Consider this: No book has ever been universally loved. Nada. Zilch. Whatever title you bring to the table, if you spend time looking, you will find a few mehs in the room. (If the room holds all of humankind, that is.)
Universally hated? We might come up with something, if we tried to make it so. Even then, statistically, someone somewhere might claim to like it just to be artsy or contrary.
Classic literature, often favored by critics (and me), still inspires yawns in many everyday readers. Those same critiques often scoff at today’s popular books and films. Yet, they are popular. And yes, this is a bit of an oversimplification. There are exceptions, but those exceptions spawn from individuality, and individuality is why we won’t find anything universally loved by all of humankind. (Go ahead—try to find one.)
Yet, how easy is it to find some blog, book or forums post claiming to tell you what good writing is. Or, how many story structures were born from supposedly analyzing thousands of “good stories” without ever analyzing what the word “good” means?
Some will say it’s purely subjective. Many will say it, in fact. Yet, there are some measures of quality involved in the craft of creating and telling a story, and we shouldn’t forget popularity either. We can’t. Does a fantastic sales-record—often driven by clever marketing—indicate that a book or film is good? If so, then a poor sales record would indicate a book is bad. Yet, both will have admirers and haters.
Thus, the problem, I think, is one of category and definition. Or lack thereof.
Aside from execution and technique, here are the over-arching categories of good that I see:
Reading the list, you might realize that many of the examples could fit into several categories. Disney’s Up is entertaining as well as emotional, and offers a little in the way of interesting ideas too.
In fact, my belief is that a good deal of strength can be found in a story that scores high in several of those categories. Frank Herbert’s Dune, for example, is quite fun with its giant worms and adventure. There is a healthy dose of emotional punch too. And it’s not short on philosophy or cool ideas, either. No wonder it was among the bestselling science-fiction books of all time.
By strength (yeah, I avoided “good” there), I mean all-aroundness—potential to be enjoyed by critics, consumed by readers, and general just be appreciated by more than just a handful of friends and family. It gives it a greater chance to appeal to an individual reader. (Again, this is putting execution and technique to the side for a moment.)
So, I say, good fiction doesn’t exist, despite our constant struggles to create it and understand it. Instead, I think we gain quite a bit of traction by discarding the word and understanding general categories of what might make up good fiction.
Now, of course, taste matters. And this is where it becomes subjective. The philosophy of Dune might escape some, and might be rather light to others. Similarly, I like survival stories, but other readers like dragons or vampires or zombies or weirdness or a certain kind of narrator. Big huge etcetera. We all have our own preferences, both in subject and in category. Some just want a good time. Some crave an emotional experience, and others are interested in ideas.
That is where writers need to not only write what they know, but write what they enjoy and want to read. If you have zero tolerance for philosophy and no stomach for emotion, then you’d probably well advised to skip those in your story and focus on a roaring good time and cool ideas instead. You’ll have an audience, you glorious heartless monster you.
Writer of speculative fiction. Current work in progress is an untitled dark fantasy novella.