What Makes A Novel Great?

Books

The author and literary historian John Sutherland asks the question, and answers it himself with ‘How To Be Well Read’, a guide to 500 novels he considers to be great.

What defines greatness? A book that is a world first? A game changer? A source of controversy? A novel of immense popularity? Of critical acclaim? There are many definitions at work, and Mr Sutherland is careful to include examples of all.

Having explored various literary puzzles across the years, such as whether Heathcliff was a murderer and if  Jane Eyre could ever be happy, he has turned his very well-read mind to an astonishingly wide range of international fiction and offers justifications for their inclusion into the pantheon of greatness, outlining their plots and explaining their appeal.

Certainly all the obvious choices for inclusion are here – it would have been wrong not to include them – but there are plenty of surprise choices too. ‘The Good Soldier Schweik’ was only half-finished when its author died at thirty nine, but is extremely worthy of inclusion, and sits nicely here beside Charles Webb’s ‘The Graduate’ – the book is better than the film, although that’s good too.

We’re familiar with many of the choices through their other incarnations, usually as films, and it’s those we recall first, but Mr Sutherland reminds us that the source material can be very different. Studios toned down sex and violence, and sometimes the originals have unpleasant racial issues. These mainly occur in the American volumes involving slavery (the Kindle edition I read seemed heavily weighted towards US readers and I wonder if they published a different edition there).

Inevitably, the author’s preferences can be discerned on aggregate – he has a weakness for decades-long family sagas and tales of tangled multi-generational relationships that I don’t share – but one would expect his tastes to be different. Some choices are daunting, like ‘Don Quixote’, but he’s not suggesting they have to be read.

The chosen novels reflect his relationship to books at different times of his life, which inevitably skews them to a more mature readership, at the expense of more recent contenders for greatness. There’s no point in singling out those missing authors individually because Mr Sutherland has played fair and made his personal selection, but there are a number of more recent novels which are surely worthy of inclusion.

He also tends to pick the most difficult book in an author’s oeuvre rather than the most popular choice. But is ‘challenging’ always better than ‘readable’?

I would argue that the inclusion of potboilers like ‘Gone With The Wind’ and Jackie Collins’ ‘Hollywood Wives’ is stretching the definition of ‘great’. There are also a number of novels deemed unreadable by most of the world which Mr Sutherland seeks to rescue from obscurity, but even his skills can’t make them sound sufferable.

Still, he always has a succinct point to make. He tackles Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’ by looking at the way in which critics have treated it since, with one complaining that Africa is merely the backdrop for the tale of a ‘neurotic European’. A reasonable riposte to that would be that it’s written by a white European making a point, and that a novel about the rape of the Congo by Belgium would be a completely different book.

There’s enough meat on each of these little carcasses to chew over for days. ‘How To Be Well Read’ would make a fascinating choice for any book club, although you’d be arguing for a long time to come.

38 comments on “What Makes A Novel Great?”

  1. Paul C says:

    I bought this book in hardback in 2014 – wonder why it has taken so long to reach paperback ?

    It’s a wonderful fat volume to browse through. My favourite entry is on the Gold Bug by Edgar Allan Poe – a young lad became so entranced by this tale that he pursued a career in cracking codes and in WW2 he deciphered the Japanese secret naval code in a similar way to Alan Turing and Bletchley Park solving the Nazi Enigma code. Without Poe WW2 may have turned out differently muses Sutherland.

    I’ve read a lot of Sutherland’s books – Lives of the Novelists is also a fantastic work.

  2. Stu-I-Am says:

    IMHO what makes a novel great, is the author having read great novels. And then there’s what the character from John Steinbeck’s ‘Sweet Thursday’ puts succinctly: ‘I like a lot of talk in a book and I don’t like to have nobody tell me what the guy that’s talking looks like. I want to figure out what he looks like from the way he talks … figure out what the guy’s thinking from what he says. I like some description but not too much of that …’

  3. Roger says:

    Does Sutherland include Josef Skvorecky in his list of critical responses to “Heart of Darkness”? In his novel “The Engineer of Human Souls” and an essay “Why the Harlequin? On Conrad’s Heart of Darkness” he argues that it is very specifically about Russian imperialism.

