Most of us believe we'll be sure to love a book for time-tested reasons: it's a best-seller, we love the author, our best friend/brother/neighbor/tennis partner recommended it, or it's on the tablefront display at the chain bookstore. And don't forget the least-admitted, but most insidious reason of all: it's got a really cool cover.
None of these explanations really tell us what makes for a good novel — the kind you remember long after you've pitched every hokey mystery and fad adventure series. What will you keep at home when it's the last printed book on your shelf and everyone else is using e-readers? Well, I'm deep in the process of finding out as I and two other people are judging the adult fiction contest for the Society of Midland Authors, a venerable old group that once boasted members such as Carl Sandburg and Clarence Darrow. These days we can still say we have associates such as Sara Paretsky, Scott Turow, and Roger Ebert, but none of them entered the contest, much less come to meetings.
No, we are judging a good group of novels that tend to come from the area's university presses, although we do have plenty sent to us from the New York publishers as well. All that it takes to be considered is a connection to the Midland states (which is not so squarely Midwest as I thought — it ranges out to the Plains states also). Our headquarters is in Chicago, however, and that's the postmark on the bulk of our submissions.
When I began this bewildering process, I figured I'd sort the volumes into categories I was fascinated by, then ones I had a vague curiosity about, and finally the ones that would be lucky to pique my interest. Bad idea. Too much reading. A former judge told me that my problem would be similar to that of a literary agent or publisher.
"Go by the first five pages," he said. "If they can't grab you by then, toss it aside."
It seemed a bit cruel. What if some really great scenes came later in the book? He assured me I don't have time for that. (The awards are given in May, but we must have our results in much earlier than that.) He pointed out that this is exactly why we, as writers, try so hard to get those first five pages perfect. Heck, I had a speaker tell me the first page better be "the best one you've ever written in your life." People don't have time to meander. They grab the good stuff and go.
Okay, newly empowered, I started reading, ready to toss after the first five pages. And instead became engrossed. Now here was a problem. What happens when the book seems fairly interesting, but after a while, starts getting too weird? I went out to Office Depot and bought red, yellow and green stickers. When I hit a book that started foundering, I slapped a yellow sticker on it and stopped reading. If other judges liked it, I could continue later. I almost always went from cover to cover with green books. Red books. Well, you get it. The first five pages did them in.
However, along the way, I found that had I used my original organizational plan, I would have missed the best of the best. I always "knew" I didn't like books about war, serial killers, down-on-the-farm tales, or anything about the Holocaust (my Nazi aversion is powerful). Now I was unable to put a book down that was ostensibly about serial murders, but really about life (and some very sicko life) down on the farm. Not only could I not tear my eyes away from this book, I thought it was brilliant, beautiful, all the things one looks for in a haunting novel about the human condition. Then I was deeply engrossed in a war novel. And not just a book about battles and weapons and naval maneuvers, but also about gore and torture — two things I can't abide. Yet the depth of the characters, and the constant avenging of atrocities, somehow made it work for me. The book went down as not only thrilling but educational.
In between were killer turtles and a French schoolboy's sex manual (not explicit, just exceedingly odd), a bizarre but alluring book about people who are defined by the prescription drugs that they take, an often overpowering tale by a survivor of World War II trying to make a normal life in Wisconsin and wondering why she doesn't fit in, and a grueling, alcoholic family reunion at Dysfunction Junction.
Some books have been oversold by press agents who use big names to impress the judges. That backfires immediately when the words inside just don't live up to the hype. And Masters of Fine Arts theses are easy to spot. It's almost as if universities are spewing them out with a template for storytelling — preferably a short story, which is then bound with others in a collection. It doesn't work. If I wanted to read a bunch of unconnected short stories, I'd buy a literary journal.
Yet many of the good novels haunt. They can come from any quarter or genre. I still have a good eight or nine to go. They may unseat my favorites right now, but that will take some doing. Despite the fact that they will never win, I rather enjoy the quirky ones. Wacky and offbeat as they may be, they put the fun back into the whole experience. Because that's the message lying in the bottle at the bottom of the literary sea. Despite all the literary allusions and dreams of brilliant themes, writing and reading is supposed to be fun. And it is.