone.


If objective methods of directly defining literary quality still elude our digital capabilities, there is always the more oblique approach: we can think of how good a book is by inference, like looking for an exo-planet by the wobble of its star. Particularly if we are English-speaking, we can theoretically measure any new publication against an established canon and not only that, against all others of its type published contemporaneously or in recent decades in the English language (or in translation). As any individual reader is all too painfully aware, this would be impossible, except by using that certain shortcut, the opinion of others. Paul Ricoeur is very much to the point when he re-states the truism “we have learned to discern great works from lesser works, because, after all, the critics have already judged them.”[20] What others have thought before has established a strongly contextual literary tradition or a set of unconsciously understood parameters within which the general reader is able to think about literature– what Riceour refers to as “a sort of continued critical judgement.”[21]Over the course of a lifetime of reading, we gradually assimilate what might be thought of as a ‘Platonic’ model of the ‘good’ or ‘great’ book (although we know that such a model is not necessarily timelessly valid). Take, for example, the famous comment attributed to Samuel Johnson (1709 -84): “Your manuscript is both good and original. Unfortunately, where it is good, it is not original and where it is original, it is not good.” [22] We might grimace at the irony, but we all think that we know what is meant by ‘good’ and ‘original’. Certainly as readers, we know there is nothing more wearisome than a book without these qualities and as writers, we constantly (and often unsuccessfully) strive to achieve them[23]. But the statement, although it has told us that the book in question is of no account, has not brought us any closer to what is meant by ‘good’ or ‘original’ –except by the vaguest of references to some gilded absolute of writerly perfection.


We might be three hundred years on from Samuel Johnson, but we seem to be little closer to defining what we mean by a good book.  We can perhaps blame late twentieth century literary criticism for casting doubt over literature’s core function, the creation of meaning[24].  But even if we are not involved in theoretical controversies, we are today certainly too egalitarian to accept the

prescriptive approach of, say Aristotle, in his Poetics, who, if we were but to take notice, actually cleared the way for us a couple of millennia ago with a few simple rules about what makes for good writing (in his case, the writing of classical Greek Tragedy and Comedy). If, along the same lines, we also reject Thomas C Foster’s How to Read Literature like a Professor, (2003) as too elitist[25], or we consider that a review from the Senior Book Editor of the New York Times is no more insightful than an ‘illiterate’ Amazon blog, we might easily find ourselves agreeing with the troublesome but current populist notion that if a million readers read the same book, then it exists in a million different versions and interpretations of itself, no one more valid or ‘correct’ than the other, including that of the author.[26] Yet if all critical opinions were of equal value, then we would never be able to develop any consensus about how to differentiate the good from the less good. Both academic and popular literary criticism would be dead. But they quite clearly are not. We do decide and, as we have already seen, in the English–speaking West we have agreed enough to have developed a broad canon of ‘classical’ works stretching back for centuries. How we achieve this consensus is not quite the mystery it seems, because just as we use language, so, it might be argued, do we exercise aesthetic choice in accordance with a generic set of principles, a ‘grammar of the greats’ perhaps, by which, let’s say more knowledgeable readers subliminally rank every book they read.


So what might this ‘grammar’ of good and great[27] writing look like? What might its underlying rules be? Adler gave a great deal of thought to the subject and came up with three useful, but general, principles:


·         the book has contemporary significance; that is, it has relevance to the problems and issues of our times;

·         the book is inexhaustible; it can be read again and again with benefit; "This is an exacting criterion, an ideal that is fully attained by only a small number of the 511 works that we selected. It is approximated in varying degrees by the rest;

·          the book is relevant to a large number of the great ideas and great issues that have occupied the minds of thinking individuals for the last 25 centuries. [28]


However, Adler‘s generalities still don’t get us much nearer to understanding what it is about a book that (i) captures the imagination of the individual reader and (ii) remains fixed in the public memory.


A more dynamic approach might be to look at the interactions of reader and writer, with the focus on the reader’s point of view. This is not a new idea, but it is useful to comment on the mutual reliance of the two sides in the creation and promotion of a good or great book or even a perfect book, if such a thing is possible[29].


