What makes a novel a good book? There are as many answers to that question as there are readers, but with this being the time once again when winners are selected for the Whitney Awards, I think it's a good question for each of us to examine.
I'll be honest and admit I'm not sure how some of the finalists got published, leave alone selected as finalists. On the other hand there are some exceptionally fine books on the list that will leave those voting with a struggle to decide which outstanding book to choose as the best in its category. Whitney Finalists.
Those eligible to vote include both published and want-to-be-published writers who belong to the sponsoring organization, LDStorymakers. Also eligible to vote are industry specialists such as a select number of publishers, editors, book store employees, critics, bloggers, and any published LDS writer whether in the LDS or general market. No set criteria is given to these people; each must answer for him/herself what makes one book better than another. Sometimes this is hard because the LDS writing community is fairly small and most of us know each other on a personal level. It's only natural to want a good friend or someone in your critique group to win. There's a temptation too when voting to give more weight to a favorite genre than to one that is usually avoided.
Whether or not I enjoy reading the book is my first criteria. Second is, did I gain some insight from the story? Other questions I ask, and these are in no particular order: Can I identify with the characters? Does the plot develop well and hold my attention? Is it well researched? Is the vocabulary appropriate for the expected audience? Does the author intrude on the story or insult his/her audience? Does the setting feel right? Does it start and end well? I can forgive a few typos and most punctuation errors, but have a harder time overlooking repeated misspellings and poor grammar.
One more is: Is the story believable? All fiction requires the reader to suspend belief to some extent, but there is a limit to how far most of us can stretch our sense of credibility. I don't like patronizing political correctness, but I don't like crass rudeness either. Another no no for me is cheesy sentimentality or an over abundance of cutesy.
Every year since the Whitneys began I have plodded from beginning to end through every finalist-- and enjoyed most of them. There have been a few notable exceptions I considered a waste of my time, just plain boring, not up to what I consider LDS standards, and some that just didn't appeal to my taste. This year I won't be reading all of the categories, but I will vote in those categories that interest me most, primarily the genres I read for my review column on Meridian. Admittedly there are a few books in the areas I won't be voting in that I've read or plan to read at some time, but I don't have time now, or in some cases, the desire to read all of the books in those categories.
Sometimes I wish there were a way to choose the top books of the year strictly by the readers, no writers or reviewers allowed. Some suggest that sales numbers are more indicative of how good a book is than a vote by the author's peers, but even this method doesn't always denote quality since the fad factor enters in, as does the effectiveness of the publisher's advertising strategy and the depth of marketing given the book. The huge number of books, many self-published, appearing on electronic sites now also confuse any means of measuring what is the best.
Each year many people volunteer their time to read all of the nominees in a category, then whittle the nominees down to five finalists. I applaud them. Their task isn't easy. I also applaud Heather Moore and all who are working with her to manage a very large time intensive awards program. Your efforts are appreciated!
Now if you've stuck with this blog this far, please accept this challenge. If you were voting and hadn't been given a list of finalists, which one, two, or three books which you read in 2012 would you choose as the "best"? Please set aside all other factors and just tell me which books you most enjoyed reading.
One more thing, this is a short month so there are only two more weeks to enter to win a copy of my new book, Where the River Once Flowed. All comments (tasteful) on any of my February blogs or Meridian reviews count as an entry. Multiple entries accepted.