A good book is any book you like. (See also: It's Not Compulsory
Yeah, that's about it. Seriously.
And don't let anyone tell you otherwise. I don't care how many doctorates and fancy titles they might have - they're in no position to tell you. Their taste is not yours, and there is no damn reason why it should be, either. The idea of refined and educated tastes versus the crass desires of the common masses (i.e. you and me) is so steeped in the ghastly Victorian middle-class morality of "self improvement" that it makes me nauseous.
There are common elements that authors can draw on to make a book appeal to a lot of human beings. Those can be analyzed and nailed down, in broad terms. It's just basic psychology. But deciding if a book is good - that's up to you, the individual reader.
Every reader brings their own life experience, emotional baggage, tastes, needs, and education to each book they read. The book isn't precisely what the author intended it to be; it can't be. The author is only the producer, not the end user. A novel is always seen through the reader's personal filter. So we start from the basis of having no truly definable product, because each copy of a novel is different simply because of the way it's read by someone.
Not only that - read the same book at different times in your life, and see how you feel about it. Chances are it won't produce the same reaction in you. This was perfectly illustrated for me by a soldier who wrote to me a few times, a couple of years apart; first, he'd read the Republic Commando books as a young single man, so he saw the story as that of the naive clone commandos finding their way in the world of combat. Then he got married and had a son. When he read the books again, he told me, they felt like wholly new novels - because he was a father, and so Sergeant Skirata's paternal devotion to his adopted family of young soldiers became the main theme for him. Yes, it was a different series in every sense. I know when I write that different demographics will latch on to different things, but I still can't tell any individual reader how they'll experience a book at any given point in their life. That's part of the joy of fiction; it's an adventure each time you turn the page.
The trouble is that we're all taught at school to believe literary critique as if it's some objective scientific analysis. People who know better than us (says who, and why?) tell us what's a good novel and what isn't, and we have to regurgitate that opinion in exams as if it's the immutable holy truth. Actually, all we're taught is what a very small self-selected middle-class elite has decided is the received wisdom on fiction; it's nothing more than the opinion of a few people. It's extremely biased in every sense of the word. It's totally subjective. So there's no need to take any notice of it, unless your business is knowing what critics have said about certain books, or you have to cite those opinions in exams. (Note that I say cite. Not share or believe. Professor Whatshisname's opinion is his alone, not yours.)
If this form of teaching simply feeds bias about books, that's bad enough, but a lot of folks come out of the education system feeling ashamed for not liking (or understanding) the books they're told they ought to appreciate. They want to read other stuff, but they've been given negative messages about their personal choices. And it's hard to separate those from negative messages about yourself. All too often, youngsters just get turned off reading. They've been made to feel inferior. And that makes me mad. Because nobody has the right to turn someone's harmless* entertainment choices into a stigma, let alone one that affects them for the rest of their life. Look down on the books someone likes to read, and you're probably looking down your nose at them, too, even if you don't want to admit it. (Educators, parents - I ask you to be honest with yourselves about this. Too many kids have told me horror stories about being belittled and humiliated for their reading choices. Making kids feel bad about themselves isn't cause for professional or parental pride.)
So I challenge anyone reading this who can come up with a genuine and robust definition of a good book to contact me and share it - and I mean definable. A benchmark. A performance indicator. A measurable, observable, and repeatable set of parameters that define "good" for the vast majority of users, and that can be evaluated and monitored.
I think I'm going to have a very long wait.
The only measurable benchmark available to us that stands any degree of scrutiny is sales figures - because generally folks buy what they like, not what they're told to like, and they don't keep on buying things they hate. (Set books for educational courses excepted...) Okay, we all know people who buy copies of the latest Booker winner or something else they hope makes them look cool or intellectual, and then never read it, but most folks don't throw their money away like that.
So we're back to where we started. You like a book? Then it's a good book. Because nobody else can be in your head while you're reading it, and only you know if it's hit the spot for you or not.
And if you're worried about what others think of your reading habits - stop living your life constrained by others' opinions. Life is way too short for that. Go enjoy whatever books you fancy. And don't stop your kids reading what they want to read, either.
Trust your own taste, but don't impose it on others, or let anyone else impose theirs on you.
(*But if your entertainment choices involve socially nasty and illegal stuff, then I think I do reserve the right to make negative judgments about you...)
©Karen Traviss 2008