    If “what makes a novel great, is the author having read great novels”. Stu-I-Am, what made the first great novel great? Don Quixote was made great by the author reading bad novels.
    If Steinbeck liked a lot of talk in a book, he wanted a play and if he wanted to figure out what he looks like from the way he talks, he wanted a radio play!

  4. Joan says:

    To me a great book is a book that you reread over the years, and it never fails to get old or take away the pleasure you initially felt on first reading.
    Many of our supposedly great books are on the school curriculums, like Heart of Darkness or my husband’s bête noire, Passage to India, this was enough to put a whole generation of young reader’s off. Perhaps the books that endure and never go out of print are the real great ones!

  5. David+Ronaldson says:

    “How to be well read”? Well, I took A-Levels in English, French and German Literature, in the late 70’s then a degree In English Lit. and have been reading c.70 books a year since then, so I must be well-read right? I don’t feel I am. Some of my commuter choices have been less Gibbon’s Decline and Fall and more Lady Don’t Fall Backwards. I’ve never read War and Peace or A la Rechereche du Temps Perdu. I have read The Face by Gary Bushell and a Dan Simmonds Sci-Fi. I’m probably Much Read more than Well Read.

  6. Jan says:

    I always thought (only because I read it somewhere) that “Apocalypse Now” was essentially an updated version of the story of the “Heart of Darkness” have I been led up the garden path here or is this essentially correct?

    I have read a bit of Conrad – only cos it was on a syllabus – and he always struck me as being a very “filmic” writer not only in his creation of big picture scenes but in the way he described small, simpler private scenes his writing sort of reminded me of watching early Hitchcock films the way he kept returning to a small detail he had latched onto and sort of used this detail to build up tension by keeping on returning to it…..

    Is it really important being well read do you think? If someone makes the effort to read in the main recognised important literary works does that mean that their critical faculties will necessarily be finer than someone who reads a cross section of stuff? If your facility to critique something you have read effectively improves does that then ‘improve’your enjoyment?
    Or does it just mean you have acquired a fresh skill?

    I think I get the categories this gent is using to define “greatness” world firsts, of great popularity etc. My own personal view the way I always think about novels I have enjoyed reading is by wondering what the non lead figures, the supporting characters, make of the situations the heroes of these works find themselves embroiled in.

    I haven’t explained this at all well but if the story is about “A” and “B” or is being told in the first person.by A or B and it’s really good and interesting then I always wonder what is in the mind and motives of lesser characters maybe characters “E” and “F” that’s what makes a story really interesting to me…If something really does fascinate you It makes you wonder about lots of P.O.Vs of those involved.

    I think I enjoyed talking about chips more than this mind you.

  7. Stu-I-Am says:

    I think what makes a novel ‘great’ initially is how you come to know about it; which ‘influencer’ said it was a ‘must read.’ And of course, the speed of its ‘enculturation’ as a notable work of literature. Certainly, a good many of the now ‘greats’ were considered nothing of the sort when first published. ‘Wuthering Heights’ was seen as both strange and depressing. Some critics even suggested that it be burned. Critics first called ‘Moby Dick’ a ‘catastrophe’ and said it was ‘unfit for general circulation.’ ‘Grapes of Wrath,’ initially considered as too depressing and promoting communism, was both banned and burned in its early days. And ‘Brave New World,’ as a final example, was deemed highly politicised and too filled with propaganda, when initially published.

