Four Literary Questions

This question was posed for me by a reader on my Goodreads page. For me, the best questions are the ones that make me think more deeply about the issues involved. This was a good one:
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 “What makes a great story/book? There are so many writers out there, but only a few get any acclaim, and some of the best posthumously. It is a herd mentality that snowballs into popularity?”
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The questioner is actually asking four separate questions here.
1. What makes a great story?
2. What makes a great book?
3. Why do only a few books get acclaim?
4. Is it a herd mentality that snowballs a book into popularity.
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I answered them in order–but Number 2 is the one that interests me most.
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1. A great story is one which satisfies the question it raises in the beginning. It can be a very subtle question, about love, say, or loyalty, or an obvious one, ‘who killed Colonel Mustard and why,’ and satisfies it in a way that was continually surprising, that’s both suspenseful–even oddly so–and pays off along the way in terms of its central question, as well as at the end. Story is setup and payoff. A novel is a series of payoffs. But there is alignment, it doesn’t jump the rails.
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2. A great book is far more than a great story. A great book, and I mean greatness–a great book deepens our understanding of the human condition. A great book moves us, it shapes us. On the technical level, a great book will have us torn between the urge to read on–to satisfy suspense, what we call ‘profluence’ ie. what’s going to happen?????–and the urge to stay and reread that sentence because its so bloody beautiful, moment to moment. The exquisite tension between beautiful writing and compelling story is the greatest of all pleasures. And then to be continually thinking more and more deeply about life and our own humanity, add that in, and you have Greatness.
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3. Why do only a few books get acclaim? Because out of the 400,000 or so books published in English this year, or the 100 million books in existence today, there are only going to be a certain number who meet the criterion of #2–greatness. Of these, so much depends upon a sensitive connection between publisher and public. That’s why real book critics are so terribly important and the loss of stand-alone book review sections in newspapers–and the loss of newspapers–across the country so imperils the whole literary project. Acclaim–real acclaim, recognition of greatness and the ability of great readers to find those books and acclaim them–is a very dicey prospect, luck plays all too big a part in it. There are a lot of writers but not a lot of greatness in any generation. It’s locating the greatness and then allowing that to reach the readers that’s always the issue. Why posthumous books often get more recognition is that the often horrible event of a writer’s death calls attention to their work, and if greatness is involved, there’s the huge regret that there will be no more of their work, and that somehow we readers might have been more attentive, might have somehow saved that writer.
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4. The question of popularity and the question of acclaim are two very very different ones–hard to accept, maybe, in this time of ‘ranking likes’ instead of ranking greatness. We all like a bag of Doritos from time to time, but we all know the difference between chemically treated snack food and a fine and nourishing meal. Popularity means that various aspects of reading matter, a story, a self-help or whatever, meet people’s needs in a satisfying way. They might not be literary needs–see #2–and often aren’t. They might be the need to escape some heavy-duty personal problems for a while. They might be the need to tag along on an adventure. They might be a way to vicariously live a dream life. If they perform their function successfully, people talk about it, and then their friends hear about it.
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It’s not so much ‘herd mentality’ as it is the contagious excitement of something people have found entertaining, useful, pleasant, interesting or meaningful in some way–and it can be excitement of a literary nature too. Fine writers can be exceedingly popular–Tolstoy was very popular in his time, as was Dickens and Twain. In our time, we have John Irving, Amy Tan, Isabel Allende, George Saunders, John Le Carre, Joyce Carol Oates, Richard Russo, Jonathan Lethem, TC Boyle, Jane Smiley, Toni Morrison. Naturally, that’s the sweet spot. To strive for greatness, to tell a great story, to have some acclaim and some popularity–what more can writer hope for?
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158 Responses to “Four Literary Questions”

  1. Tony Peyser Says:

    This is a wonderful & wise piece, Janet. With regard to posthumous fame for some writers, I’m reminded of this W.H. Auden verse:

    Let us honour if we can
    The vertical man
    Though we value none
    But the horizontal one.

  2. cschlanger Says:

    Thank-you for this. So clear…so deep.

  3. Reblogged this on CL Pauwels at Large and commented:
    Hitting #1 (I hope…) and striving, always, for #2.

    What makes a great book in your world?

  4. Reblogged this on Word Garden.

  5. Thank you for this. Every time I read your words, I feel like I am imbibing some rare and incredible wisdom that I cannot hope to find elsewhere. (Probably why I read White Oleander like Hazel reads An Imperial Affliction.)

    Reblogging via pingback.

  6. Having completed my third novel, I struggle with greatness constantly. In telling a story, I know I fail consistently to achieve that beautiful spot and strive to improve. Very thought provoking post. I also love the authors you have mentioned. I would add Kurt Vonnegut to the list.

  7. bethanyc14 Says:

    What a greta way to analyze this. I love it, thank you for sharing.