The complexity of the reader’s response


If readers reported their feelings immediately on finishing a good book - in my case, I am thinking of The Catcher in the Rye by J D Salinger [30]-, they might recount first how much they liked and

enjoyed it. They would probably be in an elated mood and want to talk about it. There would be things about the book that they wanted to share, because they’d felt positively challenged by it in some way –it had changed their minds about something or made them newly aware of things they’d forgotten they already knew.[31] They might enthuse about the style. I don’t want to overplay the feelings, but let’s say, along with Tony Buzan and what is known about the interplay of emotion and memory, that a good book makes its readers “exercise the dynamic relationship between (their) left and right cortex and (their) senses”[32].


This brings me to the point about the complexity of the reader response. To quote Tony Buzan again, that guru of the human memory, apart from our six senses (the last one being ‘rhythm’, according to Buzan), we have twelve ‘memory principles’ which are engaged in the act of our remembering, but which are, I think, equally mobilized and engaged when we read. These are:











Order and/or sequence

Positive Images



“You can’t be a writer unless you are a reader”

Martin Amis[34]



Readers react in a very sophisticated way to the messages contained in a piece of writing and they therefore form the basis of an important partnership with the writer. Indeed the written word could be said not to exist until it has been read. Most writers know that, if they are lucky enough, countless thousands of other creative minds will read their work. But it’s surprising how many forget that and go on to write in a vacuum as if the reader didn’t exist. So, below are two pieces of, I think, indispensable advice from the reader to the writer.



Two Rules of Good Writing


1) Don’t neglect your reader


Here is some advice from JD Salinger no less:


“What I like best is a book that’s at least funny once in a while. I read a lot of classical books, like The Return of the Native and all, and I like them, and I read a lot of war books and mysteries and all, but they don’t knock me out too much. What really knocks me out is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it.”[35]


Readers are not passive receptors, they need to be involved. If they laugh at something in a story, it shows they see things from the writer’s point of view as well as their own, even if it’s just a little secret joke about the main character they can share with the narrator. Salinger’s humour has quite a few layers to it, often combining with its opposites of fearfulness, sadness or apprehension. The main thing is, readers interact with the text at many levels, which satisfies their own innate complexity.


Readers measure characters against what they know of themselves and of others. For this reason Elizabeth and Darcy are more likely to be remembered, than who received or wrote a letter when. It goes without saying that readers can’t engage with a character they don’t care about or aren’t interested in and the main way a writer can focus and keep interest is by sticking with their central character for at least a good while and then making things happen to him or her. It’s a very risky business indeed to thwart reader expectation by killing off a sympathetic character in the first chapter or so (Graham Green in Brighton Rock is the only author I know to get away with this). Likewise, it is never wise to dissipate the reader’s attention, which is what AS Byatt achieves with terminal effect during her introduction of some seventeen characters in her novel The Children’s Book, whilst Joseph Roth in The Radetzky March spends the first thirty pages rapidly recounting from birth to death the life story of a man whom he had given every indication at first would be the hero of the novel. It is frustrating to see so much of the author’s imaginative energy given over to misleading or just plain ignoring the reader. Both Byatt and Roth, each gifted writers in their own right, must have known to avoid such technical mistakes, yet they still make them.


To be most successful, writers have to recognize that readers are their ‘creative counterparts’. One indication of the effectiveness of, for instance, a plot, is if it fits ergonomically with the psychology of the reader. A good plot will be tailored to trigger the reader’s curiosity and so will generally start off with a main character in a testing or unusual or unexplained situation, in order to mobilize the reader’s near compulsive need to know what will happen next. Further to this, most writers know that readers can be readily manipulated by the judicious use of surprise and suspense. What will urge the reader on to the end of a book above all else, is if an outcome is delayed or a piece of information is withheld which would otherwise provide insight or complete a pattern or provide a solution or resolution, which the reader is unable to supply on his or her own. If this information, whatever form it takes, is withheld too long, for instance, by the intervention of several subplots, as happens in AS Byatt’s writing, then any dramatic tension will ebb away and the reader will probably be lost forever. Surprise, a new twist or turn in the plot, so long as there are not too many, will keep the reader concentrated and engaged, and in some cases, doggedly so, regardless of the lack of any other intrinsic merit the book may have apart from deftly managed cliffhangers[36]. But surprise need not always result from a development in the plot, but may come from change in a character’s motivation or the shock of a revelation, or a new insight gained by the reader or a striking use of language on the part of the author. Whatever, form it takes, surprise there must be, if writing is to be original enough to set the reader thinking on new lines. For as Aristotle wisely said: “to learn gives the liveliest pleasure”[37]


