Monday, September 11, 2006

The four kinds of novels

Nearly every business gets broken down into four squares. One is good, two are OK and one is bad. Consultants apply this segmentation to everything, so I thought I would apply it to books. I assert that there are two key variables to fiction. The first is literary value, the second is entertainment value. With these two variables we can break fiction into four cells.
Literary value: Literary value consists of factors like excellent or innovative use of language, ability to evoke emotional or intellectual response, social import, and realism in the depiction of people.

Entertainment value: Entertainment value consists of factors like effective pacing, compelling story line, use of humor and the use of surprise.

Cell 1 Trash (Low literary, low entertainment) These are the books you feel bad about finishing, because they are a waste of time. There may be something nice about them, like an effective scene or two, but for the most part, you shouldn't read these books. I would include 99% of all horror fiction and mystery-novels-by-successful-writers-who-are-now-phoning-it-in here.

Cell 2 Beach reads (Low literary, high entertainment) These are the sorts of books you want to read when thinking is not required. The cunningly plotted mystery, the frenetic thriller and wildly inventive space operatic scif-novel live here. These are the ones you end up passing on or lending as they are great fun, but not really gift quality.

Cell 3 Prize Winners (high literary, low entertainment) These are the books you feel like you should read, but generally don't like reading. Yes you can see that the writing is singular, and yes it does an lovely job describing loneliness or whatever, but you feel like you have to write an essay when you are done. An unfortunate artifact of English classes is the belief that these are the books you should read most.

Cell 4 Gift books (high literary, high entertainment) These are the books that make you laugh and cry, on alternate pages. When you stare wistfully into the distance after a few pages, but feel compelled to keep reading, you have one of these. These books are rare, but worth finding. The last few years have been decent with books like Kavalier and Clay and Atonement fitting nicely into the spot. Genre writers like Alan Furst and Phillip K Dick pop there heads into the fringes here as well.

The question is, how do you allocate your reading? Being the book fall guy means you might shoot for cell 2 but land in cell 1, as happens all too frequently to me. I would say I am 20% cell 1, 40% cell 2, 10% cell 3 and 30% cell 4. I would like to be all 2 and 4, but that doesn't seem to happen.


Anonymous said...

Tripp- this is really interesting and really makes you think. The tough part for me are cells three and four and apportionment within them, since there is a certain amount of subjectivity associated with entertainment value and literary value - particularly what consitutes "high" of both. Seems to me that the two values, for many, are not perfectly parallel but may meet somewhere in the distance - that is, those instances where high literary value is entertaining in itself. For that matter, you could argue that something could be so entertaining that it's highly literary (Nabokov perhaps?).

And then there's the weird Cell Five, containing the subset of Four - highly literary, highly entertaining - that, for whatever reason, you just don't dig. I may put Mason & Dixon in there.

Tripp said...


Good points. Cell 5 might be reflected in a z axis for personal taste, where closeness to the 0 point is you dislike while further away you like. i also didn't like Mason & Dixon.

And yes there is probably a synergistic effect of literary and entertaining. I think on Nabakov it is a combination of humor and storytelling with an excellent command of language. So the first two are entertainment and the other is literarty

Steve said...

I like the ranking system, even though it has a whiff of Dead Poet's Society to it. A few nominations for category 4, from my reading this year (I've been fortunate to stumble on a few):

Cloud Atlas - David Mitchell
Oryx & Crake - Margaret Atwood
A Long Long Way - Sebastian Barry

Question: does this ranking system accommodate non-fiction? I'm not sure it does. I think the "literary value" axis would have to be replaced with a "quality of scholarship or research" axis, making non-fiction Fours rare indeed.

One other observation. In addition to Harris' category 5, there should be a category for high quality books that may not be fun to read but stay with you afterward, either because they are so well written or because they provoke thought (often both). Call these "afterglow Fours" perhaps - they improve with time to the point that you remember loving them when in fact you love the idea of them (or maybe I am the only one who does that). Amos Oz's A Tale of Love and Darkness fits this category for me.

Steve said...

Sorry, one other observation. Perhaps he will prove me wrong this fall, but Pynchon is the high lit equivalent of your successful author mailing it in. That guy has been skating on Gravity's Rainbow and Lot 49 for a while now. Similar to John Fowles and William Gaddis, whose last novel (A Frolic of His Own) was just unreadable. Then there is John Irving, who needs a "mailing it in" category all to himself.

Tripp said...

Steve, Fully concur on Pynchon. No thanks. And no thanks to Gaddis. And to most other post-moderns while we are at it. They drop the whole entertaining thing.

Non-fiction has different axes, I would say that quality of argument ( good thesis, well argued ) is one, and the other is some variant of readability.

Please share an example of an afterglow 4.

And now I must read A Long Long Way (which we have, thanks to you) if you put with those two.

Steve said...

The Oz book is the best example I can think of. I almost put it down a couple of times - it is maddeningly dense and sometimes dull in consequence - but kept going with the thought that this book would be more than the sum of its parts. In retrospect a very good decision, but certainly the most difficult books I've read this year. I often find that challenging fiction meets that description (the whole being more than the sum of its parts). My favorite book, The Sound and the Fury, is a good example. Although the Oz book was a memoir.

Anonymous said...

I haven't had an afterglow book myself for a while. The first I really remember (besides The Great Brain series from my single-digit years, which I religiously read and re-read) was perhaps Slaughterhouse Five in 10th Grade. Which also created, for me, a subset of Category Five - books that you were wild about but don't want to re-read. S5, for some reason, did that for me: I haven't re-read it, which is somewhat rare for me (at least not to pick it up, open it up to a random page, and leaf through it). Guess I want to keep it where it was. Specifically, Mr. M's biology class.

Another book that stayed with me, but possibly for more morbid, vivid reasons, was The Painted Bird by Kozinski. That may be a Cat 4 book.

Tripp said...

Hmmm, are you a re-reader Harris? I am generally not, in fact, I can't think of the last one I re-read, but I think the emotive/intellectual power element of the literary variable drives this one.

Anonymous said...

I am a re-reader, in many cases. Usually on the more engaging reads. Particularly if I'm bored and want to open the book to a random page and just see what's what.

Tom Wolfe's stuff is great for doing that. Particularly since, with him, it's often not the story, but the language, I enjoy.