  8. Very useful. Thank you!

  9. DiyDaisy Says:

    I loved reading this😍 thankyou xx

  10. Thank you sooo much for this brautiful post, it has really enlightened me on a lot of things.

  11. “The exquisite tension between beautiful writing and compelling story is the greatest of all pleasures. And then to be continually thinking more and more deeply about life and our own humanity, add that in, and you have Greatness.”
    This is immensely quotable and has put into words what I enjoy as a writer and a reader.

  12. I really enjoyed reading it, thanks for sharing ☺☺☺

    Best wishes,
    Alice

  13. I so agree with #2. When you find a beautiful passage, it sticks with you forever. The closing lines of A River Runs Through It are my all-time favorites.

  14. Reblogged this on hatchnut's Blog and commented:
    Something to think about.

  15. Hi, can you let me know what you think of my latest post? http://updatesonmylife.wordpress.com/2015/01/11/what-did-i-do/
    I would really appreciate it! Thank you!

  16. Reblogged this on sandsalt and commented:
    Hi all

  17. Reblogged this on matangala.

  18. Personally, the criteria I look for are books with practical value and dont leave you in dreamland wondering endlessly. I may have different preference with other readers, I believe that what predetermines a book to sell out.

  19. leemburu Says:

    This is so relevant
    So interesting to read…😉

  20. Acclaim is probably the most evasive and misleading yet influential category, when it comes to defining what a good story is, in my humble opinion. It saddens me to know that probably too many good stories never get to be read, because they never get the acclaim nor the popularity to propell them to a wider public.

  21. Thought provoking…what a great way to start my working day. Re blogged on The Last to Know.

  22. Reblogged this on The Last to Know and commented:
    I would like to share this terrific post from Janet Fitch’s blog, an interesting, thought provoking read.

  23. detroitartist83 Says:

    Agree and disagree with #1. Some of my favorite stories answer some questions while leaving some to the imagination

  24. Reblogged this on colouryourlifeandlive and commented:
    It’s always important to ask yourself before you write…

    Yours Marifee

  25. Reblogged this on Rexis' Game Blog and commented:
    Good answers! Loved it!

  26. Great answers! Loved it!

  27. I agree with points one and two. A great story should be a piece of literature that should satisfy its reason for existence. Though that is dependent on the plot of the story and how the reader responds to it, there can be no denial when we feel that warm satisfaction on the realization that a story/novel is complete in itself, and nothing more should be said about it.

  28. Reblogged this on Theory Of A Soldier and commented:
    As a person writing stuffs myself, I unequivocally agree with points one and two. Though the issue of fame/popularity is mostly decided on how the readers consider a novel to be. And perhaps this partly explains why authors like Chetan Bhagat and Durjoy Dutta are famous inspite of writing crap, because the youth are literally glued onto the genre of romance only.

  29. Reblogged this on bloggirly2905 and commented:
    Great🙏👏🙌

  30. Great answers! Happy fishing 💋

  31. My favorite author atm is K. F Breene!

  32. Truly appreciated! Thank you for sharing it. It arrived just in time!

  33. UaDaysInformer Says:

    Reblogged this on UaDaysNews.

  34. Reblogged this on A Beginner´s Blogger Diary and commented:
    What makes greatness in writing ! 🙂

  35. I really like your outlook. It made sense to me. 🙂

  36. Reblogged this on Lisa Fox Romance and commented:
    Wise words.

  37. White Oleander is about as great as books come!

  38. Reblogged this on Amber Lisa's Literary Boutique and Spa! and commented:
    This is what we always are considering with our review of literature.

  39. I love your answer to question 2. I agree about needing some lines that are so beautiful you want to re-read them over and over!

  40. Reblogged this on Marni speaks and commented:
    A straightforward answer and worth a read for my writer friends.

  41. “Of these, so much depends upon a sensitive connection between publisher and public.”- so true. Thank you for your insightful post!!

  42. molvi0849 Says:

    An interesting and knowledgeful post.

  43. I really like this piece. Some very good points.

  44. Nice..one..I think you should conduct webinars
    https://www.1stopwebinars.com

  45. dragongirl1981 Says:

    Reblogged this on Vivian's Magical Realm and commented:
    This is a wonderful article…truly enjoy it

  46. Reblogged this on ka7im1011.

  47. very use full. 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

  48. I think what makes greatness is the topic/theme an author chooses and how that topic/theme uniquely unfolds in the story.

  49. I find that many stories start with a thought that I have seen before and then like a script of the past go in the same direction that I read or seen on the screen before.

  50. abedaydin Says:

    👍

  51. Thank you so very much.

  52. I like this post because it’s the kind of conversation out of which I’d build my heaven. You didn’t ask, but I’d like to throw my two cents into what makes a good story.

