When Good Novels Are Good Enough

You absolutely love an author and then read a novel by her or him that’s good but not great. A problem? Not for me.

It’s unreasonable to expect a masterpiece every time — though some writers (George Eliot is one) have produced A+ novels many times in each of their careers. I’m just grateful that my favorite authors, dead or living, came up with multiple books I really liked even if I didn’t fall head over heels for every title. Heck, books that are good often have at least some great moments.

I thought about this while reading the last three novels I borrowed from the library. First up was Stephen King’s The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, whose nine-year-old protagonist gets lost in the Maine woods. Trisha’s struggle for survival is at times gripping and at times tedious for the reader, with the less riveting portions partly caused by the fact that Trisha can talk to nobody but herself. The book is ultimately worth reading, but it doesn’t have the wallop of King novels such as Carrie, The Dead Zone, Misery, From a Buick 8, and a number of others.

Then came Liane Moriarty’s Truly Madly Guilty — which has the author’s signature elements of all-too-human characters, deep insight into female friendships, many psychological nuances, lots of humor and pathos, and more. But the novel is more a B+ than an A+, and its focus on a fateful barbecue seems less consequential than the storylines in Moriarty works such as the masterful Big Little Lies and powerful The Husband’s Secret. Yet I’m glad I read Truly Madly Guilty. Heck, what happened at that barbecue is rather consequential.

The third novel was Zadie Smith’s The Auto-Graph Man, which has the author’s dead-on depictions of ethnic similarities and differences as well as many hilarious moments (I think Smith might be the funniest living author). But her novels On Beauty and especially White Teeth are far superior works.

Donna Tartt? I’d rank her tour de force The Goldfinch one of the very best novels of the 21st century. Memorable characters, a terrific plot concerning the painting that gives the book its title, well-handled settings ranging from New York City to Las Vegas to Amsterdam, and a completely satisfying conclusion. Tartt’s first two novels — The Secret History and The Little Friend — are quite good, but have flaws such as being too long for their subject matter and less-accomplished conclusions.

Among past authors, there are so many who offer readers immense enjoyment with novels that are not fantastic but are still plenty good. I’ll list some of those “lesser” works and then put a sampling of the authors’ masterpieces in parentheses.

There’s Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey (Persuasion, Pride and Prejudice); Alexandre Dumas’ Georges (The Count of Monte Cristo); Charlotte Bronte’s Villette (Jane Eyre); Anne Bronte’s Agnes Grey (The Tenant of Wildfell Hall); Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The House of the Dead (Crime and Punishment, The Brothers Karamazov); Thomas Hardy’s The Hand of Ethelberta (Jude the Obscure); Edith Wharton’s The Custom of the Country (The House of Mirth, The Age of Innocence); Willa Cather’s The Song of the Lark (My Antonia); John Steinbeck’s The Winter of Our Discontent (The Grapes of Wrath, East of Eden); Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera (One Hundred Years of Solitude); Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower (Kindred); and so on!

Some novels you like by favorite authors that are not those authors’ masterpieces?

My 2017 literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — which discusses a battling Board of Education and a congressional candidate unfortunately disinvited from my town’s high school — is here.

48 thoughts on “When Good Novels Are Good Enough

  1. I really appreciated reading these comments, but I have one question for everyone. In your opinions, what makes a novel a great read? Titles, plot lines, characters, writing styles…..What grabs you most and keeps you reading?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for the comment, politicalpanorama! Great question!

      For me, the title of a novel is almost irrelevant. If it has a really good title, that’s a bonus, but some of my favorite books just have titles not so originally named after the lead character or the setting (“Jane Eyre,” “Middlemarch,” etc.).

      But excellent characters, plot lines, and writing styles are VERY important. Ideally all three elements, but two or even one can work. And it’s nice when there’s some humor and/or social commentary, too.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thank you so much for your response. I’ve been a non-fiction reader/writer for so long, I have no idea what’s in a good novel. My son gives me recommendations but its great to hear other’s opinions as well. I agree title can be irrelevant no matter what the genre, hence “never judge a book by its cover” :)….. and when all three elements are good, I’m sure a good title is the icing on the cake……What exactly do you mean by social commentary? Can you give me an example?……..Thanks again for sharing your opinions! I really appreciate it!

