What makes a novel great?
I’ve been sucking on this questions like a breath mint for months. What makes a novel great? I don’t mean good, entertaining, or popular. Those are all worthwhile things.What makes a novel great? Not good, worthwhile, or popular, but great? Maybe it's all about timing. #books Click To Tweet
But I’m seeking greatness. I’m seeking works of fiction that will stick with me long after I put them down. Books that’ll change my mind, make me feel different from before I picked them up.
On this hunt for greatness, I’ve made a few discoveries. And over the next few months, I’m going to explore what I found.
Sleeping with Goosebumps
Every week or two, my mom would buy me a new Goosebumps book. I loved them so much I’d sleep with them under my pillow. When I woke up, all my tossing and turning would destroy them, creasing the cover and crumpling pages.
You could say Goosebumps had a profound affect on me. The series planted the seed that would blossom into my current obsession with writing. But if I were to pick up Say Cheese and Die today, I doubt it would have the same effect.
Fight Club and the $100 plate of nachos
The make-out years
I was a nerdy kid. All the way to freshman year, all I did was hang out with church friends, play video games, read books, and walk to the local Blockbuster to rent movies. I didn’t know how to talk to girls. I had little rebellions, but nothing substantial.
Sophomore year, everything changed. I made friends with the rebellious kids, started going out more, discovered girls were a thing and they were soft and fun to kiss. I even came up with a bold move — at a party, I’d sit next to a cute girl, lean in, and just go for it. And it worked! Let the sloppy make-out session begin. I became a smug little shit.
The book that changed everything
During this time, I heard whispers about this book everyone said was “badass and messed up”. It passed from rebel to rebel, and eventually worked its way into my hands. The book, Fight Club. I didn’t just read it. I cut it up into a line and inhaled it. Then again and again…
Fight Club inspired a strong, prolonged drive in me to push against my boundaries in all directions. It’s nihilistic glee spoke to me, empowered me to break away from everything that held me down. I took part in a series of escalating acts of destruction, mayhem, experimentation. Tyler Durden was my hero.
First, I skipped school to go to the river or hang out on the train tracks. Then I ran away from home. I stole backpacks full of groceries and alcohol. I played around with mushrooms, dextroamphetamine, nearly got arrested while on mescaline. One night my friends and I wanted nachos, so we stole enough chips, salsa, meat, and condiments to make a plate of the most over indigent nachos we could muster. It was cemented in infamy as the $100 Nachos.
I’m not bragging about it or suggesting you do what I did. The reason why I share is to illustrate the profound impact Chuck’s book had on me. It, along with Punk Rock and my growing dissatisfaction with Mormonism literally shaped a period of my life in drastic ways.
All About Timing
This begs the question: why did Fight Club affect me so much? What about it impacted me more than all those other books I read before? Of all the books I can remember reading in that period of my life, from The Hobbit to Catcher in the Rye, I don’t think any inspired a discernible change in me til this one.
Turns out, I have an answer. As I get older and go back to reread books I loved from previous periods in my life, some I have a greater appreciation for, while others I’m left wondering what it is about it that made me love it in the first place. It all comes down to timing.
Books can mean incredibly different things based on so many factors outside of the text itself. From the culture around you, to your own mindset that morphs year to year, the book you pick up today will be very different from that same book seven years from now.
Sure, it can be argued that Fight Club is targeted to young men at the exact age I was. But that’s missing the point. Reading Kurt Vonnegut now vs. reading it him in high school brings up a different response in me. I image the same will be true when I pick up Robert Luis Stephenson, Hermann Hesse, Cormac McCarthy, or Patrick Rothfuss again.
So maybe greatness is all about timing.
Fight Club fifteen years later
I recently re-read Fight Club. I went into it concerned that it wouldn’t live up to my memory, but something happened. I read it with two mindsets. I was transported via nostalgia right back to that feeling I had when I was a kid reading it for the first time. Meanwhile, I read it with older eyes. I was more distanced from the characters, the anti-consumerist message, the unique rhythm of Palahniuk’s prose. Of course it felt different, I’m different now. But it was still fun, still gleefully anarchistic, and I enjoyed it.
Reading it for the first time at age 32, would it have changed my life? Doubtful. It would certainly entertain me, and I would still find Tyler Durden to be enduring as all hell. But it wouldn’t change the way I think.
What does that mean? Was it once a great novel, and now it’s just good? Does a novel need to change the way you think to be considered great? Of course not. Not all great books will change you. But only a great book can.
So that makes it official. I declare Fight Club to be a masterpiece. Because in the end, I guess it did change me a second time. It taught me that greatness is just as much about the reader as it is the book. Not just that, but the specific stage in the reader’s life when they pick it up.
So maybe I’ll try to pick up A Portrait of The Artist as a Young Man again. Maybe last time I tried the timing was off.How R.L. Stine and Chuck Palahniuk Taught me Greatness is All About Timing Click To Tweet