By its cover, of course.
Well, not quite…
Strictly speaking, there are no bad books. If just one person genuinely likes your story, just for the story itself, not because that person owes you money, then your book is good. And the difference between books lies in the number of people who like that book. That doesn’t necessarily make bestsellers the best books in the world.
The thing is, there isn’t a best book in the world, there isn’t a greatest writer. No one can give you this title, and no one will ever be unanimously considered to be the best writer ever.
Like the Roman saying, “De gustibus non est disputandum.” It’s all a matter of taste. Art is subjective.
Maybe it’s a good idea to compare books. But in that case, it all falls down to which books you’re comparing. If you compare, let’s say, The Great Gatsby with any other book, it will be hard to find another book that will be at least as good. But this is just a biased opinion of mine; maybe you hate The Great Gatsby and every other novel will feel like a literary masterpiece when compared to it.
Yesterday I was talking with a friend about books and such and we ended up talking about reading as the least favorite pastime of this new century. And well, I said that it all comes down to a lot of factors. If you take someone with little or no education, someone who never even read the mandatory readings in school, and give them Ulysses, they’ll never read another book again. Education plays an important part.
Henry David Thoreau once said that one must read the best books first because otherwise he may not have a chance to read them.
If you read commercial fiction, or, don’t know, thrillers, or simply easy stuff, like Coehlo’s inspirational ramblings, you won’t be very fond of more elaborate works of art. If you like fast-paced detective stories, then you won’t really enjoy reading Anna Karenina. It’s a matter of preferences. That I can cope with. I have nothing against commercial fiction, either. Heaven forbid, I’ve read Dan Brown (I really enjoyed The DaVinci Code), Paulo Coehlo (The Winner Stands Alone was rather good), and other such examples. Hell, I’ve even read Twilight and its mainstream/erotic counterpart Fifty Shades of Grey.
What I don’t like is calling an author or a book the greatest. No, it’s wrong, and it starts useless flame wars on forums, and sometimes even street fights among hipsters. My favorite, that’s the word to use. My favorite author, my favorite book.
But what really makes it easy for me to enjoy such a vast array of books from all kinds of genre, is that I judge books solely on what they wish to achieve. More commercial books want simply to entertain. That’s okay. They sell a lot because they make up for an easy read. The Catcher in the Rye is an example of a great book, which had great commercial success simply because it made for an easy and fast read.
So what I’m really trying to say is this: ask yourself what does the author of this book want to achieve? What is this novel trying to be? If it wants to be a literary masterpiece worthy of a Nobel Prize, and it’s just a convoluted mess of cliches and incessant ramblings, than it fails lamentably.
Let me give you an example. Frederic Beigbeder. He’s one of my favorite authors. Very witty prose, lots of sex, alcohol, drugs, and swearing. Usually he writes in the present tense, which makes for a very fast read. It’s entertaining, and I read it because it’s like going for a dive after you’ve slept on the beach for two hours. It’s exhilarating and fresh, and sometimes it’s damn funny, other times sad. And I read it as it is, because I’m making a compromise here, and it’s not that clear of the author’s intentions anyway. But Beigbeder wants to be one of those great writers, the ones with lots of literary awards (he even set up his own award in France), the ones that get inducted in Academies and are offered prestigious grants. But no one takes him seriously.
Some writers set a ridiculously high level of expectation for their stories. They want them to be something they’re not.
Another example is Fitzgerald. His short stories are cute things, easy to read, easy to digest. They were written mostly because he had to finance his eccentric lifestyle somehow. But in his novels he uses a different style; one that most people wouldn’t consider to be highly marketable. I believe he wanted something different from his novels; he longed after a sort of artistic immortality, some sort of critical success, not just plain, old cash. So judging his novels as aspiring for the same level of success as his stories isn’t going to work out.
Or Stephen King for that matter. He sold, what, 350 million or so books? He’s a good writer, not brilliant, but his stories are impeccable, and he’s, if not the best, one of the top storytellers of this century. His success lies in his ideas, not in the execution. And he appeals to a far broader audience than, let’s say, Thomas Pynchon or Don DeLillo.
That’s how I judge a book.