Novels Worth Reading

As a novel writer, I’m first and foremost a reader; I love to read, I love to buy books, smell them, feel them, upload them… any form is fine by me.  I want the books I read to be witty, intelligent, and well developed in terms of plots, characters and environments.

Kitchen Sink Realism

Everyone has different tastes – that’s why there are so many different genres; but for me personally, there’s also a list of things I don’t want in a novel:  I don’t want to be confronted with messy lives dealing with self-inflicted problem after problem; I don’t want tragic or sad or bitter endings; I don’t want to be confronted with the grit, grime, blood and gore of dysfunctional lives that end up learning nothing, making no character arcs, and end up in the mud by the end of the tale.   This genre description actually has a name:  Kitchen Sink Realism.  It was a cultural movement in Britain back in the ‘50s and ‘60s that was portrayed in films, books, plays, and art – the grit, grime, anger, disillusionment and harsh realities of realistic social scenarios.  It’s what might also be referred to as postmodernism.  My personal response to this kind of novel is, “If I wanted that kind of realistic tension, I could just go hang out at the nearest bar.”

A Tough Nut

I once had an English student, and our focus was medical English in preparation for their upcoming medical exams (two nurses came together for semi-private tutoring).  As part of the lesson we needed to work on basic conversational skills and sentence structures, and I find that the best way to bring in a wide variety of scenarios is usually to do a type of role play – nothing embarrassing, but each person is given a character to put themselves into a situation that they might not normally deal with:  They may be a chef, or a secretary, or a customer in a hardware store.  This particular student, when asked what kinds of books she read, said, “history and autobiographies or biographies”.  When asked what novels she read, she said she found such things ridiculous and a complete waste of time (this was back before I became an author!); she categorically refused to even try to put herself into someone else’s shoes for the scenarios.  My impression of her as a person was that she was narrow-minded, knew it, and was proud of that fact.  She was a hard character, and all the time I knew her or met her afterwards, I never saw a soft side emerge, either toward herself or toward others; I often found myself wondering why she’d gotten into the nursing profession in the first place – as a patient, I wouldn’t necessarily want her working on my ward…  A line from the novel I’m currently writing (Asunder, the third book in the Northing Trilogy) would have fit her life too:  “he has never had the propensity for engendering compassion; I pray he never needs it, as he never gives it.”  An epic love story might do her a world of good.

What’s Worth Reading

What I want when I read a book is to be transported into another life, whether that’s in the past, present or future, on this earth, or on another planet, or in another dimension; I want to be entertained, made thoughtful, learn something about the world around me, and learn something about myself.  Ideally, I will come away from the experience having been changed, in even a small way.  I want to feel connected; somewhere out there is a person I can relate to – whether it be the author, or the character, or other readers that appreciate the same books.

Aside from places and times that are genre-specific, such as science fiction and alien planets in the future, or London in the 18th century, all of the elements of what I like in novels are universal.  Humans the world over, in every century, want to feel connected; to feel that they can relate to something someone else is going through; even to have parts of their own life’s experiences explained through someone else’s perspectives in similar circumstances.  Above all else, at the heart of every good novel – regardless of the genre – is a story of love; that is the ultimate connection between characters.  It may be a child finding the love of a family after being shoved through the knocks of life too much for their age; it may be the hero or heroine finding love; it may be a widow or widower finding love again, or reuniting with true loves; it may be someone coming to the point in their life that they accept and love themselves just the way they are.

On to You!

When you read novels, what is it you’re looking for?  I would love to hear about it – please comment below, even if it’s just a few key words!

novel-colin-firth

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28 Comments

Filed under Articles, Musings, Nuts & Bolts, Plot Thots & Profiles, Quotes, Writing Exercise

28 responses to “Novels Worth Reading

  1. It’s interesting that you could not find or discover anything sympathetic in a real life character who did not share your taste or opinions about the value of reading novels. Isn’t it possible that the actual life in which an adult person is immersed is far more entertaining and thought provoking for them than the abstract world of fiction or parlor-game types of writing exercises?

