Thursday, April 5, 2012

What Makes A Novel Great?

Is a novel great because many people say it is?  Because many critics say it is?  Or is it because fellow novelists say it is?  Because it sells a lot of copies or gets made into a movie?

I think all of the above plays a role in trying to quantify or rank a novel but I’m more interested in the contents of the work rather than sales numbers.  A novel read by a ton of people and liked by a ton would seem to indicate the novel is great—or is it?

Compare that definition—popularity—to other things.  If some stupid reality show gets 15 million viewers and outdoes competing shows does that make it a great show?  I don’t think so.

Should a novel’s greatness be judged by how long it remains popular?  We still read Shakespeare, Dickens and authors from other centuries, so because they stand the test of time should that mean they are great?  Not necessarily.  It just means schools force upon their prejudiced list of “classics” to the next generation, even if they don’t warrant such merit.  It’s an insult to contemporary writers that only older books get to be lavished with attention.  Does this mean no modern writers offer great insights, ideas, and pieces of writing?  It seems like the novels deemed to be great have certain common traits:

1.      They touch upon some timeless issue or a socially or historically significant issue of the day.  We read The Invisible Man because it reveals insights on race.  We read Hamlet because we identify with the burden of decision-making.  We read Romeo and Juliet because we understand love and hatred all too well.  We read 1984 because of the fears and threats of an invasive government.  We read Catch-22 because some people don’t want to go to war.  So if your book doesn’t deeply explore a relevant issue, it moves into another category, one of entertainment and not social instruction.  And entertainment, like the reality TV shows, is fleeting.  It comes and goes—but rarely lasts.

2.      Schools adopt your book as required reading.  Without that, your novel may not last beyond the generation it was written for.

3.      Librarians need to name it on their recommended reading lists.

4.      The novel must influence the works of writers to follow and it helps if it spawns a series, movies, or other related creations.

5.      It should be quoted by others.  Perhaps newspapers, politicians, bloggers, activists or warriors, must reference how the book influenced their thinking or actions in order for others to see the novel’s significance. 

But greatness is subjective.  I imagine each genre has its own standards.  A great sports novel has a different standard than erotica, political thriller, or sci-fi.  For some, people are drawn to the actual writing; for others it’s originality of plot that is appreciated; and others may like the way the characters are drawn.  I guess a truly great novel scores well in all of these areas or it must excel in one of them while not ignoring the others.

But I can tell you what is a sure-fire way to keep a novel forever in the public consciousness—ban it!  Try to censor or ban a book and it will live on far longer than it ever would have.  Not only does the commotion create media frenzy, nook banning comes for a reason.  It means the subject matter struck a nerve.  Abortion.  War. Racism. Religion.  Suicide.  Homosexuality.  Sex.  For now, these topics will incite us.  You can’t be neutral on them, despite the number of undecided idiots included in the poll results on issues like capital punishment.  You don’t know if you are for or against life or death?

So, if you are setting to write the great novel, good luck, Though there is no exact formula for its subject and style, we do see some patterns and some criteria for what tends to be judged as great.  Just write the best book you know how and leave it to others to judge, even if some readers will be undecided. 

Interview With Literary Agent Wendy Keller

  1. Wendy, what do you love about being a literary agent?  Two things: the moment I call an author to tell them their book is sold and the minute I deposit the check in my bank account.  And I very, very, very much like the sales process because I am friends with all the editors and I enjoy the competition of the auctions I foment.

  1. How have the changes in publishing changed the way you do business? Because publishers focus WAY more on the potential author’s current platform, we’ve expanded into much more focused, organized consulting and assistance creating platform prior to sale/release of the book. This includes helping them prepare/grow their social media presence, their ability to get bookings as paid speakers, and their visibility/connections in their industry or topic area. Then we hand their impressive network over to their well-chosen publicity firm so they can glean the most benefit out of the book’s first months.

  1. With so many people self-publishing or linking up with e-book distributors, what  do you tell authors that you can offer to them that they can’t do for themselves? Most self-published books average fewer than 500 sales in TWO YEARS!  Therefore, having a pre-release and post-release platform building mechanism makes ALL the difference in achieving the author’s objectives (whether that is to get lucrative speaking engagements, sell a lot of copies, grow their business/professional reputation, get media or become a full time author).  Self-published books that “fail” – don’t sell well – mean there will never come a time when an agent or a publisher takes you seriously for at least five years.  A failed self published book is a huge albatross that proclaims, “I don’t know what I’m doing and no one cares about my content.”  Those who would self-publish MUST have, build and grow massive fan bases/platforms if they want a future.

  1. What type of authors/books are you looking to represent?  Exclusively nonfiction since 1989.   Platforms preferred! 
  2. Any advice for a struggling writer?  Build your platform every and any way you can.  We can’t sell your book until you can prove you’ve got one, first to us and then to a publisher.  Lucky for you, it’s easier than you think if you know what to do and leverage your natural talents.

  1. Where do you see book publishing heading? We are living in the very best time in history to be an author. The many ways you can disseminate your knowledge, build your reputation and income from that content, and help change the world the way you see fit has never been easier.  It’s crucial to look at the book as part of that glorious opportunity, maybe even the centerpiece of it, but not as the whole show. There are so many ways to achieve the author’s goals by building an exciting, growing platform and the book is the booster rocket. 

For more information, please see: She specializes in: Nonficti0n:  business: sales, management, marketing, finance, entrepreneurship, big name corporate bios, self help, health/alternative health, psych, science, parenting, relationships, occasionally history and narrative nonfiction.  

Brian Feinblum’s views, opinions, and ideas expressed in this blog are his alone and not that of his employer. You can follow him on Twitter @theprexpert and email him at He feels more important when discussed in the third-person.

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