What makes a good novel? - Bill Kirton

A couple of years back, I was asked in an interview what made a good novel. Let’s dodge the first, obvious problem the question poses, i.e. what do you mean by ‘good’? For most mainstream – and indeed independent – publishers, the answer would probably be ‘one that sells’, while others might demand the application of literary criteria. In the context of the interview, it seemed legitimate to assume that it simply meant ‘enjoyable to read’ and my first, predictably glib, response was to quote the well-known Somerset Maugham quip, which is (approximately) ‘There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are’. In fact, it’s a hard question and answers will obviously vary depending on the sort of novel you prefer to read. But the scope (and looseness) of the form almost encourages diverse responses. Mine are pretty basic.

First, you have to believe what’s happening in the pages, even if it means stepping outside what’s normally called ‘reality’. The hero may be a battle-scarred galaxy wanderer with green blood and prehensile eyebrows, but if you’re interested in him and care what happens to him, you’ll read on. In fact, I’m sure I’d find such a character far more sympathetic and interesting than the pieces of cardboard that masquerade as characters in, for example, the Dan Brown epics. Farce may require individuals to be so extreme that they verge on caricature; Sci-fi may hop from planet to planet or past to future as if they’re neighbouring streets; fantasy may move into fifth, sixth or other dimensions; vampires may even overcome mortality itself; but, in each case, if there’s a commitment to and a concern for the creatures living the story, you’re held by them. It seems to confirm the oft-quoted opinion of Heraclitus that 'character is destiny'. (And, since he also wrote  'The chain of wedlock is so heavy it takes two to carry it – and sometimes three' and 'Hide our ignorance as we will, an evening of wine soon reveals it', it's obvious that he knew what he was talking about.).

So the primary quality of a good novel is its ability to make you care about its characters, worry for them, dislike them for what they do to others, laugh at or pity them. Above all, you need to believe in their reality. It’s your empathy, your sympathy or just your acceptance of their validity that guarantees the authenticity of their world. If you’re involved in it, it must, by definition, be real.

Another obvious quality must be the page-turning one. You have to want to know what happens next. Sometimes, the intensity of the emotions involved (yours as well as the characters’) transcends the actual story but usually there’s a journey to make, problems to be solved, setbacks to be overcome. I’d argue that these, too, depend on the characters and their interactions, but as a plot develops, it renews those characters, gives them opportunities to redefine themselves, makes them harder or easier to like. They can’t grow in a void, they need to be tested, questioned.

Then you get to the other qualities, the sub-texts,  themes, and other literary or linguistic tricks – all those things which, for some students in tutorials, ‘spoil’ the novel. ‘Why do there have to be meanings?’ they ask. ‘Why spoil the story by analysing it, taking it apart?’ And it’s not easy to answer those questions. If they’re enjoying reading something, that should be sufficient in itself. On the other hand, a closer look at the text can reveal shifting themes, previously unheard echoes, hidden motives. It may expose characters as being not only individual psyches but representatives of greater truths, entities created to reveal other forces, contributors to the subtler rhythms and patterns of the narrative. And, above all, there’s the sheer pleasure of understanding how it all derives from the author’s unique manipulation of words. And even if they resist this analytical urge, readers will still be affected by the great novels in ways of which they may be unaware, but which come from subtler processes than ‘enjoying good stories’ or identifying with the people in them.

It’s the things that make a good novel great which are the hardest to pinpoint. They’re the result of some extra elements that the better novelists achieve, a sort of layering which gives you the satisfaction of the story but also suggests undercurrents, a significance just beyond your perceptions. Even after you’ve finished reading, your mind keeps returning to what’s happened or to an image because it’s stayed with you, disturbed you or made you smile. These are things whose meaning goes beyond their own immediate context. On the surface, novels like that are certainly about people, but they’re also about something else, something best conveyed by that lovely word ‘ineffable’.

And they’re fundamental to the form. Even with novels which are too easily dismissed by the (seeming) cognoscenti as ‘mere genre’ novels, these forces are at work. If readers are lifted from their prescribed present into a realm where unicorns graze and everything is possible, their experience of life is enhanced. Whether this happens from reading Thomas Hardy or a hospital romance is irrelevant. The point is that it happens.

The novel is a great form. It gives you space in which to let things develop. You can create echoes between themes that bring together things which on the face of it are separate. You hear an animal scream in the woods as a man reflects on a love he’s just lost and you fabricate connections between them. And when I say ‘you’ there, I mean the reader. That’s the final beauty of the form and one I mention ad nauseam: the writer provides the raw materials and the indications but leaves room for the reader to do some work, create some patterns, draw his/her own conclusions. Once again, it’s that strange, powerful intimacy between strangers.