    • I agree! It’s not the fact that we disagreed on the value of reading novels; she was an edgy person that seemed to thrive in conflict and provocation; I’ve never met anyone like her to that extreme. I’m sure she’s got many good points – her blunt honesty being a big plus; I liked her in all her “edginess”. It’s simply that the point of the exercise I used with students was to throw them into scenarios to increase their vocabulary range; every grammar practice book does the same thing, and she even refused to do such exercises (from those books) for homework; my hands were a bit tied as to what she would and would not do, and it was extremely frustrating for her co-student, who eventually came to me for private lessons. She even refused to consider sample sentences like, “My car won’t start; I need to call a mechanic,” because it didn’t relate to her life!
      As a speaker of English, High German and Swiss German, I understand the necessity of learning words in a topic which you might not come across in your own daily life.
      It’s very possible that her life was interesting enough for her; it’s just that I find it a pity when someone refuses to at least try to see things from the perspectives of another person…

      • Thank you for that lovely reply. And I agree with what you say about trying to see from another’s perspective. After a lifetime of teaching English and French to persons of all ages and backgrounds, I can certainly sympathize with your dilemma as a teacher. Your difficult student became interesting to me because I myself don’t care to read novels anymore—after a long lifetime as an avid reader of anything and everything. This seems to annoy those around me, who are into the current onslaught of “everyone is writing a novel” and reviewing and gulping down books at a furious rate. Maybe it’s because I am old, and time and energy are at a premium. Wisdom literature and poetry are my addictions of choice now, and re-reading the books that were life-altering for me. I should mention that I do enjoy following your blog, and wish you continued success in your many endeavors.

      • Thank you. I understand your perspective; sometimes I get in the mood that, unless I’m certain the author writes thoroughly in all aspects of the process, I’d rather not read; other times, I’m still willing to take risks with new authors, though with self-publishing so rampant, that’s what we refer to in German as “Katze im Sack kaufen” or “buying a cat in a bag” – i.e. you never know what you’ll get when you open it up, quality-wise…
        I write the kinds of novels I’d like to read, and the Swiss part of me isn’t satisfied with “good enough” – I hone it until I can read through the novel with pleasure, no matter how many hundreds of times I’ve stared at the passages during the writing process… 🙂

  2. I hate when authors put every single big word they know into every sentence. We get it, you know a lot of words lol

  3. And it’s gotta be believable on some level (like fantasy)

    • Definitely! As an example, my fantasy / science fiction novels (“The Cardinal”) are thoroughly researched – the historical and archaeological elements took me to Scotland and Norway, and I clearly defined the elements of fantasy for myself so that I could stick to my own “rules” about how that part of the story plays out.

  4. I love this quote! Thanks for sharing it! 🙂

  5. It is true, when you are immersed in a good book, everything changes for the better. Firth’s brilliant isn’t he!

  6. Another really good post. Thanks, Stephanie. For much of my life I also despised reading novels. How foolish. Perhaps I got cured when I decided to read aloud to my kids so that they would hear more than everyday English as they grew up in Switzerland, and enjoyed harmless but exciting books like Swallows and Amazons, etc. (I read going on for 100 books to them until the boys got too big to want to sit on Dad’s knee!) But I was disappointed when looking for modern children’s books to find mainly stories of dysfunctional families and nastiness. As an aside: I wouldn’t that postmodernism. There’s a lot that’s healthy about the trend to question or reject arrogant, authoritarian, humanistic reasoning which has patently failed to solve the big social problems of our day.

