The Ozymandias Coliseum
So what is it that makes the really great books so great? Is there a single secret? Obviously, it requires good writing. But are the great books great only because they are well-written? I think there may be many books one could identify that are well written but not considered to be "among the greats". There is also an issue of personal taste. What one person considers to be a great book may be different for another person. Presumably, all great books are also good, while not all good books are also great. So how do we separate the great from the good?
I do not know the answers to any of these "great" questions, unfortunately. However, I do know one answer, and one that satisfies my own quest for good writing. That is, as a writer myself, I would like to discover the key to not only good writing, but at least some of the ingredients to great writing.
First off, how to separate great from good writing. Well, as a member of Goodreads, I have reviewed nearly 200 books and have read over 3000 books, so I have something to say about the subject. Instead of going to self-proclaimed experts on this subject (there are only the one kind!), I decided to make a list of books I consider to be great, and work backwards from my list. I have not made my list as a function of genre - it contains books of several genres. Also, I am interested in books that are memorable. There are some books that strike one as outstanding at the time one reads them, but do not linger long in one's memory. I am rather more interested in books that haunt one after completing the reading. So this is in some ways of very personal list, but while some may query some of my choices, I think overall the list is pretty decent.
Here is my list, although I also added some titles by going through other lists of the 100 or 1000 greatest novels/books, etc., provided I had read them :
War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy (probably my all-time favourite book; many people consider Anna Karenina Tolstoy's best book, but I've always had trouble getting through it)
The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien (is this one or three books? never mind)
Dune by Frank Herbert (or the Dune saga, the whole six books?)
The Dispossessed by Ursula K. LeGuin (many people cite The Left Hand of Darkness as her greatest work but I prefer The Dispossessed)
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Basho (not actually a novel, more a kind of travel diary)
The Glass Bead Game by Herman Hesse (although both Steppenwolf and Siddartha could also be listed)
The Stranger by Albert Camus (which I prefer in the French original, L'étranger)
The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka (I know he wrote several other works as important, but this is the only one I have read with attention)
To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf (Mrs Dalloway is also up there, I love Orlando, and I am halfway through The Waves)
Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (many people claim Emma is the better book, but I've always liked P and P best)
Savitri by Sri Aurobindo (not a novel, rather an epic poem, but certainly in the category of the all-time greats; probably I should also put Milton's Paradise Lost here, or Dante's Inferno, both books that have marked me, but my goal is not an exhaustive list, rather a representative one)
The Four-Gated City by Doris Lessing (most people would cite The Golden Notebook, but I've always liked the Four-Gated City, perhaps because I grew up in the London area and so loved this way of understanding the city)
Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak (most people have seen the film, a lot fewer read the book, but I think it is up there with the greats - even without the film it would have been memorable)
The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury (actually a collection of stories around a common theme)
The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje (the film was good, but the book was even better)
Don Quichote by Miguel Cervantes (considered by some to be the first novel)
The Tartar Steppe by Dino Buzzati (an Italian great, not widely known outside Italy but definitely in the top level)
Things Fall Apart by Chinua Acheba (I am actually still reading this one, but I can see it is in good company, although not an easy book)
Ulysses by James Joyce (a fascinating book I have always loved)
Maybe I will stop there. Needs some more female authors, only 6 out of the 21 are by women. I could certainly add a few more : The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck, The Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler, The Tale of Genji by Lady Murasaki, and so on. But as I say, the point isn't exhaustivity, but a representative sample.
Now, what do all these books have in common, maybe that distinguishes them from the multitude of other books that are good but not great? Well, one thing I noticed was that many of them deal with contrasts, although that may simply be a characteristic of good storytelling. Hence, for example, War and Peace deals with, well, the Napoleonic War from Russia's perspective, and the trials and tribulations of a number of aristocratic families focussed around the Rostov family. The Lord of the Rings also contrasts intimacy and the vast scope of its storytelling, as does Dune, each, however, in its own way. To Kill a Mockingbird contrasts black and white, and child and adult. And so on. But probably the vast majority of books deal with such contrasts, so this hardly seems a distinguishing feature of these books. However, my focus on contrasts led me to another, related feature which I think is distinctive to these books, in ways that are interesting for my broader questions.