    But of course, what a personal ‘great’ is and a ‘great’ of a professional critic may well be (and often is…) two different opinions. I tend to classify ‘great’ novels along a continuum with ‘virtuousness’ at one end and ‘pleasurable (and ‘re-readable’)’ at the other, based on my feelings after an initial reading. ‘Anna Karenina,’ for me belongs at the ‘virtuousness’ end, for example. Getting through some 860+ pages of an unrelenting stream of tormented thoughts, confusion, daily concerns, and all of the drudgeries of everyday life may well be worth it, if you don’t happen to have enough of your own. Yes, I know — one of the greatest, if not the greatest novel ever, in the entire world — including Stepney (nothing against Stepney, mind). Academics have made careers out of ‘Anna Karenina’ alone. And yes — read as a period piece, it is a bravura literary performance, but with insights on relationships, the banalities of daily life, politics and religion, while ‘revolutionary’ for their time, have since become common themes. To my (cynical) way of thinking, it is a valuable historical artefact; an ‘epic’ to be sure, but that’s like saying (I forget who actually did say it…) to an actor who bombed and is cadging for a compliment backstage, “it was so you!”

    @Roger Roger — ‘Don Quixote’ of course is a satire. And my take on Cervantes writing it, is not that the popular chivalric romances (not novels, of course) he satirised were so much ‘bad,’ as their subject matter was, to his mind, ‘vain’ and ‘outdated.’ As for Steinbeck’s character — Steinbeck was saying through him that the strength of a novel rests primarily on its dialogue and how effective it is in defining its characters and their development. Not, of course, simply more words, but better or well-chosen ones.

  8. Nick says:

    I think that Heart of Darkness is probably the only novel that captivated me throughout my years at senior school. Strangely, I can remember most of the plays, but hardly any of the prose. My experience with George Eliot’s Silas Marner is forever blighted, but that’s another story.

  9. Peter T says:

    Apart from all those wonderful and important aspects, to be great shouldn’t the language be beautiful?

  10. Joel says:

    @JAN…i totally agree with you…what makes a great book for me, is if i have reread it, and still laugh out loud, or tear up…i have some series that i must have read 5-10 times over my life…like old friends…i tend to completely disregard anyone’s proclamations of what is a great novel, or their sovereign list of the “great novels”…some of the “classics” i read in high school…depressing, difficult to slog through, and didn’t add anything positive to my life…i used to read more dramatic fair, now, not so much…i would rather cry over something beautiful and sweet, than horrifying and sad…maybe it’s my age and the age we live in…of course i always enjoy lists, but as serious recommendations, i will make my own thank you

  11. Jan says:

    O Joel it makes me glad you said that. I didn’t feel too confident when I wrote me too long comment and didn’t put it too well that’s for sure…

    There’s just a small proportion of stuff you read that sticks with you. Stories that are powerful for you.

    For me the P G Wodehouse stories about Bertie Wooster and Jeeves. These stories + comic novellas never fail, never stale and they are always just as comical and wonderful whenever you return to them.

    This is not a recommendation to anyone else it’s just stuff that delights me. Like hearing a favourite song or handling a beautiful jewel.
    . That’s my best take on what makes a novel great – it’s just what makes the sunshine sparkle on the surface of the sea for you.

  12. Robert says:

    What makes a novel great is the same as what makes a wine good. You enjoyed it!

  13. Winifred Taylor says:

    Yes Robert I agree…and this is why I cherish the writing of Christopher Fowler …his work has given me much joy over these now many years …I hope and pray for his healing…

  14. Jo W says:

    # Robert,
    Very well said.

    As for me, I will never be “well read”, because I don’t believe I’ll live long enough. I’ll just keep reading through the large pile of books “ to be read”. Now excuse me,everyone, I must get back to this rather interesting book by some bloke called Fowler. 😉

  15. Roger says:

    What’s the difference between popular chivalric romances and novels, Stu-I-Am? The crime story where the hero is trying to prove that someone wasn’t guilty of the crime they will hang for is a variant on the popular chivalric romance. Cervantes thought the popular chivalric romances Quixote read were bad because “their subject matter was, to his mind, ‘vain’ and ‘outdated.’ ”

    You’ll have read JR, a novel which is over 99% dialogue where the characters are revealed through what they say. It epitomises the virtues of Stenbeck’s requirements, but also reveals their limitation. which is that language can conceal what characters think well as reveal it.

