Epiphany struck me 35,000 over Chicago. Dimmed lights in the plane cabin made my laptop screen glow conspicuously on the tiny tray table, an invitation to judge over my shoulder, but I didn’t have time for self-consciousness. I had revisions to finish. Faced with a cross-country business trip, I’d assigned myself a travel project of updating my 2015 debut novel, Blue Karma. (My New Year’s blog post will explain why; stay tuned for a big announcement!) My old protagonists Amaya, Logan, and Paul kept me company through dull hours at the airport and lonely nights at the hotel. Although some of the writing made me cringe—at least I’ve learned a lot in the three years I’ve called myself an author—the story still held up surprisingly well. Now, as the airliner neared home, my manuscript neared completion.
I just finished the chapter before the pilot asked us to stow large electronics for descent. Exchanging laptop for Kindle, I resumed my book for the trip, Anthony Marra’s acclaimed A Constellation of Vital Phenomena. In addition to its own literary merits, reading it while revisiting my own debut made an interesting contrast. Constellation was inarguably more elegant, more mature, and philosophically deeper than Karma. And yet it lacked the plot structure that compelled me to turn pages, and I found myself more eager for the latter’s climax (even though I’d written the damn thing and knew perfectly well how it ended). So what was it that elevated Marra’s book to a different critical plane?
The answer echoed back to me from a Raymond Chandler essay I’d read recently while seeking wisdom for my current project, a sci-fi mystery. “The Simple Art of Murder” (1950) contains many delightfully wry observations from the master of American noir, but one that particularly struck me was this:
“The good novel is not at all the same kind of book as the bad novel. It is about entirely different things. But the good detective story and the bad detective story are about exactly the same things, and they are about them in very much the same way.”
This seems true not only of detective fiction, but any commercial genre writing. I’ve never encountered a trashy book about courage and compassion in war-ravaged modern Chechnya. The literary nature of such novels is evident right from the back cover blurb. But standard genre fixtures that appear in top-shelf sci-fi like Dune—alien planets, spaceships, galactic power struggles—also appear in countless schlocky space operas. Distinguishing quality in genre novels places onus the reader to know the conventions and evaluate whether the author has employed them well.
Not all readers are game for this challenge, so they dismiss the entire genre out of hand. After discovering Chandler’s essay, I finally understood the roots of the prejudice that led my undergraduate writing professors to forbid science fiction and fantasy stories in their syllabi. Constellation would certainly meet the English Department’s notion of a “good book”; I can picture it on the reading list for a course in contemporary literature. Karma will never join it there.
But is that really my goal? Although Constellation was worth reading, it didn’t enthrall me in the same way as, say, the Hunger Games trilogy, which I’d devoured in a single weekend. Yet I can’t judge one better than the other any more than the smart black trousers I’d worn to the conference are inherently “better” than the compression tights I’d worn for a misty morning run by the waterfront. The pants serve entirely different functions. Similarly, my story style is not literary haute couture, but performance athletic gear: sleek and tightly woven, engineered for action but durable enough to withstand some serious use. If my wardrobe (and library) is any indication, there’s a strong market for quality products of that nature.
Perhaps, then, a “good” book is simply one that excels at its intended purpose. Seeking an example, I snuck a glance at my neighbor’s book, open on her tray table. (I’m incorrigibly nosy about other people’s reading choices; my biggest complaint about the e-reader revolution is that I can no longer spy on public literary habits.) Its prose seemed sound enough, but key words suggested it wasn’t my cup of tea. Once we landed and my mobile data was restored, I looked it up online. Sure enough, it was the story equivalent of a pair of floral fleece pajamas. But the author’s numerous titles boasted glowing reviews: clearly she’d found her audience and consistently delivered a product those readers enjoyed. I might not care for her content, but I respect her successful business model!
And starting next year, I’ll try to emulate it. My time-zone-addled musings from seat 27D led me to conclude that I’ll only get my author platform off the ground if I stow my undergraduate baggage and embrace the kinds of stories my brain wants to write. So fasten your seatbelts, readers. It might be a little turbulent to start, but it’s going to be an exciting journey (and you can have all the leg room you want).