Needless to say, part of this answer is subjective. My tastes today generally fall somewhere in the middle of the continuum between the bestsellers on the supermarket rack, and the more obscure works of “serious” fiction that are praised in the New York Times.
For example, I have never been able to read James Patterson with much regularity, and I was distinctly underwhelmed by The Da Vinci Code.
At the opposite extreme, I found Ian McEwan’s Atonement a nearly impossible read. I have been similarly thwarted in my attempts to read The Adventures of Augie March—another book that is beloved by English literature professors.
What sort of books do I like, then? Well, here are few of the criteria that I use to identify fiction that is both readable and worth reading.
Strong characters and a strong plot: Books that try too hard to be either bestsellers or great literature usually fall down on one side of this equation or the other.
It has become fashionable to talk about the cardboard cutout characters in The Da Vinci Code—but the book really is inhabited by shallow characters that speak, think and act only marginally like real human beings. (Of course, Dan Brown needn’t worry too much about my opinion of his work. More than 80 million copies of The Da Vinci Code and its companion novel, Angels & Demons, have been sold worldwide.)
On the other hand, there are those novels that endlessly explore the finer nuances of emotion and personality without the characters ever doing anything of consequence. If there is no struggle, no conflict—then there is usually no story, either.
This was a principle that I tried to keep in mind when writing Blood Flats. On one hand, Blood Flats contains a clear element of physical danger: The main story involves an epic journey/chase plot. At numerous points in the story, the life of the main character (Lee McCabe) is in danger.
On the other hand, though, there are several subplots that are more emotionally driven, relying less on physical danger: Lee’s relationship with Dawn Hardin, the history between Lee’s mother and Sheriff Phelps, etc.
Manageable length: Tolstoy’s magnum opus, War & Peace, contains about 560,000 words, or 1,300 pages. (To put this in perspective, the average first novel today contains about 90,000 to 100,000 words.)
I don’t demand that all novels that I read be as short as 100,000 words. However, if a novel is more than say, 700 pages, then it had better be good.
Where fiction is concerned, I definitely believe that there can be “too much of a good thing”.
I find that many mega-novels (arbitrarily defined here as being longer than 700 pages) would be more effectively broken up into several smaller books.
At 184,000 words, Blood Flats is about twice as long as the “average” commercial novel. However, it is paltry compared to War and Peace.
The author stays off his/her soapbox: If you have ever read Atlas Shrugged, you will recall that many-pages-long monologue by John Galt. (This is the radio address that begins with the words: “For twelve years you've been asking ‘Who is John Galt?’ This is John Galt speaking…”)
Maybe you applaud Ayn Rand’s ideas, and maybe you disagree with everything she ever said. In either case, I think you will have to admit that this mini-lecture embedded in the middle of Atlas Shrugged is a rather clumsy case of authorial intrusion. The impression I had when I first read this was that the plot and characters of Atlas Shrugged were simply a set of props erected to aid Rand in making her philosophical points. (And Rand stated this herself, in so many words)
Rand isn’t the only novelist who is guilty of authorial intrusion, of course. Plenty of other authors do this—both on the Left as well as on the Right.
* * *
So those are my guidelines:
1.) A strong plot with character development.
2.) Not too long, and
3.) Light on the politics.