        Liked by 1 person

        • You’re very welcome!

          Nonfiction is great, too. Though I mostly read novels these days, there were times I read a ton of nonfiction — biographies were my favorite — and my book-writing has been nonfiction.

          Yes, “never judge a book by its cover” is good advice to go by. 🙂

          To me, one major example of social commentary in novels is when authors — through their characters and/or the narrative — decry injustice (as in “The Grapes of Wrath” when the Joad family is forced to leave their family farm, as in “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and its denunciation of slavery, as in “The Handmaid’s Tale” and its slamming of sexism and patriarchy, etc.).

          Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, David! That’s an excellent example!

      I also love du Maurier’s time-travel novel “The House on the Strand” and like “My Cousin Rachel,” but they don’t top “Rebecca” either.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Readers like a dependable supply, and so, publishers also. Writers would like to supply dependably, at least the professional ones.

    But art flits about the heads of all, lighting where it will, or remaining a-flutter about and above us. It lit, for example, on Fitzgerald and stuck once, exquisitely, in the form of “The Great Gatsby”. Never again would the two be on so intimate and long-term an acquaintance, though there were moments, even great ones, in “Babylon Revisited” and “Tender Is the Night.”

    I am grateful to be on hand wherever the butterfly lands, but I recognize it seldom lands on the head of the same writer, even the best sort of writer, more than, at best, a very few times. Or at least, to the satisfaction of most readers, there are better books in the oeuvre than others, even if the names, and even the titles, on the spines are famous indeed.

    The preferences of readers and the dictates of publishers sometimes align in the person of a professional writer, who produces what’s wanted on time. But the butterfly does not always or even often oblige. We are lucky, and most of us that read know it, when we run across a writer on whom the bright elusive one lands with regularity, or at least, occasionally.

    If 100 authors each had 1 good book in them, I’d wager fewer than 10 have 2…

    Lucky us! Those are the authors we are mostly discussing on site this week!

    Liked by 1 person

    • VERY eloquently said, jhNY, and I can’t disagree. Love your butterfly metaphor.

      Fitzgerald indeed never wrote another novel that topped or equaled “The Great Gatsby,” though the sprawling “Tender Is the Night” does have a number of excellent moments (as you note) and the unfinished “The Last Tycoon” is pretty darn good, too.

      Now-deceased novelists who wrote five or so masterpieces? Dickens, perhaps, and George Eliot (“Middlemarch,” “Daniel Deronda,” “Silas Marner,” “The Mill on the Floss,” and “Adam Bede”). A few other past authors in this category, I’m sure. Living writers? Maybe, among others, Margaret Atwood (“The Handmaid’s Tale,” “Alias Grace,” “The Blind Assassin,” “Oryx and Crake,” and “Cat’s Eye”).

      Then there’s Shakespeare in the realm of plays…

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      • OTOH:

        “It is better to present one image in a lifetime than to produce voluminous work.”– Ezra Pound

        Also, your reply has inspired a thought, sorta unrelated:

        Shakespeare is the Mozart of verse, in that, like the latter, he had access to the same straw as everyone else in his profession, and yet, by making inspired use of this ordinary stuff, spun gold unfailingly.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Interesting question you referenced: Is it better to write one masterpiece, or to write a number of good books with none of them masterpieces?

          And a VERY well said paragraph about Shakespeare and Mozart.

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  3. Dave, in my personal opinion, every book except the obvious one can be classified as not as good as “Crime and Punishment”. Some books, which will remain nameless are really, really not as good as “C&P”. Others, like “The Brothers Karamazov” are almost as good as “C&P”. In a strange way, I think I was a tiny bit disappointed with “TBK” because of how brilliant “C&P” is. Compared to a normal book “TBK” is 5-star, but I hold Dostoevsky to a much higher level than I do other writers.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You have a point there, Sue! Dostoyevsky’s “Crime and Punishment” is such an amazing, riveting novel that almost every other novel ever written (even many of the classics) can’t really compete. As you say, Dostoyevsky’s “The Brothers Karamazov” comes close, but not quite.

