What makes a book ‘good’?
How many copies of Fifty Shades of Grey does it take to make a fort? A branch of Oxfam in Swansea, south Wales, received so many unwanted copies of EL James’s erotic novel, that staff decided to build a fort out of them in the back office.
Well, why not? Once the hottest book in publishing, Fifty Shades now can’t be given away fast enough. Relief at last, perhaps, for all those high-brow academics and frustrated authors – myself among them – whose hearts sank when this fan fiction-derived tale became the fastest-selling paperback of all time in Britain and went on to sell more than 125m copies around the world.
But was it any good? Critics seemed to think not, but just as publishers will tell you a good review does not necessarily sell books, nor, it seems, does a whole series of bad reviews harm sales of a book once momentum has been achieved.
When I was a child listening to the Top 40 countdown on Radio 1 on a Sunday evening, there was no doubt in my mind that the higher up the charts my favourite singles climbed, the better those particular songs were shown to be. In my ten-year-old mind there was a straightforward correlation between commercial success and artistic quality. A single that reached number ten was pretty good, but one that went straight into the chart at number one and stayed there for four weeks was clearly better.
At some point I must have given voice to this theory, because my elder sister once told me that “just because one song is higher up in the charts doesn’t make it better than another song that’s lower down.” While I reeled at this news, she did happily agree that Slade’s Cum On Feel the Noize was nevertheless the best song around at the time.
So what does make a book – or a film or a song – good? What gives a work lasting value? There are methods of assessment; you can apply criteria. As a lecturer in creative writing, who marks novels written by MA students, I would say that, wouldn’t I? But as a reader – and as an editor for a small publisher – I obviously have my own, subjective views on what’s good and what’s not so good.
The lesson my sister taught me has stayed with me over the years and I’ll admit that these days I’m suspicious of anything that seems to be enjoying too much success. Was Zadie Smith’s award-winning White Teeth really that good? How about David Mitchell’s acclaimed Cloud Atlas? Fifty Shades of Grey? I don’t know, because I haven’t read them. There are lots of interesting-sounding books out there, but why should I feel obliged to read the same ones everyone else is reading? Is the culture really nothing but a huge book club?
It’s frustrating for publishers working hard to launch new careers (they’ve long given up trying to sustain flagging ones) when they know that only a tiny number of titles will account for the vast majority of sales.
One first-time author of my acquaintance whose debut novel was published in 2015 to a small number of enthusiastic reviews and poor sales feels so disappointed by the whole experience he often talks of jacking it all in. Is the Fifty Shades phenomenon part of that problem? Would I rather that great literature was achieving that level of commercial success? Well, yes, but can we as a society agree on what is great literature? I don’t think we can and I even prefer to think that we shouldn’t, being inherently suspicious of the exclusivity of the canon.
So, let big houses continue to publish bestsellers. They make money and keep people in jobs and maybe, just maybe, there’s a trickle-down effect. Profits from big books may enable risks to be taken on smaller ones. EL James donated £1m of her royalties to charity.
And so what if we end up with mountains of unwanted books? As long as we continue to build new roads (and that’s a whole other subject), we’ll continue to need unwanted books. When the M6 Toll opened in 2003, building materials supplier Tarmac revealed that 2.5m Mills & Boon novels had been pulped and used in the manufacture of the asphalt.
Swansea’s red-faced consumers of James’s “mommy porn” may not have donated 2.5m copies of Fifty Shades to Oxfam, but a quick calculation, studying the photograph of the house-like construction that has been tweeted all over the world, suggests it takes about 600 copies of Fifty Shades to make a fort.