Can a popular book be a good book?

Can a popular book be a good book?

recently wrote about Sir Peter Strothard, the Chairman of the Man Book Prize judges suggesting that book blogs point people towards easy reads. Clearly, Strothard thought it was the job of the Man Book prize to find books that were difficult to read, and that would have lasting value. Just to be fair, I’ll report the quote I pulled:

“Books that are not immediately easy to read – the books that in the end will last, that reward you most – do increasingly require the Man Booker Prize judges to identify them so that people will find the pleasure and reward of reading them.”
Telegraph article

Is that legitimate?

Is a book that is easy to read by definition a book that does not have lasting value?

Personally, I don’t think so.

It’s very hard to write something which is easy to read and popular.

Take a look at Mark Twain, for example. There’s an author who is so easy to read, you practically can’t stop once you’ve started. Twain even recommended that people leave out adjectives, because they were often unnecessarily complicating.

How about Dickens? Is A Christmas Carol really a difficult read?

Don’t get me wrong: there are difficult books which are also wonderful. As opposed to “popcorn books”, I refer to those as “thick reads”. You have to fight your way through them, but it’s well worth it. I’d put the Lord of the Rings into that category, and E.R. Eddison’s The Worm Ouroboros.

I’m a geek. :) When I was younger, I did feel initially that if something was popular with the mainstream, I wouldn’t like it.

I’ve matured, now, and don’t hold who likes a work against it. ;) I judge a book on its intrinsic value, not on how popular it is or isn’t. Honestly, I like pretty much everything…shallow or deep.

I think Sir Strothard’s remarks suggest something other a search for literary merit.

We see this in other fields too, of course. The Oscars don’t tend to reward the most popular movies of the year…it does happen, but it’s rare. Do you think The Avengers or The Hunger Games will be nominated for Best Picture? I’m not saying that they should be, but I do think that just their success will eliminate them from even be considering.

A lot of books that we think of classics now were written for the masses and weren’t respected at the time. Dickens, mentioned above, is a good example. As I remarked to a reader who commented recently, I’ve said before that I thought Shakespeare was the Laverne & Shirley of the Elizabethan era. :) Of course, part of what is amazing is that the Bard could write at that level of broad humor, and write in a more sophisticated fashion.

What do you think? Should a book that is loved by the masses and easy to read automatically be disqualified for a Man Booker? Do Sir Strothard’s remarks smack of elitism to you, or does it seem appropriate that someone should find those more difficult books? Feel free to let me and my readers know what you think by commenting on this post.

Update: thanks to reader Roger Knights for refining this post.

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On a separate note, several readers have commented to me that this blog has not been updating in the Pulse app (which is how I have recommended people read it on the original Kindle Fire, since Kindle store blog subscriptions are not available on that device). I have written to Pulse, and I have now heard that they are investigating the issue.

This post by Bufo Calvin originally appeared in the I Love My Kindle blog.

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7 Responses to “Can a popular book be a good book?”

  1. rogerknights Says:

    You have to fight your way through them, but it’s well worth it. I’d put the Lord of the Rings into that category, and Lord Dunsany.

    Dunsany’s “Jorkens” stories are easy reads. Too bad they aren’t available in Kindle format.

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, rogerknights!

      You’re right, I could have made a better choice…I’m going to change that one. :)

  2. Jj Hitt Says:

    I notice that Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart was a Man Booker winner. It’s written with an almost poetic simplicity of style (Kurt Vonnegut would be a good comparison). Difficult subjects are covered, but not at all difficult to read.

  3. Rajbir Bhattacharjee Says:

    Bufo, I can relate to a lot of what you wrote about in this post. It is true that a many works which are considered classics today were considered trash when they were written. It is also true that many works which are considered trash today may be considered classics in the future, however, the majority of books which are considered trash today will continue to be considered trash in the future.
    As far as the Man Booker Prize goes, I have lost all respect for the prize after 2008. In 2008, the prize went to the White Tiger, which was a poorly written, poorly researched book. This book dealt with the non-success part of the India story, which does exist, but it did such a terrible job of it that it almost made a mockery of it. Many feel that the book got the booker prize because of the anti-India-China sentiments of the west because so many american jobs are moved to India and China on a daily basis. In 2008 itself, there was another entry in the booker list called Sea of Poppies. Beautifully written, amazingly researched historical fiction. The author spent more than a year researching it, digging through historical archives in India and China. However, there was no India bashing in it. Hence no booker. The point I’m trying to make is that the booker prize is not as independent as it should be, and the decision is often swayed by factors that shouldn’t affect it.

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Rajbir!

      There have been concerns expressed about the Nobel this year as well (and in years past). Awarding a prize can feel like you have a lot of power, and you may want to exercise that power for something outside the original intent of that prize.

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