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  4. I like Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, but it doesn’t touch Mockingbird. The inconsistencies among the characters that appear in both works are jarring, and a few passages seem like afterthoughts, but overall, I found it absorbing and interesting.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Jase! I’ve yet to read “Go Set a Watchman,” but from everything I’ve heard it doesn’t approach the masterpiece quality of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Heck, as you know, “GSAW” might be an early draft of “TKAM,” albeit a draft with a story line set later in time than “TKAM.” And, yes, the inconsistencies — such as Atticus Finch being more enlightened and racially tolerant in “TKAM” than in “GSAW.” But glad you liked “GSAW” to some extent!

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  5. The only Kurt Vonnegut novel I had a chance to review in print for a newspaper I had to pan, much as I love Vonnegut. As I recall, it was “Deadeye Dick.” But later Vonnegut acknowledged it wasn’t all that good.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I really enjoy John Jakes novels. Of course I haven’t read them all because there’s about a thousand. Haha! But one that felt like kind of a let down to me was “Love and War” of his Civil War series. I just felt like the writing wasn’t as strong and the story wasn’t as engaging as his usually are. However, it didn’t take away from my desire to keep reading his other books! 🙂 I think for me it helps to remember that it’s all subjective. What I don’t like might be someone else’s favorite novel – and the poor writers have to always keep that in mind and try to write to please everyone!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, M.B.! Your thoughts on how not all of the MANY ( 🙂 ) John Jakes novels are terrific perfectly illustrates the point of this topic. It’s nice — and right — to remain loyal to an author despite the occasional clunker. And it’s very true that a book that feels so-so to one reader might be viewed as great by another reader.

      (BTW, during a library visit this past Friday, I took out two books you recently recommended: “The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir” and “Cold Mountain”! About to start the first one…)

      Liked by 1 person

    • MB – I’m in the middle of a re-read of “The Kent Chronicles”. I’ve just fished the third novel, and not only is it not as good I remember, it’s also not quite as gripping as the first two novels. I’m not sure if Jakes tried to do too much with too many generations, or if it was my own high expectation, but it didn’t quite work for me. I am looking forward to getting to the other books though to see if they live up to my memory and the great promise that Jakes showed at the beginning of the series.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I stopped around the third book of the Kent Chronicles. My reading list is always so large I didn’t quite have time to keep plugging away at it! I feel like some of his books are just fantastic (hence I keep going back) but then some are real stinkers! Good point about perhaps taking on too much with too many generations.

        Liked by 1 person

        • I was much, much younger when I first started reading John Jakes (in fact, he was probably one of my first ‘grown up’ authors) and there were a lot of things that I hadn’t discovered yet, and I don’t think I really had a reading list yet. Almost impossible to remember what that was like! I thought I’d be a bit daunted with 8 large books in front of me, but he’s very easy to read, and I am looking forward to comparing the re-read to what my memory tells me. The first time through, I was way too young to appreciate the historical aspect of it, so I’m also looking forward to learning about that part of America’s history 🙂

          Liked by 1 person

          • That’s funny I started with Jakes while a bit younger as well. I think his style really appeals to younger people because you’re right it is such an easy and smooth read. And I do love the way the history is just woven in around the lives of his characters.

            Liked by 1 person

  7. Dave,

    I really loved “The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon”! I can really relate to that little girl lost in the woods. The only other Stephen King book I’ve ever read is “Thinner” which was one of his “Bachman” books. I am afraid of reading some of his masterpieces because they might “stay with me” for too long. I was so frightened by Shirley Jackson’s “The Haunting of Hill House” that I had to put the book down and pace the floor to compose myself before I could continue.

    Now to get back to the subject, nothing else I have read by Rosamund Pilcher even approaches her masterpiece “The Shell Seekers”, so much so that I can’t remember a title.

    “The Song of the Lark” is the name of a real painting that hung/hangs in the Chicago Museum of Art. “The Shell Seekers” was a fictional painting of the main character in the title book.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Anonymous! I liked rather than loved “The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon,” but I agree that one really felt for the girl lost in the woods. She was scared, but actually handled things pretty well for someone her age as she tried to survive — for more than a week, if I’m remembering right.

      Stephen King’s novels do lodge in one’s brain. For instance, I think I was shook up for about a week after reading “Misery.” And Shirley Jackson’s “The Haunting of Hill House” is indeed a memorable, spooky book.

      Rosamund Pilcher’s “The Shell Seekers” is definitely on my to-read list! And that’s an interesting connection/contrast you mentioned between that novel and Willa Cather’s “The Song of the Lark” book!