    For me great stories are tales about suffering, followed by either triumph or wisdom. When we examine suffering, we can’t help but explore the things that connect us as human beings. And I think that’s art’s greatest service, how it connects us.

  53. commercialism and media helps a lot in making a rather stale story/book a success

  54. Thank you for explaining this so clearly, especially on the difference between a good story and a good book. I find some of the critically acclaimed books hard to read, especially those which are intimidating in size, but I am encouraged after reading your answer to question 2.

  55. Meeting people’s needs in satisfying way..is the greatest challenge to a writer. Thanks to internet today millions of writers are exposed to the world. however, only a few succeeds. Yes, greatness can also be a self made and highly publicized phenomena by using media.

  56. mindocr Says:

    Reblogged this on Mindocr’s Weblog.

  57. very usefull,, thanks

  58. kwetsoshadrach Says:

    Reblogged this on Poetgeneral.

  59. Reblogged this on berrywoo.

  60. Really nice article 😀 very beautifully written! Great books, for me, are the ones that make me read them again and again and each time I re read, I discover new aspects and situations of the book– finer details which the author had concealed beneath many different layers of the book only for that reader who explore them out!

  61. I would love to reblog this on my site! http://hollykerr.ca/ Hope that’s ok!

  62. Reblogged this on Tarek Elbakry's Blog and commented:
    It worth reading…

  63. Ah! What a refreshing and simple answer to a really good question. Cheers!

  64. You pointed out various differences that I never thought of, before. Thank you. This has helped me a lot. 🙂

  65. Reblogged this on Merissa Writes and commented:
    If you are thinking , or in the process, of writing a book of any kind this post by writer Janet Fitch is a must read! She tells the difference betweyn a “popular” story and a great one.

  66. Reblogged this on licamayol.

  67. THE WRITER’S MONTHLY REVIEW MAGAZINE
    http://writersmonthlyreview.com/

  68. Great food for thought.

  69. Recently I read Carole Maso’s, “Mother & Child”, and experienced worlds of what you’ve described in #2-greatness. It was a pleasure to read your post articulating what I have ‘lived’ through.

  70. Reblogged this on and commented:
    useful information.cheers

  71. Into the mild Says:

    Thank you for this!
    I enjoy reading & writing and have always wondered why some amazing stories either never break through, or take decades to do so!
    I don’t write anything important or intelligent, but I still hope to add this to my tools.

  72. Thank you for this beautifully written article. I especially liked the points mentioned in n°s. 1 & 2. To be a great writer, there’s a lot that goes into it. I’m looking to do something that can fulfill the n° 2 criterion. For now, I’m just starting out in my storytelling/fiction-writing skills and I’m hoping to hone my skills as time goes on. Thank you.

  73. molvi0849 Says:

    this is a nice post with a lot of depth in it.

  74. I do agree with many of the points. Especially number 2! Reading transfer us to other worlds in an instant, and there is no better way to understand what we could`t before. I think empathy with people strenghtens when we read a book describing how other people think.

  75. I truly enjoyed this read! Thank you for sharing such an insightful viewpoint. Here’s to more greatness for all of us in 2015 🙂

  76. TealFox Says:

    I couldn’t agree more to the writer’s response in answer 2. It brings to mind all the “classic” books, (i.e. The Time Machine, Sherlock Holmes series, etc.) and how they depict the distinct conditin of society at the time of their writing. Without insight into the human condition, a story wouldn’t leave any room for the reader to grow from, making it a useless, or just boring story.

  77. thesourmangoes Says:

    Your answers to the four questions are just so apt!

  78. Interesting post. There certainly is a lot that goes into what makes a good story.

    http://www.ryanlanz.com

  79. Would you say that books written by native english speakers also gain more publicity perhaps than their foreign contemporaries? As an English person, i find a read very little foreign works even in translation apart from renowned classics.

    • I think translation is a hard sell in many countries, who prefer to read about their own customs etc. A work has to be pretty great or very topical or in some way unusual for the publishers to take a chance on a) publishing works in translation, or b) putting a lot of money into publicizing them. Some of the most interesting houses publishing works in translation are rather small. An experienced reader has to keep an eye out for them. It’s sad, because great books are being written everywhere, and allow us to get out of our own world-view on a regular basis.

  80. Reblogged this on The Cozy Home Enthusiast and commented:
    After many, many years of self imposed silence, my stories are finally ready to be told. Writing again is not as natural as I expected it to be; eight years of creative exile is a long time and my mommy brain is just plain rusty!
    As I’ve searched for guidance through the words of other, more established writers, I came upon this super handy and thought provoking list of question. If you too are a rusty-writer, or just feeling reflective, have a read and see what you think! I found it very inspiring 🙂

  81. I definently agree with everythung you write, this idea has inhabited the back of my mind for such a lomg tine. Sometimes we all wonder why our work has not become famous and also why others have. I will definently refer back to your literary questions to determine the greatness of my work. In the meantime it would be an honor if you would take a second to read a few pieces from my blog 12chapters365days.wordpress.com
    Have a great day!