Each of these books portrays the dissolution of an important, and often very specific boundary or sets of boundaries. In War and Peace, the boundary was already suggested by the contrasts present, that is, the book is concerned with the ways in which the large events of the Napoleonic War affect the small events of the family troubles, and to a limited extent vice versa. So it is a treatise that examines how the boundary between the large and the small becomes blurred or even breaks down. The Lord of the Rings concerns a similar breakdown, but is more focused on how the small can affect the large. Doctor Zhivago is likewise concerned with the breakdown of the separation between the individual and the larger society, here, however, focused on the apparatus of the state. It is also about the dissolution of boundaries between lovers, but that is modulated by its concerns about the relationship with the state. If it was "just" the love story, the book wouldn't have the same power. Another book on my list that blurs the line between the individual and the state is The Dispossessed, only here the focus is on the relationship between government and anarchy.
Dune is a highly complex book concerned with the relationships between humans, organisations and time. It deals with the breakdown of control over these interactions. The Glass Bead Game also deals with the loss of control one gets within the context of playing a complex game and how this blurs into mastery, or lack of mastery, over one's life. So the boundary that is dissolved is that between playing (both games and music as it turns out) and life itself. These breakdowns are all complex and nuanced - none of these are simple stories.
To Kill a Mockingbird focuses on the dissolution of the colour boundary, between blacks and whites, and to a lesser extent on the boundary between adulthood and childhood. Things Fall Apart , by Chinua Achebe, has a similar theme around justice in a more colonial context, dealing with a mirroring of the arrogance and entitlement that are present in the white invaders of Nigeria but also, in a very different form, among the indigenous peoples. The dissolution of the boundary between these two cultures is therefore exceedingly complex.
To the Lighthouse is a wonderful portrait of diverse characters in and around a family. The boundary that appears to be dissolved over the course of the book is between the people and their goals and aspirations. This is hinted via the title of the book. They are trying to get to the lighthouse they can see across the bay, but never seem to actually arrive. Another book which deals with one's aspirations is Don Quichote. Here, the line being blurred is that between a person's ideals and aspirations on the one hand, and the often sad or mundane aspects of daily life on the other.
The Four-Gated City focuses on the relationship between the autonomous and sometimes lonely self and the social community as embodied by the city, and on how these two states blur together in ways that can be uncomfortable, or that, alternatively, provide comfort. I'm sure other people may read different things into these books, I am just giving a glimpse into my own understandings. The point is, these books are all memorable. I read The Four-Gated City over forty years ago, and it still haunts me today. This is another story where the blurring involved is hinted at by the title. It is the four "gated" city, that is, passage into and through the social environment is "gated", or controlled. In the majority of these books, the title encapsulates the main point, sometimes in subtle ways.
Hence, for example, Wuthering Heights. Here the boundary being dissolved is the one between persons and the landscape. Hence the "heights" are a feature of the landscape, and the "wuthering" suggests a blurring. Again, it is also about a love story, but the latter is modulated through the other issue, with, in this case, nightmarish effect. Basho's book is also about the disappearance of the boundary separating a person from the landscape, but in his book, the focus is on the uplifting, positive aspects that may arise when the two things come together. The Metamorphosis concerns the breakdown of the relationship between the normal and the monstrous. Again, the issue is complex and yet is handled with nuance. And The Stranger deals with the blurring of the boundary between those engaged with life, and those who believe being disengaged is the better option.
