The Equation for Greatness

Many people would venture to say that math and literature don't mix- I'd have to agree with them most of the time. Interestingly, though, when I try to determine if the book I have just read is "great" my head instantly goes to a formula I've used for years:

quality writing + dynamic characters + engaging plot = great book

It's not really that simple, though, as this little piece of literary math is really just a starting point. Some novels are truly characters studies, therefore the plot isn't as important. In that case, the "dynamic characters" section would get extra credit, therefore making up for the loss of points over a slightly less "engaging plot." Writing that goes above and beyond the normal requirements for greatness can balance out, say, a plot slow to get started, or one or two flat characters. Mediocre, or even poor, writing is a deal breaker, though- so many points are lost that even the best plot or characters in the world couldn't help.

The problem arises when an author starts lacking in two areas. For example, the book I recently read, which I'll discuss at the end of the month, really struggled with the characters and plot; his writing has a lot of potential, but you can't necessarily hang your hat on that alone. Things become even more dire when the novel lacks in all three areas, like Paint it Black, my least favorite book of all time (remember, if you get it for Christmas, you'll know I hate you).

So many authors bust out novel after novel, yet so many fail to reach true literary greatness because they don't focus on these three areas. You hear people gush over the plot and characters of a certain vampire series, but the writing itself is nowhere near that of quality status (I stole a peak at a few pages- the owner of the copy was offended when I started laughing). And for all you Twihards out there who are wishing that Edward (I think he's a vampire...) would come suck my blood, can you really argue that these books are truly great? Recognizing them as entertaining or guilty pleasures is one thing, but saying they stand up with the greats is another.

Before I start bashing Nicholas Sparks and ranting about what great books aren't, a few last words on what great books are. A great book is something that has been crafted. A great book is something that is cohesive. A great book is something that makes you think and feel, even after returning it to the shelf. A great book isn't about mass production or becoming wealthy. A great book is about establishing an alternate universe with complex characters through carefully created prose.

It's an art form. Some authors have it, and some don't.

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