  16. Stu-I-Am says:

    @Roger The major difference between a chivalric romances and a novel is one of structure. The chivalric romance tended to be more a series of interwoven stories rather than have a plot with a one or two major characters and a prominent development arc. They also tended to be more like homilies or folk tales, with many continuing to be written in verse, although not predominantly, as they were early on. So while they were certainly ‘stories’ or ‘tales,’ it took Cervantes’ to create what is thought by many to be the first ‘modern’ novel with ‘Don Quixote.’ You’re welcome to your distinction between ‘bad’ and what was clearly ‘entertaining’ subject matter for a great many, except, obviously, for Cervantes.

    As for the role of dialogue in novels — Steinbeck does suggest in the character quote that some description is necessary of course, but he believed as did other ‘greats’ that it was largely through dialogue that the ‘examined’ life of the characters — the core or essential substance of a novel — was best revealed. And yes, what a character says can conceal feeling or intent, but that may be the very point of an author with the finesse of a Steinbeck or an Austen, since they have usually set the reader up to know that — or have at least prepared or sensitised them through the concealment for a twist or surprise involving the character in question — an ‘aha moment’ — later on in the narrative.

  17. Helen+Martin says:

    A book which you return to over time is important to your character, which is different from other people’s. “Sparkle on the water” I like that very much and Wodehouse does that for me as well. Most of us need some sparkle on the water occasionally.
    I refuse to read Anna Karenina because she doesn’t seem to offer much that is positive unless you want information about the trials of daily life at that time. On the other hand, I read and enjoyed War and Peace probably because you got a lot of information about life in Russia at the time and it was all written so clearly and accessibly.
    One word in a Bernard Cornwell novel sent me to a friend of my husband’s who has given me a reference to a 1791 manual of arms. The sequence is 12 movements and ends with the command “feu” which was the point of my query. Mr. Cornwell had a French commandant ordering his men “tirez” and my source assures me he has never seen that order. I don’t know whether the Sharpe novels are great or not but anything that encourages me to look into other material is a good thing. (Surely officers didn’t actually recite the whole 12 orders every time? The idea that the routine was so ingrained that firing by company could result in rolling fire is tremendously impressive. Making sure that the cartridge tore as quickly as was needed in order to get to the next step, for example, could be tricky I imagine.) Can greatness rest on one word?

  18. Jan says:

    H I have never got round to the Sharpe novels but the “Last Kingdom” novels with Utred of Bebbanburg are smashing stories. Cornwell’s saga of this young lad, the son of Anglo Saxon royalty, but brought up by Vikings is fascinating. The novels go on to cover his adult life.

    Mind you that Utred fella does get about he seems to be on a permanent tour of the Anglo Saxon Herepaths making his way round the major battles of the early Mediaeval period. A bit more poetic licence would have seen Cornwell providing him with a bike.

  19. Stu-I-Am says:

    Well — now that the ‘Wagatha Christie’ trial has ended, I can get on with my life and read more great novels.

  20. Paul C says:

    A shame they both didn’t lose, Stu. What a waste of valuable court time. I once did jury service (a fascinating experience) and the waste of time, money and police time is colossal and immensely depressing.

  21. Brooke says:

    What Peter T. said. Beautiful, as in giving pleasure to senses and mind, being integral to the novel’s characters and plot. I don’t like the characters in Bainbridge’s Watson’s Apology but I was so intrigued by the author’s use of language that I decided to eavesdrop on the bizarre couple’s relationship until the rather ugly end.
    I won’t say the obvious about Sutherland’s choices for this book–the title’s ambiguity says it all..

  22. Stu-I-Am says:

    @Paul C Paul — I half believe Lady Justice is actually asleep behind her blindfold.

  23. Peter T says:

    There seem to be a lot of books on the greatest of almost everything: novels, cars, paintings, footballers, prime ministers, … detergents. Well, I haven’t actually seen one on detergents, but no doubt someone is bursting to extol the amazing qualities of Teepol. I have some on the great equations of science, mathematics, engineering (and even economics – for me economics doesn’t quite cut it). Equations are a good area to understand what greatness is as fashion, popularity and making or not making money don’t enter the picture. Great equations are elegant; they have a beauty. They are significant; they have changed the world, generally for the better. They are enduring even when outdated. They entertain and educate as they help us to understand the physical world around us. And they function; that is, they allow us to do something. I’d like to think that the same qualities apply to the greatness of anything or anyone.