  82. Reblogged this on Vera Callahan and commented:
    Thought-provoking.

  83. Beautiful and true!

  84. Wow thank you so much. This was very enlightening. I am actually a singer with a passion for writing. I see you have the passion for art & writing. It comes out in your writing. That is the same thing that I am trying to do. I am in the process of writing my first book “Sing for Love, Sing for Obsession”. Now ive followed what you said about really connecting with your charcters. My main character in my story is based off myself. I would like to know what steps you took on your first book after it was written? My cousin wrote a book & self published but, I guess I would rather do it in a more traditional sense. Did you just send your first book off to several publishing companies? How did you do it?

  85. Reblogged this on butterfly998.

  86. I have a blog on cyberspeech that I would like for you to read and tell me what you think about it.

  87. Reblogged this on wanderingviolet and commented:
    It’s all the reader asks for afterall,isn’t it?
    A great story/book is what he/she thrives on.

  88. Thats very beautiful.

  89. Well said. Thanks!

  90. Wonderful insight as I nourish my soul’s longing through writing.

  91. As I have furthered my education in Literature, I have learned to appreciate so much more than the story. To me, the writing itself is as important as what it’s saying. I’m a fan of clever phrasing and a story that can make me think… a story with layers. To be fair, it isn’t as simple as that. But i believe the reason that the classics gain their popularity so many years later is because the masses don’t want Literature (with a capital L) that they have to work to read. They want easy, escapist reading. Later on, as we study these classics, true lovers of literature are able to appreciate their Literary (with a capital L again) value….. this is when we realize their true value. This is all much the same reason contemporary literature that wins awards as prestigious as the Pulitzer rarely hit the best seller list. The masses crave escapism… rather than Literary art.

  92. Love your #2…’a great book deepens our understanding of the human condition.’ Well stated.

  93. All great points! Thank you! I shall be following your blog from here on in- glad to have found it.

  94. Reblogged this on EMr.

  95. Yes. This is awesome.

  96. This is absolutely LOVELY information for anyone looking to you for advice. And after reading White Oleander, I cannot help but look for it. You’re an inspiration to me, and I look forward to learning more!

  97. Reblogged this on otakulady89 and commented:
    Please do take a look through this information, it is quite lovely!

  98. Reblogged this on SavouryMinds and commented:
    want to know the four literary questions? I bet you do.

  99. johnberk Says:

    It is about Audiobooks and ebooks as well. I do not want to own any books. I do not read them. I read Kindle, and listen to them on my mobile device. I still appreciate a good book, but rather as a piece of art. The same goes for the libraries. Anyway, thanks for your list. I agree with you.

    My favorite book by far is The Brother Karamazov by Dostoyevsky

  100. Read this a second time, still great advice! Thanks again!

  101. Awesome food for thought. This post will definitely help me as I’m writing my first novel.

  102. Reblogged this on ODDwrite.

  103. Very well said.

  104. Thank you
    Fantastic Blog
    Good luck
    ……………………………..
    http://www.apkfrog.com
    +*!

  105. I never really thought about it like this before. Very insightful.

  106. Very Interesting! Very well done! Please if you have the time check out my new up and coming blog!

    http://www.bookzulove.wordpress.com

  107. loved reading it! for me a great story is the one which has more than just the plot, behind the lines is where the actual story lies

  108. Loved ‘White Oleander’ and the sound track too. I am not one to comment on the book-movie criticisms as they are each different things and I do not see how a movie could encapsulate the horrors of a child in the system with any degree of accuracy. But I loved your book. Keep it up!

  109. I completely agree with your response to question 2. Anything, literary or otherwise, that prompts reflection on the human condition and makes us try to be better people is great

  110. A good writer offering good information = a good teacher. Must follow!

  111. I’ve read this post several times. The truth resonates. Thank You!

  112. Thank you so much! I have something to share with my friends.

  113. I loved this post! I have always loved writing and am finally getting serious about writing a book. I’m still in the early brainstorming stage but I have my main idea. I’ll be talking about it in my blog thementalmom.com. If you have any suggestions or advice I’d always love to hear from you! Thank you for this post 🙂

  114. You were kind enough to comment about my blog before, hope you can read my blog again,
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  115. Well said. A great literary work changes our way of thinking, leaving us hanging on baited breath and accepting new truths. The kind of stories that make our eyes flow with tears – as we turn the pages with vigorous delight (and dread, as we approach the ending). ..
    I love when the story is so compelling that I cannot put it down until I’ve reached the end.

  116. meritjones Says:

    Reblogged this on meritjones and commented:
    Excellent answers!

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