    • Thank you. I’m glad you discovered the pleasure of reading at last! 😉
      I agree with you on the mentality behind postmodernism; it’s simply not my choice for a novel when I’ve got time to read – I like escapism, rather than kitchen sink realism. 🙂

  7. What you say that you search for in a novel, I search in real life: connection and love. From a novel I wish something, or all, of the following: to be left knocked over, wide-eyed and forgetting to blink, shown that the author is ahead of me, shown the author’s vulnerability, originality and fearlessness. And now all I need to do is wrap it all up and deliver a book myself. 🙂

    • I like those kinds of books too! Wild rides, breathtaking pace, and surprise – all good in novels, and life as well. 😉 Those things I search for in novels are the connections with real life; that’s the “believability” in a novel… 🙂

  8. I love books that project you into a place which is almost as real to you as the physical reality around you. Thus, we talk about Greene-land and Hardy Country. What I really hate is when the hero is too heroic to be believable. I don’t like heroes who never fail, make mistakes or just give up. I gave up reading Jo Nesbo because I thought Harry Hole was just too gung-ho to be true. 🙂

    • Thank you for reminding me of Graham Greene! I haven’t read one of his books in many a year – I’ll get them out again. Perhaps you might like a Scottish author, Neil M. Gunn (check him out on Wikipedia).
      I believe that part of the appeal of any character is their approachability, their flaws, and what makes them heroes or heroines is that they overcome despite, or precisely because of, those very weaknesses.

  9. I like novels with characters I’m not. I enjoy getting into someone’s head and heart so different I can learn. Sometimes, admittedly, that means a more normal perspective than my own. I also like to be in places I’ve never been and likely will not go to, countries far away or in the past (or in the future). I suppose this fondness for difference is why I tend to like fiction of speculative genres–mysteries, fantasies, and science fiction. Thank you for the question! Thank you for sharing your own observations first and so fully.

    • You’re welcome!
      If you know of any good sci-fi / fantasy books, please share! I’m always looking for good ones. By that I mean I love a good yarn, but not necessarily ones that lean heavily on violent takeovers, wars or dystopia; I like diving into “other” environments with great characters that have solid reasons for being there, and those reasons most often rely on the nature of what it means to be human – or alien, if you know what I mean!

  10. I probably wouldn’t like kitchen-sink realism, either. In fact, I think I’ll hate it. But I don’t mind the occasional sad ending. I’m curious; what do you think of Shakespeare’s tragedies?

    I love immersion (what you call escapism), but I don’t always want to lose myself in a happy story. I read a lot of historical fiction featuring famous historical figures—very few of who actually managed to die of old age. But that doesn’t stop me from wanting to know their lives.

    I intensely dislike novels with an agenda. I don’t like being pushed into an emotion or idea. I think the best authors write what they want but then stand back to let their readers judge their work and their characters for themselves.

    • Thanks for sharing!
      As far as Shakespeare is concerned, I’m divided: On one hand, his work is genius and has stood the test of time, and has been translated and modernised into films countless times; on the other hand, as a writer who likes to analyse storylines and character arcs, I find some of the characters too shallow to hold my interest; knowing that they’re going to die only makes that worse. 😉
      Like you, I don’t like novels with agendas either; I like the story to unfold in an organic way.

  11. Could you name some of your favourite novels and authors? I’m curious!

    • When I have time to sink my teeth into a good chunk, I like Kate Morton, David Baldacci, Thomas Hardy, Jane Austen (of course!), Sir Author Conan Doyle, and Ken Follet, to name a few. When I don’t have that much time, but want a weekend read, I tend to go to Joseph Cummins (short stories from history), Valerie Comer (clean romance series), Stephenie Meyer, or any number of new novelists on my Kindle.
      What are your favourites?

      • My favourite books and authors are always changing. Recently, I’ve grown attached to Robert Harris, Ken Follett, David Gemmell, and Bernard Cornwell. Out of those, Harris is the author I admire the most.

        When I was a child, I loved mysteries such as those by Enid Blyton and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. I don’t usually read romances, unless it’s one written by someone who’s been dead for about two centuries, then suddenly, it’s all right.

      • 😉 I guess Jane Austen counts, then!

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