  24. Brooke says:

    Indeed, Peter T. I was thinking of math equations and that called to mind Galileo’s thoughts on good writing.

  25. E Bush says:

    I agree with Peter T, good writing is essential. I am “much read”, and fairly well read. I now spend much less time trying to slog through “should” reads than when I was younger. At 62, I just don’t have the time.

    What I consider a good book is one that sends me on a hunt to find out more about about something in it. It could be as simple as vocabulary/foreign phrases, or an event in historical fiction. I love to check out the references used by the author and not infrequently read some of them.

  26. Stu-I-Am says:

    @Peter T Peter — Interesting, your comments on ‘great’ equations or formulas — presumably those of maths and physics, in particular. Of course, there is no general consensus (and rightfully so) as to the ‘greatest’ one of these (wonder which ones would top your list ?) as the most influential or important in the scientific scheme of things, since it pretty much depends on which branch of endeavour you’re considering. It got me thinking (dangerous that…) about the use of formulas and even figuratively speaking, equations, in plotting or otherwise structuring novels.

    Certainly novels aren’t necessarily obligated to have formal and precisely realized plots, but they must have some internal structure or integrity — even if stream of consciousness or ‘experimental’ in nature. As it happens, shortly before reading your comments, I had been rummaging through a box of forgotten books and came upon a dog-eared copy of ‘Plotto: The Master Book of All Plots ‘ — 300 pages of fine print meant to be a guide or tool for plotting with all manner of plot components, first published in 1928 and which subsequently became highly influential in writing circles, especially with screenwriters. There are said to be only seven basic plots in fiction. Not according to ‘Plotto’s’ pulp novelist US author, William Wallace Cook. He figured there were at least 1,462, as outlined in the book. Not surprising for a guy who churned out roughly a book a week and was known as the man who ‘deforested Canada.’

    More to my point (before I forget it…), ‘Plotto’ reads (at least at first) like an algebra textbook,with its eye-watering variety of possible combinations or ‘equations.’ There were ‘greats’ who carefully structured or plotted in detail, as one would do using ‘Plotto’ as a guide and others known (in US quarters, in the event) as ‘pantsers’ or ‘seat of the pants’ instinctive writers (to whose school of writing CF, by admission, belongs). But whether using a detailed plot outline in doling out a story or intuitively structuring it without one, there is always a reliance on ‘equations,’ probably most akin to chemical equations rather than those of maths — with reactants on one side and their product(s) on the other (eg, hydrogen + oxygen —> water.). Not quite as precise as chemical equations, of course, but necessary in developing alternatives or being able to see how the manipulation of story elements can change its flow — with the goal for just about all fiction being keeping the implicit or implied promise of the author that ‘all will (eventually) be revealed.’

  27. Alan R says:

    After reading this blog today I purchased the Kindle version of How To Be Well Read. It must be interesting to read what a Professor of Modern English Literature at University College London has to say about many of the books I have read. Looking forward to becoming well-read tonight.

  28. Jan says:

    Stu your pontifications reminded me of the great popular British novel condensed into one sentence. “My God thought the Duchess I am pregnant and have no idea by whom” Contains all the British obsessions
    Aristocracy
    Religion
    Mystery.
    Now surely that can be reduced into a formula.¶^°=√ °.