2)  Don’t Try to Fool Your Reader


People are very clever at pattern recognition. There is a cave in Southern France called

the Chauvet Cave which contains the oldest images painted by humans yet discovered, some of them 32,000 years old. In the cave are several paintings of horses and there is one image where a drawing of a horse nearly overlaps another. As the style seemed identical, it was thought they were made by the same artist, but after carbon testing, it was found that the overlapping image was five thousand years younger than the underlying one. It was a copy.[38] As imitation is the best form of flattery, we can infer that the second artist recognized what he thought to be a striking, perhaps even enviable likeness of a horse. His reaction to the piece of artwork, was then to make it his own, which is how we all come to understanding.


What the horse ‘meant’ to the later artist, can never be known. He may have been awed by the exactness of its execution, the capture of natural motion; more likely he perceived some spiritual truth in the horse, as handed down by unknown ancestors. Like all pattern-seekers, he may have found balance in the proportions and harmony in the relations between the shapes of the other horses. In other words, he had reacted to the beauty of the horse paintings, both as representations of reality, as artworks and as spiritual objects. Many millennia later, the English Romantic poet John Keats was to express this same recognition of ‘truth and beauty’[39], as being at the core of all good art. When we praise books for their ‘beautiful writing’[40] we are observing them not just as stories, but also as works of art. We read them for the spark which will kindle our imaginations, as surely as if we had a painting before our eyes. For Aristotle, the genius of art lies in its power to transcend ordinary experience and create new ways of looking at the world:  “the reason why men enjoy seeing a likeness, is that, in contemplating it, they find themselves learning or inferring and saying perhaps “Ah, that is he.”[41]


All this is to say that as human beings we constantly attribute meaning. In particular, we are always on the lookout for new meaning and through reading we enjoy the expansion of our own individual awareness to such an extent that we are prepared to suspend our disbelief or keep subordinate our own view of reality, in order to let the fictional view of the author develop. But we cannot be pushed too far in this direction, as we are very good at separating fiction from reality and recognize immediately where there is not a close fit to our own observed experience. It follows that people will soon sniff out the inauthentic in a likeness, even if they have not seen the original. So they will not be convinced by a researched set-piece description of the London Blitz by an author who has so obviously never been there, as in Kate Atkinson’s Life after Life, but they will acknowledge the passionate engagement of a writer such as William Styron, whose own generation lived through the war. Readers are innately alerted to the inauthentic, wherever it might arise in a novel, sometimes no matter how small the detail. Take for instance, the plot. Readers are unlikely to tolerate a story where the logic of the action is flawed. Wilkie Collins was chagrined to have been caught out by a sub-editor of the Times with an inconsistency in the action of his Woman in White, even though he had checked the plot backwards for gaps and non-sequiturs.  JK Rowling, on the other hand, doesn’t baulk at banishing plot difficulties with a wave of her wand where a character cannot be saved other than by a spell. But then anything is possible, in the imagination of children.


The writers who routinely abandon their readers are those who break with the common human reality that is lived by most of them. Auster, Joyce, Marquez  and Woolf efficiently deny their readers their very function by cultivating unreadability in their novels. Not for them Aristotle’s most sensible advice to “follow what is possible and pertinent in given circumstances according to the law of probability and necessity.”  Marquez deplored the “single vision” or what he saw as the one limiting reality, so that his books defy traditional exegesis. He referred to his novel One Hundred Years of Solitude as “a bit of a joke”, adding that critics risked “making terrible fools of themselves” if they tried to decode its secret messages.[42]. No-one likes being made a fool of, readers least of all. And they can so easily take their revenge. The Dance of Time will tell all.


