What Makes a Good Novel?

ACFW Advice, Authors and writing, Books, writing 4 Comments

By B.D. Lawrence @BDLawrence3

“There are bad novels and good novels…but that is the only distinction in which I see any meaning…the only classification of the novel that I can understand is into the interesting and the uninteresting…it is of execution that we are talking — that being the only point of a novel that is open to contention.” Henry James in his essay “The Art of Fiction”, published in Longman’s Magazine in 1884.

If you are not familiar. Henry James wrote an essay as a critique of a talk given by English novelist Walter Besant in 1884. The main contention James had was Besant’s narrow rules for what makes good fiction.

Both the talk and the essay have relevance for today.

I agree with James that Besant’s overarching presentation of good fiction is extremely narrow. But he had some great points. Besant said, “a simple rule that nothing should be admitted which does not advance the story.” He argued that all description and dialogue should help the action or illustrate the characters, otherwise it’s not needed.

Besant warns against paying publishers to publish a work. Today, vanity publishing.

He said, “the only danger is that the universal cry for more [fiction] may lead to hasty and immature production.” James agrees with this point, saying “It must be admitted that good novels are somewhat compromised by bad ones, and that the field at large suffers discredit from overcrowding.” We see the same issues today.

Besant also said, “it is perfectly certain that if the work is good, it will be accepted and published.” Not true in today’s market-driven publishing world.

What distinguishes good fiction from bad fiction? According to Henry James, there are six criteria. First, the novel should be instructive or amusing. His use of amusing is not meant to mean funny or comedic, but entertaining.

James’ most important characteristic is that the novel should be interesting. He follows this up by saying that good fiction leaves an intense impression. The impression can be good or bad. In contrast, Besant argued all fiction should have a “conscious moral purpose”.

Besant argued that all fiction should be based on reality. Characters should be real people that we could meet. James counters this saying fiction should have an impression of reality – an illusion of life. Besant would not acknowledge speculative fiction, whereas James opens that door. James said, “As people feel life, so they will feel the art that is most closely related to it.” For many, that may mean an escape to an alternate universe or fantasy world.

James said, “Nothing, of course, will ever take the place of the good old fashion of ‘liking’ a work of art or not liking it.” His fifth evaluation point for fiction: The reader likes it.

Finally, James says that good fiction is where the writing succeeds in what it attempts.

The above criteria seem completely subjective. But we can use these points to gauge our own fiction before we put it out for public consumption. Ask these questions of our beta readers. Was my story interesting? Was it instructive? Was it entertaining? Did you feel like the world it presented was realistic? Was there an illusion of life? Did it leave an impression? Did you like the story? And finally, do you have an idea of what I was trying to accomplish with this novel, and did I do so? Asking these questions of real readers may allow us to present a good novel versus a bad novel.

There are good novels and bad novels. But what makes a novel good? @BDLawrence3 #ACFW #writing Click To Tweet

In today’s overcrowded market, we can only hope that “the bad is swept with all the daubed canvases and spoiled marble, into some unvisited limbo or infinite rubbish-yard, beneath the back-windows of the world, and the good subsists and emits its light and stimulates our desire for perfection.” (Henry James, “The Art of Fiction”).

Henry James closes his essay with a poignant piece of advice. “Remember that your first duty is to be as complete as possible — to make as perfect a work.”


B.D. Lawrence writes stories of Justice, Vengeance, and Redemption. Check out his short stories and novels at https://www.bdlawrence.com. He hopes they will leave a strong impression on you and that you will like them and find them interesting and entertaining. You can also find his work on Fiction Finder.

Comments 4

  1. Thank you so much for your fascinating post! My PhD dissertation included a comparison of the works of Henry James with those of Gustave Flaubert, so your post was especially meaningful to me. Blessings as you write for King Jesus!

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