    That’s definitely expressed it for me ✓

  29. Granny says:

    My granddaughter asked for suitable “classics” to read a couple of years back. She had become friends with a chap at 6th form college who suggested she read Picture of Dorian Gray and The Prince. Being as I was horrified that she appeared to be taking a trot down the right-wing literary path I immediately suggested Dickens, Elixabeth Gaskill’s Mary Barton, and 1984. Then I began re-reading to check on just how interesting the books I was recommending were. Tried Hard Times but found it a little tough, re-read 1984 and figured she might find that a little tedious (though she does say it keeps coming up in conversations)
    Also recommended Mill on the Floss, but that is like reading suet for me. Suggested Wuthering Heights (told her it was a Victorian Pudding Book – like chick-lit are pudding books now)
    I have since suggested Doris Lessing (loved her books most of my life) but on re-reading Pursuit of the English and Shikasta I am not so sure
    Other books are Prayer for Owen Meany, made me laugh out loud even tho it is also so sad
    Handmaid’s Tale – took me nearly 30 years to get around to reading it, but G’daughter gave up after 3 goes
    Thomas Hardy – even tho he always kills of his female heros
    Frankenstein – she loved it
    Dracula
    Dostoevsky
    Sherlock Holmes
    Sooo, any other suggestions?

    And Christopher, I am stunned, your books have given me such pleasure and continue to do so as I re-read them, on the upside getting old is a bit poop as well

  30. Stu-I-Am says:

    @Jan Jan — Well, there you are. Got the plotting of long form fiction in one. Single sentence novels.

  31. Paul C says:

    Jan – To include some more British obsessions it could be rejigged as “My God thought the Duchess I am pregnant and have no idea by whom” she announced while supping a beer at the football match.

  32. Helen+Martin says:

    Careful, Paul, your Duchess is announcing before she’s finished thinking. It does give a nice thud to the setting though. (How about those Lionesses, eh?)
    For the first time in a week the temperature in here is down to 26 deg! I may survive.

  33. Peter T says:

    Greatest equation? I don’t know. The one I’d like to see taught to all, more widely used, and generally appreciated is Bayes’ Theorem. As a friend of mine often says when faced with uncertainty: “What would the Reverend Bayes say?” And it’s time to start calculating.

  34. Stu-I-Am says:

    @Paul T Paul — About that equation — here I thought you would take the easy way out with relativity, or the second law of thermodynamics or that chap Pythagoras’ (and others’) theorem. But Bayes’ proposition of conditional probability (or the validity of beliefs based on the best available evidence) is actually an inspired choice. It certainly has become foundational to all manner of things these days — whether in the software allowing self-driving vehicles to make decisions, sorting spam from email or understanding how our brains perceive, deliberate, decide — among many others. Despite its widespread application, of course, it’s not some ‘wonder’ or ‘one size fits all’ analytical tool; its value tends to vary with field. Best in the physical sciences and less so in those dealing with human behaviour, where explanations for the evidence being considered usually have alternate explanations.

    In the event, you got me thinking again (you really must stop that for the benefit of our fellow commenters) — this time about other eponymous laws and principles — many amusing, but all with a ring of truth. Apart from the well-known ‘Murphy’s Law’ some of my favourites are:

    Brandolini’s Law: The amount of energy needed to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude bigger than to produce it.

    Betteridge’s Law of Headlines: ‘any headline which ends in a question mark can be answered by the word ‘no’’

    Clarke’s (Sir Arthur C. Clarke) Third Law: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

    Cunningham’s Law: ‘the best way to get the right answer on the internet is not to ask a question, it’s to post the wrong answer.’

    Dilbert Principle: ‘the most ineffective workers are systematically moved to the place where they can do the least damage: management.’

    Hanlon’s Razor: ‘Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity.’

    Gall’s Law: ‘A complex system that works is invariably found to have evolved from a simple system that worked.’

     

  35. Stu-I-Am says:

    Peter T Peter — Sorry about the ‘renaming’ above. Suppose I ought to apologise to Paul, as well.

  36. Jan says:

    Stu my fading old dears memory tells me your version is likely closer to the version of the 1 sentence novel as I 1st heard it!

  37. Paul C says:

    I’ll take that as a compliment, Stu. There’s also Sturgeon’s Law – ‘90% of everything is crap’.

    Theodore Sturgeon was a wonderful writer – especially his collections of short stories which are worth tracking down.

  38. Peter T says:

    Stu, No problem about renaming. You might add to your list: Peter’s principle, Occam’s Razor and Ain’t broke. However, though these and those on your list are excellent rules for life, none are equations and can never achieve that special elegance.

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