Dance to the Music of Time, Nicholas Poussin (1594-1665)

Memorable, therefore good and original?


With my reader’s memory in the spotlight, here are the ‘findings’ of my thought experiment. The questions I asked myself were, first: what do I remember about a book after a substantial period of time has elapsed and second, does this ‘default’ memory contain any universal indicators as to what makes for a good book (or not)?

I then go on to a brief  discussion and conclusion, in the hope of confirming some features of good writing which we all intuit as readers and which  we look for with such hopeful anticipation every time we open that next book.

The Children’s Book, A.S. Byatt, Vintage Books, 2010

Like?:                                      DDislike                                    

About: Two middle-class families during the late Arts and Crafts Movement, 1895ish. In one family, the mother (based on E. Nesbit) writes children’s stories and in the other, the father (based on De Morgan?) is a potter. Aesthetic appreciation. Writing about writing. Mother/son/gender relationships, particularly the fate of the neglected children of artists.


Plot:  ?


Characters: More than seventeen. None memorable.


StyleEarnest, hyper-intricate


Memorable features: Descriptions of beautiful ceramics


Verdict: Basically about the author’s own perception of the beautiful in art. Byatt isn’t the only one to be inspired by a vase. Below Keats’ signed drawing of the famous Grecian Urn.

Legacy: Literary curiosity. Will appear on some unfortunate university  students’ reading lists. Made me want to own a beautiful pot.


Capital by John Lanchester, Faber and Faber, 2012


Like?:                              CYes


About: People in a London street, threatened by a sinister campaign of postcards with message, “We want what you have”. Multiculturalism. Consumerism. The Authentic Life. Performance Art


PlotNot really. Vague suspense created by mystery threat.


CharactersToo many to remember all. The most notable is Roger the banker, public fun-figure, yet who raises a few sympathetic laughs.


Style: Very now.


Memorable featuresGentle humour. Funny/sad vignettes of a banker, of an Asian grocer, immigrant traffic warden. Optimism about human nature.


Verdict: Light-weight but life-enhancing.


Legacy: Model of early 21st century urban novel. Social studies relevance.

Made me think about the plight of new immigrants.



Sophie’s Choice by William Styron, 1979, Vintage 2004


Like?:                          C?D     50/50


About:  An impossibly beautiful Ayrian-blond Polish girl is mistakenly shipped off to Auschwitz, despite her father’s fascist credentials. Historical horror funnelled through Sophie’s personal suffering. Corruption of power. Bearing witness. The nature of evil.


Plot: How Sophie deals with Auschwitz, her subsequent life in America and her psychotic lover.


Characters: Sophie + lover + narrator-protagonist (with Rudolf Hoess in a few scenes)


Style: A river in spate. Hallucogenic lyricism.


Memorable featuresBreath-stopping dramatic scenes, one between the camp commandant Rudolf Hoess and Sophie, where she hopes to seduce him in order to save her son.  Scene where Hoess muses upon a beautiful horse in field next to working camp.ovens.


The Banality of the Banality of Evil by Banksy


Verdict:  Strong subject, courageous attack, but narrow scope, despite variety of ‘American life’ set pieces as foil to horror. Sophie’s subjection (in peace and war) to every kind of sexual abuse is overdone.


Legacy: Relevance beyond Holocaust studies?  Should continue the debate re the existence of evil and how it can be confronted. Made me think what I would do in Sophie’s shoes.


First, the findings


Least remembered first: ‘The Children’s Book’


The encyclopaedic detail of this book is impressive but overwhelming. There are too many characters with barely more than a name, exhaustive descriptions of costumes, ceramics, stage settings of fictional plays, fervently observed minutiae of all kinds, as if the writer herself didn't know what to do with what she imagined, other than record it. So it's not surprising that I'm not sure either what's meant to be important. As I read, I have no feeling of structure or forward dynamics. So lacking the usual indicators, I ask the reader’s question, what is this book about? It’s as if I am constantly showered with bejewelled words and nuggets of wisdom, but can catch none of them. Are these mere flak? A book is mentioned, The Children’s Book of the title. Perhaps more truthfully, it is The Mother’s Book, written with and for (and only sometimes by) children. Somehow (the details are shadowy) this book causes the death of a beautiful young man, a treasured son, a lost boy. And there we have it. Byatt’s lived grief trembling in the centre of all this art. I sympathize as a mother, but I am untouched as a reader.


Second, ‘Capital’: mostly forgotten, but yet most liked.


Another huge spread of characters, but this time the book is saved by its easy style  and a unifying storyline - all the characters live on the same street and are threatened by the same mysterious intruder. I can immediately recognize the London I think I know, the formless fears we all share. But this is not a dark novel. This author involves me in a conversation. There is humour. I laugh at the weaknesses and foibles on parade; humour compensates me for the loneliness of an old woman and the desperation of a young female immigrant for whom the West seems not worth it. Life renews itself constantly. There is always something to look forward to: the kindness of others, even. My heart is warmed.


Finally, ‘Sophie’s Choice’: the book I most remember, but want to forget.


This is less the fault of the writer, than of the subject matter. Styron’s focus is very strong; the power of his summoning of the holocaust is the very blast of the furnace. Like all good writers, he brings the horror down to the human level, where I (we) can all understand it, focused through the sufferings of his main character, Sophie. Evil is likewise distilled in the one character of Rudolf Hoess, the camp commandant at Auschwitz, who struggles with his own humanity. Styron then places them both in one small room together. Yet the more Sophie is humiliated by what the context inflicts on her, the more her womanhood prevails – the part of her Styron can't allow to die. In fact, at the point he seems most carried away by infatuation for her, the balance of the novel is disturbed. She is all beautiful, she is the focus of all sexual desire, there is no abuse she does not suffer, such is the power of her attraction, her vulnerability. In Styron’s desperate urge to make beauty prevail over evil, Sophie becomes unreal, whereas truth to life is what must carry this novel.


So, what makes for a good novel?


What I remember of these three books after a gap of several months, does, I think, give an idea of some of the basic features which go into the making of a good work of fiction. It's obvious and we all know it, but we remember characters which are believable; likewise we remember a plot with direction and the more clear cut the end or at least the sense of an ending, the better. Character and plot are the first points of contact with the reader. Where a story fails to connect with, expand and give form to the reader’s inner life, it becomes a closed fiction. Symptoms of a closed fiction are anything which fragments or deflects or disengages the interest of the reader: too many characters, too much (or too little) detail, constantly deferred action, passive narrative. The working style of a self-indulgent author is to emphasize selectively what s/he observes at the expense of what the reader might want to see. (Both Byatt and Styron do this.) Anything disproportionate (e.g. over-written style, tendency to caricature, narrow relevance, irrationality) will affect the unity (sense of the whole). Great books have balance. They are sane, but not mundane. They have something to say. Above all, they enhance life.   


And what of the three books above? Will they join ‘the Greats’?


The template of literary excellence is what we all keep in our minds as a measure of everything we read. If you've read these books, you'll already know the answer.



Picture credits:


Book covers for 'Sophie’s Choice' wikipedia and 'The Children’s Book', wikipedia

Putto with hour glass, detail from 'Dance to the Music of Time', Nicholas Poussin (1594-1665), YouTube and wikipedia

Dante, Homer and Virgil in Raphael's 'Parnassus' fresco (1511), in which the Western canon is visualised, wikipedia

Aristotle, wikipedia

'Catcher in the Rye', wikipedia

Elizabeth Bennet drawing, wikipedia

Man hanging off cliff, clipart

'Dance to the Music of Time', Nicholas Poussin (1594-1665), YouTube and wikipedia

Drawing of Urn by John Keatswikipedia

The Banality of the Banality of Evil by Banksy








CKate Wilson’s Ten Perfect Books 2013 C


“A great writer will give substance to and perhaps even explain, all the problems of the world without even knowing it.”[43]



Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck, 1937



Great Expectations by Charles Dickens, 1861



Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov, 1955

(Sold c50 million copies)


Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, 1813



The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1925

(Sold c25 million copies)


King Solomon’s Mines by H. Rider Haggard, 1885



Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, 1958

(Sold c11 million copies)


Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates, 1961



Northern Lights by Philip Pullman, 1995

(Sold c15 million copies)


The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger, 1951

(Sold c65 million copies)

Publication data from






Kate Wilson’s Ten Most Forgettable Books 2013



The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht, 2011


The Famished Road by Ben Okri, 1991


Job, The Story of a Simple Man by Joseph Roth, 1930


Another Life by Sebastian Faulks, 2012


A Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, 1967


The Green Knight by Iris Murdoch, 1993


To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf, 1927


Life after Life by Kate Atkinson, 2013


The Children’s Book by A.S. Byatt, 2009


Silmarillion by J.R.R. Tolkien, 1977





[1] On recall after learning, see, Tony Buzan, Use your Memory, BBC publications,  1986,  p.84

[2] Books on the Broad Reading Group, Oxford

[3] The primitive memory or amygdala performs a primary role in memory consolidation and the processing of emotional reactions. See

[4] How this individual opinion is transmitted is very much less mysterious than it was before the advent of computer technology. The process probably works like a homeostatic feed-back loop, with the information being fed in very much more rapidly and aggressively nowadays by the main drivers, the publishers, flanked by the retailers and the literary agents. Word of mouth is still held to be a prime market mover and some publishers continue unashamedly to ply their wares to book groups.  Only recently our group was approached by a small publisher to help them market one of their new books, no less. We were invited to read and review it and - wait for it- buy copies of the book for ourselves to initiate the process! Publishers and retailers also cash in on the fact that like-minded readers tend to read the same reviews, whether in newspapers, on Amazon or websites like Bookarmy and Goodreads and furthermore are influenced by celebrity author opinion, watch the same TV book programmes and follow Richard and Judy/Winfrey Oprah (with whom publishers are in close dialogue). Readers also need to use supermarkets, and now they can buy as they shop popular books of the moment and then later discuss them with their friends. Publishers and retailers are present everywhere in the social media like twitter, facebook, google+  etc. They flow as readily as water in and around as many aspects of readers’ lives as they can, because they know the power of the feed-back loop, where readers not only are influenced by best-seller lists, but drive them via nice, fat sales. For more on the publishing business, read that eye-opener of a book by John  B. Thompson, The Merchants of Culture, (The Publishing Business in the Twenty-First Century), Polity Press, 2010: p.100 ff  on the emergence of the publishing corporations and p 270 ff on the ‘Oprah’ effect .

[5] The more complex a reaction a book arouses, the more likely it is to be remembered. Obvious, but interesting. cf “More emotionally-arousing information increases amygdalar activity, and that activity correlates with retention”  See ibid

We all have our own list of our most forgettable books. See mine at the end of this article. 

[6] The title of a painting by Nicholas Poussin (1594-1665) showing the Wheel of Fortune. Poussin was a leading painter of the French Baroque movement.……

[7] For more on the controversy surrounding the publication of Morrissey’s autobiography as a Penguin Classic see a representative article

[8] Whether we are talking about a 'modern' classic of the early twentieth century or a ‘contemporary’ classic post 1980 ish (Random House in their Everyman Library of ‘contemporary’ classics make no distinction between the two: or a ‘canonical’ classic of the nineteenth century, time must have passed for the dust to settle on opinion. The inclusion of time in the definition of a classic does away with the problem of transient populism, for to quote Grayson Perry in his first Reith Lecture (2013), “Democracy has bad taste.”  JK Rowling’s Harry Potter still continues to enjoy huge popular ratings, but how it will fare  in fifty years’ time against more overtly ‘literary’ works such as Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials? Opinion may be quickly mediated and mediatised by technology, as well as effectively manipulated by publishers’ publicity campaigns, films of the book and product launches, but such promoters can’t hurry the process of validation of which they are merely a part. They alone can’t confer the stamp of quality. A far finer triage does this final job: a decade or two of specialized readers - the literary agents, the editors, the serious critics and reviewers, and in that final shake of the sieve, the reading groups in their hundreds of thousands across the world, who will ultimately accept the most validated books as timeless ‘must-reads’.

[9] As in the term micromort used to as a measure of mortality risk.

