This reader’s needs: key features of a great novel

George EliotCarol ShieldsGeorge Eliot at 30 by François D’Albert Durade, and Carol Shields

As a reader what do I look for in a novel? Naturally this analysis is personal, a result of my attitudes and emotional needs and my experience of life, novels and writing. The writers in the brackets are simply those who spring to mind, in some cases (Zusak, Michaels, Lee, Ondaatje, Levy, Butler) on the strength of a single but deeply memorable novel once read.

Four features are key, emotionally and analytically:

1. Extraordinary sentences that demand rereading for music, wit, insight or structural perfection. (Carol Shields, George Eliot, Marilynne Robinson, Dickens, Jane Austen, Ian McEwan)

2. Imaginative, daring word choices and combinations that may include imagery. (Siobhan Dowd, Dickens, Geraldine McCaugrean, Toni Morrison, D.H. Lawrence, Susan Fletcher, Anne Michaels, