Interesting thoughts. It’s probably too obvious to mention, but I’ll still say that when either of us is looking for “greatness” in a book, it has to have a combination of quite a few of the qualities you mentioned–characters, plot, ideas, literariness, setting (my personal weak point). Oh and humor–it is very rare for me to truly love any work of art that doesn’t show at least a little bit of a sense of humor. But, if I’m honest with myself, out of your list of paths to “goodness” I would peg myself (the English BA) as a sucker for “literariness.” Except that for me that comes down not to lush descriptions but to well-built prose. Of course, good prose takes many different forms, and I love Holly Black’s practically transparent, fast-moving prose almost as much as Margo Lanagan’s challenging, dense, thought-provoking words, but nothing sucks me out of a book quicker than a poorly-turned phrase or false dialogue. A.S. King read our last set of posts and tweeted that she “swoons to be in the same tweet as” Lanagan, Beth Fama, and Libba Bray, and I responded to her by saying that I couldn’t think of anyone else to add to that list besides Laurie Halse Anderson. Looking at that set of women, they all have tremendous ideas, but they I think they actually vary greatly in characterization and plotting. What holds them together is their commitment to their (very different) senses of how to manipulate language. And looking at the list I gave you last time, only the graphic novel really fails the test of great prose, and my reasons for loving Hades have to do with other aspects of “literariness” – specifically, O’Connor’s highly intelligent reworking of a classic myth.
So, Wonder. I agree that the ideas are lacking there. Palacio seems to have thought that the novelty of August’s deformity would stand in for a lot of other things. But in essence, how is this book distinguishable from any number of fish-out-of-water stories?–to take a random example, Gordon Korman’s Schooled has practically the exact same set up, with hippie-commune standing in for facial disfigurement. I don’t mean to make light of August’s deformity, but (back to ideas) Palacio doesn’t seem to have much to say about it, in the way that, say, Terry Trueman has a tremendous amount to say about Cerebral Palsy in his novels. So, I agree with you about ideas, but we talked about this book on the phone and you expressed confusion at my contention that it was “poorly written” so I’ll try to say a little about what I mean, because it obviously ties directly in with what I talked about above. Basically, I thought Palacio didn’t have good command of her language. I don’t have a full copy in front of me, but here are some random examples from Amazon’s Look Inside feature:
“I would wish that I could walk down the street without people seeing me and then doing that look-away thing” (p. 3)
“‘So we want to know why you hang out with the Zombie Kid so much’ said Henry. ‘He’s not a zombie,’ I laughed, like they were making a joke. I was smiling but I didn’t feel like smiling.” (p. 122)
“To be truthful, I thought he looked like he was going to explode” (p. 244)
These are literally pulled from random pages of the book, and I think all of them ring false. “The look-away thing”? “To be truthful”? In the second quotation above, part of the problem is that 5th graders would never talk that way–so directly. But there’s also the last two sentences–we understand that if you were pretending to laugh that you didn’t actually feel like smiling. What’s the point of the last sentence?
So, I think there are more problems in Wonder than just a lack of ideas. But I actually don’t mean to pick on Wonder. It’s just a good example of what we are talking about when we discuss books. You and I are not (necessarily) entranced by just a quirky plot or a never-before-seen character. That might be a reason to pick up a book, but if the language and the ideas aren’t there, we don’t feel that we’re getting much out of it. Obviously, other people feel very differently. Wonder is getting a ton of buzz, and people seem to really love it, and even find it thought-provoking. But either we are missing something entirely in the ideas department, or the people who love this book are choosing to privilege character and plot over language and ideas. Obviously, I think it’s the later.