What Makes a Good Read?

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The next moment, in stepped the most beautiful blonde bombshell that these old gumshoe eyes have ever seen — oozing of raw sex appeal. … She leaned back hard against the door, as if to prevent herself from fainting, and then said, so softly, venerably [sic]: “Help me, Mr. Spade. I’m in trouble. I’ll do anything you ask. It’s murder.”

That is from the first paragraph of Alan Zacher’s mystery novel I’m No P.I. The Very. First. Paragraph. Oh, this does not bode well, I thought, when I spotted that venerably.

You might be cringing at that hokey opening situation, too, but it’s the protagonist’s daydream, and the protagonist, Tom, is a single, permanently unemployed fifty-five-year-old man living in his mother’s basement. The daydream fits. The “venerably” is the only misspelling or incorrect word that I noticed in the book, but the writing does have other problems.

Creative writing classes teach us to be descriptive, to evoke the scene in the reader’s imagination by the use of telling detail. Telling and relevant detail, that is. In I’m No P.I., we get long, detailed descriptions of what our hero is wearing, for no reason other than that the writer decided a descriptive passage (any descriptive passage) was warranted. We also learn way too much about the layout of his Mom’s house. I think I could produce a blueprint from his description, and the book isn’t the kind of Agatha Christie style novel where it would matter.

The plot might not stand up to full cross-examination, if I were feeling cranky, and I’m not sure the arithmetic of everyone’s relative ages works out. Villain #1 was painfully obvious, though Villain #2 came as a surprise, to me, anyway.

But you know what? I finished the entire book in one evening, curled up in bed. And if you were to ask me if I liked it, I would have to say that I did.

Books

As I said in a comment on someone else’s blog recently: I read genre, so plot is one of the reasons that I read. I can forgive a writing style that doesn’t impress me, if the plot will carry me along, and as long as the writing doesn’t make me wince too much. And Zacher’s story did carry me along. It was the way he wrote the hero: the man is a loser, but he’s so nice. No, more than nice — he’s a good man.

This is a man who really cares about his elderly parents, who makes up for living in their basement by taking care of their house. He drives his mother to the nursing home to visit his senile father every day. He sits up with his mother every night to watch the Thin Man movies because it makes his mother happy. As a practical joke, he fools his mother into thinking that he wants to be a private investigator — and his mother finds him a case with the next door neighbor (whom he’s known all his life). And he does it, because he cares about his mother, and his neighbor, and for once in his life he wants to finish what he started.

I like the voice that Zacher gave to his protagonist. Reading Tom’s version of events, and “hearing” his self-deprecating sense of humor, I am reminded of certain people I have known. These are people who are perhaps ineffectual in certain aspects of their lives, people I wouldn’t want to be, but I still like them and enjoy their company. Just as I enjoyed Tom’s company, as I read the novel.

In other words, it was an enjoyable story, with entertaining characters (well, and a few flat ones), contained in an okay book. It was — a good read.

And really, that’s the hard part, isn’t it? Just in case my earlier critique makes me sound snobbish about the book, let me spell it out. Alan Zacher is something that I am not: he is a Fiction Writer. I probably never will be. But I wanted to be, once. And the only reason that I noticed some of those things about his writing is that I made exactly the same mistakes, too. Such mistakes can be overcome — I’d like to think I did, and I’m sure he will.

But there are other things you need the knack for: characters that engage the reader (whether they like them or hate them), a talent for storytelling, energy of language, passion and enthusiasm that infect the reader who picks up your story. The lack of these things is harder to overcome than a less than elegant writing style. And these are also the things that many readers (especially ones who are not writers) will mostly evaluate the story by.

The dancer La Meri wrote, “Motivation and dynamic quality are the raisons d’etre of the dance. All other techniques are merely adjuncts of these. … With these two present an incomplete technique is overlooked; without them a perfect technique is as if not.”

It’s true about dance. It’s true about good reads, too.

Of course, if you have all those things I mentioned, and perfect technique on top of it, well, then you have a great read.

10 thoughts on “What Makes a Good Read?

