Posts Tagged First Class Novel

Is a Unique Setting Necessary to the Goodness of a Novel?

Maybe there are two kinds of posts, those that are opinion and those that require research. The second could also include opinion, of course. After reading a comment by Saytchyn (see comment to previous post) that didn’t actually make it into the comments section for some reason, I decided to write separately about my thoughts on the ten characteristics of a First Class Novel.

What she said was that what met the criteria was subjective, and of course it is, but it also seems as if at least a few of the categories might have more objective measures. For one, transporting us to “unlikely cultures or times” seems as it can be objectively determined, although I’m not clear on the qualifier, “unlikely.” The reader should know if a book is set in a culture, country, or time in which they have never participated. Yes, few of us alive have been to a time prior to 1914. Does that give all historical fiction a point in the 1st class category? The book that Saytchyn mentions, The Bone Key by Sarah Monette, is set in England. If the reader has never traveled to London, does this qualify it as an “unlikely culture”? What if you have visited? What about an English reader living in London? Are they likely to think less of the book if they are familiar with the setting?

Here is the list of the first ten adult fiction books I have listed on Goodreads. Not sure why they are in the particular order they are, maybe by date I rated them? I’ll give a quick assessment of whether or not they meet the culture/country/times criteria.

1. Dancer (Colum McCann)–set in Russia and the world of dance   YES

2. Confederacy of Dunces (John Kennedy Toole)–New Orleans of the 1960s. Setting marginally meets the criteria but possibly the characters make it an “unlikely” culture.   Yes

3. Let The Right One In (John Ajvide Lindqvist)–Sweden world of vampires. YES

4. Mother of Sorrows (Richard McCann)–suburban Eastern US, 1950s or 60s.This would seem like a no for anyone over 40.  No.

5. Chang and Eng (Darin Strauss)–mid-1800 world of Siamese Twins in the US. YES

6. Sense of an Ending (Julian Barnes)–contemporary and mid-1900 England.  A very little bit, but how different in England from the US?  not really

7. What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? (Peter Hodges) mid 20th century mid-American small town.  No, at least if you’re over 25.

8. A Dangerous Woman Mary McGarry Morris –20th century small town.  No, again, if you are over 25.

9. Nobody’s Fool  and Straight Man Richard Russo–upstate New York, small town, 2oth century and college town in the Eastern Us.  No.

10. A Patchwork Planet (Anne Tyler)–20th century Baltimore. Again, not really.

What does this short analysis say? That I like books with a change in culture/time/country, but it isn’t  necessary for me to think a book first class. I know from that sampling that my love of Sense of an Ending was driven by the beautiful writing. The last five were related to the characters. Overall, for me, although a unique, interesting, or foreign setting adds to my assessment of a book, it’s not strictly necessary for me to call a book First Class.

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Name a “First Class” Novel

Recently Donald Maass published an article,The New Class System, about his take on the world of publishing in Writer Unboxed. In it he listed classes of novels. I am creating a checklist of his First Class Novel points. My first impression was that few novels would fit in this category, and of course, it probably isn’t necessary for all good novels to meet every point.

Here’s the list, taken from his post:

1. Memorable Characters
a. singular destiny
b. likeable
c. self-aware
2. Unique Premise
3. Instantly “real” story world
4. Gripping plots
a. gripping even when slow
5. Gorgeous writing
6. Surprising themes
a.which are challenging
b. change us or see the world in a different way
7. Break rules
8. Transport us to a different culture or time
9. Teach things we knew little or nothing about.
10. Overall “utterly unique”

For my first attempt at “rating” a book I thought I’d have to use something I’d read in the last year, but when I looked at my bookshelf, I realized I have other candidates. For my first attempt at analyzing a book, I am going to use Lambs of God by Marele Day.

1. Memorable characters. Yes, although I can’t, off the top of my head, name any of the nuns or the priest.They are likeable, although they have varying degrees of self-awareness. And yes, at least two of the main characters, including the antagonist, Father Ignatius, have singular destinies.

2. The premise: a group of nuns live isolated in a forgotten monastery have their new traditions and routines interrupted when a man (Father Ignatius) appears with orders to close their sanctuary. I’ve never read a book with this outlandish premise before, and it is hard to see how anyone else could propose it.

3. Story world immediately real. Yes.

4. Plots that grip. I read it quite awhile ago and plot is not usually a major factor for me, nor are nuns the characters I’d put at the top of my interesting traits/occupations list. Glancing at the book now, I’d say it takes a little (p. 5) to actually get into. I suspect it is mostly slow but still entertaining and interesting.

5. Gorgeous prose. This is another characteristic that I’d have to reread to accurately access. I found this novel hilarious and think comic novels can get away with a different level of good prose.

6. Themes: To definitely decide, reread, but probably yes, although obviously not memorable enough I can spout them now.

7. Breaks rules. Again, this is hard to access since I’m not sure what rules are being spoken to, but yes, a book with one male character set in an isolated spot probably breaks many rules.

8. Cultures and times. My recollection from an interview is that the author made up most of the Catholicism for this novel, but it fits due to the cutoff nature of the group. So in the world of fantasy, yes an unlikely culture.

9. Teaches things. I did have to look up the geography since the author is Australian and I was curious as to the setting. I was also curious as well as the accuracy of the theology. Although I may not have learned much about either in the book itself, the book could be considered a vehicle for learning.

10. Utterly unique. My initial thought was, “Yes, this is unique,” but on reflection, I think it could fit into a genre of science fiction/fantasy–isolated outpost. It might have some similarity to Lord of the Flies, (William Golding) and possibly The Sparrow  (Mary Doria Russell.)

I guess I’m calling it as having at least six attributes of the First Class Novel, with three unknown due to the necessity of rereading. The last is a draw since I would have said yes, utterly unique, but on second thought, it does share characteristics with some other stories.

Overall score: 6+

I would love to hear YOUR ideas of First Class Novels and how they rate using this system.

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