Ask any successful writer what helped them hone their talents, and they will tell you: reading. They’ll tell you to read the bad, the good, and the mediocre. They’ll say you must read everything: newspapers, novels, online magazines, professional blogs, amateur blogs. I’ve even read a post in which a writer (whom I admire) said she reads the back of shampoo bottles and toothpaste tubes.
Then, they’ll tell you that you must write. Write everywhere: on a laptop, in a notebook, on sticky notes, on café napkins. They’ll say to write for free, write because you love to write, develop yourself as a writer, and then, eventually, you will write for a living. You’ll get to write about things that you care about, and be able to pay the rent while doing so: if I may say so myself, this is the dream. And if you’re a fantasizer like me, you’ll more than likely dream of writing a book one day.
But first, you must read.
And it is here that I must announce the point of this article, of my writing: I’m questioning what makes a good book.
Recently, on the recommendation of a friend I’ve started reading The Dinner: A Novel by Herman Koch. The English-translated novel, first released in 2012, found great success in Europe. However, currently, I’m half way through this book and I cannot stand it.
The book centers exclusively around the narrative of one middle aged man, Paul, as he attends dinner with his wife, brother, and sister-in-law. The two families plan on discussing some sort of astonishing video which features both of the families sons, doing some sort of unspeakable act (I won’t ruin it, in case my writing here somehow prompts you to read the book), and over the course of the dinner the narrator has several lengthy flashbacks and many, many thoughts.
And yet, I believe this book is boring. Why? Because the narrator seems to be a paranoid, untrustworthy asshole. In what may possibly be the most accurate book review I’ve read in a while, New York Times book reviewer Claire Messud, explains in more delicate terms just exactly why the characters and plot are so incredibly unlikable.
It’s here that I believe I have found what makes a good book: readers need someone to believe in. They need one character, or one event, in which they can entrust hope – put simply, readers need someone, or something, to root for. At the very least, there must be some moral compass, some necessary lesson to be learned, etc. And yet in The Dinner, the entire novel centers only around the narrators thoughts, making the book unlikable in its entirety.