  1. It’s thought-provoking to see what you think of as a good read – passion and enthusiasm in particular. When I read, I read for character and language and plot. Even if I’m only into the highly literary, I admit that I give up on books that have insipid or over-familiar characters. I’m thinking of the middle aged man who feels trapped in his marriage. Unless Nabokov is writing that, I’m not interested.

    But thinking about what you’ve highlighted, I do think it comes down to passion and enthusiasm. Quite broad enough to take in any number of styles – if the writer really cares about what they’re writing, if they pull out all the stops and never seem lazy, then that’s really it for me. Looking out for these qualities, rather than just looking for good writing right away might let me be less snobbish in future, and actually take a risk on something.

    • Insipid or cliched characters would not engage a reader (especially one who reads as you do), so I think we are in agreement there. It’s interesting, your example — somewhere I read someone (an editor, I think) who said that “literary” is a genre as much as mystery or horror is. If so, then the middle-aged person feeling trapped in their marriage or their life would be one of the literary genre memes, so to speak…

      Zacher’s book wasn’t a book I would rave about, by any means. As I said, it was really only okay, overall. He’ll never be someone that you would be enthralled by (and probably not me, either). But what made me want to write about his book is the fact that, even as I read, shaking my head at some of the clumsy things he did — I kept turning the pages. I cared about what happened to Tom. He was something like a real entity, one whom I liked. And I think if a writer can achieve that (for his or her audience), and he or she doesn’t get lazy, the writerly things will follow.

  2. Your excellent essay made me think about one of the considerations I use in deciding whether to read a book. Given that there are way too many excellent books to read, I’ve decided that I will usually choose a classic, something that has stood the test of time. This hasn’t stopped me from reading lots of other things, but it does cause me to make good use of my time. You see something even more severe in the way that some concert artists choose which pieces to perform as they get to middle-age. Artur Schnabel, the pianist, put it best when he said that he only wished to perform works that are “greater than they can be performed.”

    • There are so many books out there — everyone needs a filter. A good review from someone whose tastes I like is mine, and that gathers me both newish books and classics. And I get a lot of my ebooks from Project Gutenberg, so that biases me towards the classics, too.

      I noticed that after I began consciously to try to write, my filter for reading got stricter. Not as strict as Helen’s (the commenter above), but stricter than I had been. There are stories that, once upon a time, I would have finished just to see what happened. Now, I put them down because the way they are written distracts me, and I don’t want to pick up the writer’s bad habits.

      • As I read your reply, it occurs to me that if people adopt my own position, then no one will read my blog (or yours)! Not that I would frankly recommend my blog over Anna Karenina or Crime and Punishment, but still…

        • Haha! Actually, I think the aspects that make a good read for blogs, and non-fiction in general, are a bit different than for fiction, since what the reader wants out of it is a bit different. But that’s probably for a whole ‘nother blog post…

  3. Thanks for the review! I am totally on board with your paragraph, “But there are other things you need the knack for: characters that engage the reader (whether they like them or hate them), a talent for storytelling, energy of language, passion and enthusiasm that infect the reader who picks up your story. The lack of these things is harder to overcome than a less than elegant writing style. And these are also the things that many readers (especially ones who are not writers) will mostly evaluate the story by.”

    An engaging storyteller is usually number one for me. I can live with a less than elegant writing style (but always a plus) and I seem to find myself judging a book on its “page turningness.”

    • We could all do worse than evaluate our reading on “page turningness.” Life is short, right? And unless what you are reading is the difference between you and a life-or-death situation (and I’ll count “finishing my accursed dissertation” as a life-or-death situation 🙂 ) — why keep punishing yourself? Because it’s allegedly good for you? Brussel sprouts are good for you. So is beautiful language, but you can’t really ingest it if everything else about the book or story is boring you to tears.

      Though actually, I like brussel sprouts…

  4. I love your post! I, too can forgive some “iffy” writing if the plot is good. But the main thing I need is a believable and dynamic main character(s). I’ve read many books where I notice little mistakes, but if I am into the characters, I really don’t mind that much.

    • Thanks! It was definitely the main character that kept this book going for me.

      I can’t help noticing certain kinds of typos and mistakes when I read, but I do try to focus on what works about a book or story, not just to maximize my enjoyment, but so I can learn something about writing, too.

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