[10]  This program is still taught today in some American Universities, but not in the UK or Europe (except for Portugal). This cross-disciplinary study of the most influential thinkers in Western culture, includes writers of traditional and modern classics such as George Eliot, James Joyce, Franz Kafka and Marcel Proust.

[11] A sample list of ‘Great Books’ can be found at

[14], Unsere Besten, Das grosse Lesen

[18]  Both Kindle and Nook have the ability whereby you can see what passages other people have highlighted, unless you disable the facility.

[19] “as if that were all to say about a book: it’s good or it’s bad. I like it or I don’t.” in Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, Phoenix paperback, 2013, p.316.

[20] Paul Ricoeur ‘Phenomenology and the Theory of Literature’ (1981) in  Modern Literary Theory, A Reader, eds Rice and Waugh, Hodder Headline, 1997, p.94. Paul Ricoeur, French Philosopher, 1913 -2005

[21] ibid, p.94

[22] Anonymous . Usually attributed (wrongly) to Samuel Johnson (1709- 1784)

[23] Post ‘Sweet Tooth’ Ian McEwan still  hoped  to write the perfect book (Newsnight Review, August 2102) . See also Grayson Perry “All artists nurture a tender dream that they too are original” (Nice Rebellion, Welcome In, Third Reith Lecture 2013)

[24] See Jacques Derrida:  “one of the essential paths (of theory) in the literary field (is the) deconstruction of thematic, or rather thematicist, reading.” (Some statements and Truisms about Neo-Logisms, Newisms, Postisms,,Parasitisms and other Small Seismisms in Modern Literary Theory, A Reader, eds Rice and Waugh, Hodder Headline, 1997, p.372)

[25] Cf  Blogger Dan Kois’ disdain of the expert critic  “Read at whim, without shame and for pleasure”.

[26] The advocates of Reader-Response theory popular in the decade from the mid 60’s -70’s of the last century, in particular Wolfgang Iser and Roland Barthes, are responsible for ideas which have de-stabilized critical theory without providing workable alternatives: viz Iser: “For (meaning) is not given by the text itself; it arises between the written text and the individual mind of the reader with its own particular history of experience, its own consciousness, its own outlook.” In Rice and Waugh, op.cit., p.79. See also Roland Barthes ‘ concept of  the ‘death of the author.’

[27] Here, the distinction is seen as one of degree only, as both share common features, ‘great’ being a ranking conferred by posterity.

[28] Cf the useful Wiki reference

[29] See my list of ‘Perfect Books’ at the end of this article.

[30] This is a recognized modern classic of the Western canon – cited in eg. The Le Monde list and the ZDF poll (trans as Der Faenger im Roggen) cited above.

[31] Justin Cartwright, “We each have our Cross to Bear,” The Independent on Sunday, 8 September 2013, “The nature of writing obsesses me. It's not on the sidelines of life, it really is life. Books change the world in small increments, by marginally altering our perceptions. You might intuit something but, until you read it, you don't necessarily know that you know it. I never know what I think until I write it down."

[32] Tony Buzan, Use Your Memory, BBC Active publications, 1986, p43

[33] The list is more illuminating than exhaustive. ibid, p.50

[34] Newsnight Interview 15/9/2007

[35] JD Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye, Penguin Books, 2010, p.19

[36] Dan Brown’s books are notoriously plot driven, which is why they are read by millions.

[37] Aristotle, Poetics (On the Art of Poetry), Project Gutenberg.

[38] In  The Cave of Forgotten Dreams. This  is  a 2010 3D documentary film by Werner Herzog, about the Chauvet Cave, see also See

[39] Ode to a Grecian Urn, May 1819, "Beauty is truth, truth beauty, – that is all/

Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

[40] Ian McEwan  described the rediscovered  book Stoner by John Williams as “a very, very, beautiful novel.”

[41] Aristotle, Poetics, op.cit

[43] Paris review, The Art of Fiction No.156, William Styron (author of Sophie’s Choice)

Putto with hour glass

Raphael's Parnassus showing canonical
writers Dante, Virgil and Homer.


First edition cover of The Catcher in the Rye.

Elisabeth Bennet

Horse painting from Chauvet Cave