Where are all the good books?

Where are all the good books?
September 26, 2016 Georgia Colahan

It was a claim that hushed the crowd.  “There are no good books”, said Lev Grossman, from the stage at the recent Festival of Dangerous Ideas in Sydney.

In the audience, we collectively held our breath!  Could this highly acclaimed author of five successful novels, really mean it?

I had to ask myself whether Grossman, the distinguished American writer had slightly lost his mind.

Yet, Grossman did have a point to make as he continued:  “What makes a good book? What makes a bad one? And more importantly, who gets to make that judgement? Is it the literary critics? Is it the person reading a book on the train who shares their thoughts through modern media?”

These questions struck a chord with me, as I recalled just earlier that morning I was openly judging a woman on the train as she sat engrossed in E.L James, “50 Shades of Grey”.

It is very common to palm off popular fiction as a ‘bad’ book, and hail literary fiction as king. Yet, Grossman began to derail this belief and probe the true distinction between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ books.

“The fundamental principle that has organised our literary universe for centuries that some books are good and some are bad, that some have value and some don’t, is crumbling,” he said.

“There used to be very few authoritative voices deciding what mattered, and they were critics and academics. Now, largely because of the likes of Amazon and blogs, we have gone to millions and millions of voices,” he continued.

Using the example of his bestselling fantasy novel The Magicians, Grossman began to pick apart the value society once placed on ‘literary’ fiction over the ‘genre’ fiction of thrillers, fantasy and science fiction.

Grossman revealed to the audience that the concept of the fiction novel has only been around for the last 300 years. Literacy used to be exclusive – a separate society and class. But, come the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, more and more people became literate – developing a new class where the literary critic emerged.

Now, in the 21st century, we move into a whole new field altogether. Since the explosion of the internet, millions can not only read – they can be writers and critics as well. Blogs, Tumblr, fanfiction, and other citizen journalism methods have transformed what, and the way, we read.

Grossman pointed out that through the likes of Amazon, GoodReads and social media, famous literary works are receiving thousands of one-star reviews. Ulysses received 6,000 one star reviews, while Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird received 54,580 one star reviews.

It may astonish some, that one reviewer genuinely said:  “This book shared a completely inadequate description on how to actually kill a mocking bird.”

Today, we no longer judge books by what old literary academics had to say. We have new powers and avenues to define what makes a good book, in light of our own individual preferences and guilty pleasures.

Grossman concluded that “no book is better or worse than any other book,” and that many of the one-star reviews he read out are actually passionate accounts of what those readers actually felt when reading that book. Accounts, which we as readers, take on board when judging a book for ourselves.

The problem is, we as a society inherently know, or assume that we know, that the collective works of Marcel Proust is worth more than that of Stephanie Meyer – but how do we prove this? And who gets to decides which parameters can bring us to such a conclusion, when we are all essentially literary writers and critics these days?

Even if there are no criteria to judge books as “good” or “bad” anymore, as judgmental humans, we will always find a way to categorise a book as “good” or “bad”, even if it is just to please our inner desire to put things on a shelf.