Thrown a best-seller across the room lately, too disgusted to even finish the book? Or maybe you did and the best thing you can say about the stinker is that you got it from the library. What crappy writing! Over-plotted, characters suck, lousy ending…and that deus ex machine halfway through? Gimme a break.
Say you loved the next novel you read but are puzzled because it seemed somehow more than the sum of its parts.
What can explain a book’s success when all else fails to do so?
Let’s call it…META: the appeal of a novel beyond its technical quality–or lack thereof.
Now, if you’re a writer convinced that the best-seller you just tossed is a lot worse than your most recent and less-than-successful novel, forget trying to formulate some literary equation or take a workshop to get it. A book either has META or doesn’t. A novelist’s first effort–or last–may have it and none of the others. I suppose timing, luck, and cultural currents can play a part. But mostly it’s a kind of charisma.
META can be found across the literary spectrum. A few random examples…
Lee Child’s ‘Jack Reacher’ books have it. Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl has it. Seen the movies?
Child can’t write for beans but he gives us an uber-competent, Lone Ranger hero guys want to be like, and women want to screw for a glorious weekend they’ll never forget, especially after the move to the suburbs. Gone Girl offers a woman’s ultimate ‘revenge’ fantasy for every man who dumped her, cheated on her or was otherwise a shitheel. Who cares if the novel is, as Flynn herself admits, over-plotted, with dueling unreliable first-person narrators, laughable implausibilities and ends with the worst?
Game of Thrones has it. A lot of people love ringside seats for celebrity viewing, whether it’s the fantasy equivalent of the ‘noble’ 1 per cent, or guys and dolls in Hollywood and Buckingham Palace.
Stephen King’s Shawshank Redemption has got major META, and for my money is pretty close to the perfect story. Who on this earth doesn’t like a story about a decent, innocent man–or at least one who’s paid his dues in prison–pulling a fast-one on assholes and making sure his good buddy is with him at the end of the caper.
Hunger Games? Duh. What female between 12 and 20 can resist a story about a beautiful heroine who not only kicks ass but also has two hunks in love with her at the same time? Never mind that the series gives us a post-apocalypse setting (very popular these days) that makes no sense whatsoever.
Gladiator (okay, no book but I did choke up at the end of the movie), Cold Mountain and The Odyssey have it: they’re about guys who just wanted to go home. Who cannot identify strongly with that a few times in their life, if not daily at about 4 p.m. (Speaking of classics, surely Casablanca is near the top of a list for META movies).
Of course, META can’t always explain the success of a book. William Landay’s Finding Jacob was a surprise best-seller. I waited four months for my library copy and…there was no appealing character in it. Jacob was a teen killer; his mom and dad the ultimate Little League parents. Others that don’t have it? I made the mistake of attempting Middlemarch again, forgetting it is a darling of college English professors who tend to favor a book in direct proportion to how difficult it is to read. So George Eliot’s snoozer is probably not a fair example of a META-less novel. ‘Papa’ Hemingway had a personal charisma (fishing off Cuba, Paris in the Twenties, bullfights in Spain); not so much his novels–for me, anyway. Dickens was more the opposite. Melville had neither, but Ahab carried the day in Moby Dick. I suspect most of us are fascinated by obsessive-compulsives as long as we don’t have to live or work with them. If there were PB& J sandwiches back in the 19th century, and Ahab liked them as much as Breaking Bad’s Walter White, he’d no doubt neatly cut off the crusts, too.
And my books?
Hey, I’m just hoping none of them ever gets thrown across the room for whatever reason.