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Lee said…
A lovely post to wake up to this morning.

Only thing is, you haven't mentioned how hard it is to actually write one - a good novel, I mean!
Kathleen Jones said…
Very hard indeed! I particularly liked the paragraph where you distinguish the great from the good Bill - I agree entirely 'ineffable'.
Lovely, thoughtful post.
Jan Needle said…
who was it who effed the ineffable? either beckett or one of his characters. good man, bill
Lydia Bennet said…
Well said Bill! Being part of thefictional world is the gift of novels and plays. I was addicted to patrick o'brians novels for that reason. That world was so real to me I spoke of a character in a party conversation, quite forgetting he is fictional!
Bill Kirton said…
Thanks, all.

You're right Lee, there are plenty of novels about but not so many merit that adjective.

Kathleen, yes I'm happy if I can approach 'good'. I leave 'great' to real writers.

Jan, for me Beckett is what I believe nowadays is called 'Da Man'. So many brilliant one-liners, starting with 'In the beginning was the pun'. Priceless.

Lydia, earlier this year I wrote a short story called 'An evening with Emma Bovary' and realised I'd been in love with her since I was 18.
Lee said…
Hi Bill, it's reputed that the famous Japanese painter and printmaker Hokusai said on his deathbed - he died at 89 - that if he could only be granted another five or ten years of life, he might become a good painter. I remind myself of this when disheartened, but also when I read yet another 'great' or 'brilliant' accolade in a book review or tweet. How have we managed to produce such a surfeit of genius in just a generation or two? Beats me.
Lee said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bill Kirton said…
Yes, Lee. Somewhere long ago I read that Da Vinci on or near his death-bed and referring to his work said 'Was anything done?' It's probably apocryphal but I'd prefer to believe it.
Excellent post, Bill. Bernard MacLaverty talks about 'made up truth' and I think he's so right about that. No matter how fantastic the story and setting, there are books you believe in implicitly -because they seem absolutely true. But there are also some books - and they can be anything from the lauded literary to the bestselling blockbuster - where you find yourself thinking 'I don't believe in any of this!' I usually try to ask myself why - and I'm well aware that it's only my opinion. My current favourite, China Mieville, has (so far) captivated me twice, in two completely different novels: The City & The City and Railsea. In both of them I was immediately in the (bizarre) world of the novel, believing implicitly, not once thrown out of it - rushing on to the end but dragging my feet to slow it all down, sad to leave the central character, and reflecting afterwards on all kinds of ideas - layers and layers of them - contained in the books. Isn't reading wonderful?
Bill Kirton said…
Couldn't agree more, Catherine. You're describing a very familiar experience. I've probably mentioned this before but I remember an excellent piece by Terence Blacker in The Author about what he called 'Life block'. Crudely put, it was a suggestion that we know fictional characters (especially those we've created ourselves) better than we know 'real' people. We understand them and their relationships, know their psyches, can penetrate their motives, whereas our partners, family and friends are unpredictable and sometimes act like strangers.
Oh that's so true. And (perhaps I should whisper this) sometimes we prefer to spend time with our fictional creations!
Lee said…
Bill, may I suggest something different? I'm beginning to suspect that writers who thoroughly understand their characters have, for the most part, created less interesting characters than the writers who leave room for a certain impenetrability and strangeness. All too often, second-rate fiction is the result.
Bill Kirton said…
I think I know what you mean, Lee, and I wouldn't disagree. I maybe overstated the idea of 'understanding' our characters. Rather than wishing to imply it's 'thorough', I'd say that we're more confident of having a sharper definition of their intentions than we are of knowing those of 'real' people. It's not a comprehensive but a relative knowledge. I'm pretty confident this was Blacker's thinking, too. Despite all I've said, I'm still frequently surprised by what some of my characters do. In fact, at the moment, I'm writing a sequel to a novel set in 1840 which ended on a lovers' kiss and I've no idea how their relationship has developed (or been allowed by society and friends to develop) in the 12 months since then. I'm just hoping they'll soon let me know.
Lee said…
On the one hand, Bill, I agree with you that it's a matter of degree: on the other, I tend to believe that the moment we assign motive and intention, our understanding of human nature becomes of necessity reductionist. Think of an acquaintance or friend who has committed suicide: we need to understand; we can't understand. I suppose that's one of the things I try to embrace increasingly in my fiction - this inherent contradiction.

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