      Like

  8. I’m reading Richard Russo’s ‘Everybody’s Fool’ right now and it isn’t as good as ‘Nobody’s Fool,’ but it is a good read and has had some great moments. Thanks for reminding me that not every novel from my favorite writers will be a Pulitzer Prize winner but they can still be delightful.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Shallow Reflections! I’ve read one Richard Russo novel — “Straight Man,” which is set in academia — and liked it a lot. One of these days I have to get to “Nobody’s Fool.” Glad you mentioned it!

      “…not every novel from my favorite writers will be a Pulitzer Prize winner but they can still be delightful” — nicely said!

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Dave, I’m in complete agreement with you about three of the authors you mentioned. “Northanger Abbey” is the one Jane Austen novel I haven’t read at least six times, although it was still an enjoyable read. The same goes for “The Custom of the Country,” by Edith Wharton, but it’s not in the same class as “The House of Mirth.”

    I must say that I got a thrill to see some of Liane Moriarty’s books pop up in the headline to this column. You’re right that her latest book “Truly Madly Guilty” isn’t as good as all her others, all of which I’ve read twice, which I haven’t done so far for this one. As I was packing up some of my bookshelves in prep for the move, I couldn’t even remember the plotline to this novel. Once I get settled in, I’ll give it another try.

    As to other authors, I thought of John Green, whose “The Fault in Our Stars” would be considered his masterpiece, but I also loved “Looking for Alaska” and especially “Paper Towns,” which was hysterically funny, yet sad as well.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Kat Lib!

      “Truly Madly Guilty” is the weakest of the four Liane Moriarty novels I’ve read so far, though it’s still pretty good. The plot is her usual fragmented mix of present and past — what happened after, during, and before a fateful barbecue. Not sure “Truly Madly Guilty” is worth a second read. 🙂 But, heck, Moriarty’s “worst” would be many authors’ best!

      I read “The Fault in Our Stars” on your recommendation, and it is indeed an excellent, poignant novel.

      Continued good luck with your move preparation!

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      • Thanks, Dave! I suppose much has to do with when one reads a book and under what circumstances. I don’t know how we can expect any author to come up with all masterpieces, and when one finds none as such differs to the individual reader. Back in the days when I read a lot of Henry James, I tried several times to read “The Bostonians” and gave it up several times. But, as you know, it doesn’t mean I should give up reading any of his books again.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Yes, the circumstances and timing of reading a novel does have an effect. Also, a book can be more appreciated when we read it in middle age for the second time after reading it for the first time when much younger. And vice versa, of course.

          I’m a fan of Henry James, but he definitely wrote some “merely” good novels among his great ones. “The Portrait of a Lady” remains my favorite of his. I’ve never tried “The Bostonians.”

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  10. I can definitely forgive a couple of duds! I always think if you really love a novel, reading some other books by the same author can help you understand it more fully, even if you don’t love them as much. Disagree on ‘The Secret History’ though, I loved that!! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • “I always think if you really love a novel, reading some other books by the same author can help you understand it more fully, even if you don’t love them as much” — that’s a GREAT point, Cat!

      I liked “The Secret History” a LOT, but didn’t love it. Maybe it was too insular and suffocating, with that small group of college students in their own weird world. Also, I belatedly read Donna Tartt backwards — her third novel “The Goldfinch” first, then her second novel “The Little Friend,” then “The Secret History” debut, so that might have colored my feelings about “TSH” given that Tartt got better with each book. But “TSH” was a heckuva debut novel.

      Thanks for commenting!

      Like

  11. The name Lee Child comes to my mind.
    His latest one out in last October “ The Midnight Line” is about a gentle Jack Reacher we were not used to. The book was good enough so much so it is number 4 today in nyt’s fiction.
    I think it is one of his best.
    Saying that I can not take Tom Cruise any more 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, bebe! Lee Child’s Jack Reacher series is an excellent addition to this column topic! Of the 20-plus novels in the series, they’re all fantastic or very good or good — not a real clunker in the bunch. I agree that “The Midnight Line,” with its gentler Reacher and very current/poignant story line, is one of the best.

      As we’ve discussed before, Tom Cruise as Reacher is very bad miscasting. 😦

      Liked by 1 person

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