Other favourites? The English Patient concerns the breakdown of the separation between memory and the immanent present. Interestingly, although the title would seem to refer to the person with his burns, the idea of "patience" hints at this relationship. The specificity of the way that the relation between memory and the present is broken is what characterizes this book. There are many other examples in literature of books that focus on the problems of memory, but the greater ones do so in specific ways. For example, Proust's In Search of Lost Time could have been on my list for that very reason. The Martian Chronicles also deals with a kind of memory issue, but here it is the memory constructed for a culture, and also, the ability of culture to make the strange familiar. Again, it is the very specific, albeit complex and nuanced, focus of the book that makes it so memorable.
I'm almost through my list. The Tartar Steppe is another favourite - I read this one in Italian. It deals with the breakdown of the boundary between action and doing nothing. The main character is sent to an outpost to defend his country under the expectation of experiencing battles that might require courage, and receiving glory, but ends up doing absolutely nothing. It is a wonderful read, and another of those books which won't leave you alone. Pride and Prejudice is probably the book that seems most "trope-like" on my list, but to be fair that is partly a result of the over-exposure we have had to this story in the media. In fact, the blurring of the prideful person and the one who suffers from prejudice is much more subtle than the Cliff Notes version might suggest. Savitri, one of the great poems in the English language, blurs the line between personal love and divine love - again, a highly specific issue. Finally, Ulysses is in a class by itself. As far as I can determine, the boundary-blurring going on here is at a meta-level, it is the dissolution of the boundary between the observer or reader and observed, or one(s) about whom the story is written. The way the text is constructed, we are drawn into the structuring of the events and the story. For those willing to invest the time and effort to read the whole book, the result is extraordinary. It is also extremely funny, an element which also contributed to its memorable quality.
Do not other books also deal with the dissolution or blurring of boundaries or relationships? Well, the answer appears to be, yes and no. Lots of books do this, but they often do so for relationships or qualities that are less important in the overall scheme of things, they focus on obvious and more general relationships, or they simply tell a good story and offer nothing specific about dissolving boundaries. For example, the average run-of-the-mill romance story focuses on the obstacles in the way of the romance, but this has been done a thousand times over. Furthermore, the great love stories in literature rarely focused uniquely or solely on the obstacles to the relationship - instead, they set the love story against other issues, as in Doctor Zhivago or Wuthering Heights above. I have read many romance stories and the only ones that linger are those that brought some of the sophistication described above to bear on the story.
Well, the point of this whole exercise was to take a hard look at my own writing efforts and attempt to determine where I am on the right track, and where I am not. Not that I have any idea that I am going to write a so-called "great" book. I am only trying to write good books. Indeed, I don't think a writer is well-placed to determine whether their own books are truly great, in any case. But I would like to write the best books I can, and if they include the ingredients that set off books one would consider great from other books, then I will be happier with myself.
A quick analysis of my four main writing projects gives me a scorecard of 2/4, with possible improvements for a third. So my new young adult effort, The Clangworld Empire, appears to work with the dissolution of the boundary between artificial and organic life forms. I contend this is interesting and could make for a good story, provided the writing is up to snuff. My long series of books called, collectively, The Ido Chronicles, is overall concerned with the blurring of the relationship between the human and the divine, between God or the Gods (or the gods) and the individual. This, I believe, is also a good premise for a set of stories, and quite different from most other contemporary novels. My White Shadow Trilogy, on the other hand, isn't so easily characterized in terms of the disappearance of some kind of boundary or relationship. Perhaps in relation to family trauma, that is, the separation that often exists between a person's own trauma and that of their parents and grandparents. But the trilogy needs work to bring this out more clearly. Finally, for my science fiction thriller under the working title Face Down, the only relationships I can clearly identify appear to be artificially constructed. So I need to think this project through to get greater clarity. In general, however, even for the other projects, knowing what might make them memorable helps me focus my revisions towards enhancing those elements. So I feel the analysis effort I have carried out has been useful to me.
I of course understand that many will find my list questionable, worry that books I left out might change the conclusions to which I have come, or in general disagree with my reasoning. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion. For me, however, if the analysis leads to concrete suggestions for my own writing, I am satisfied. And that is the case here. Only time (and the public!) will determine whether my assumptions are correct.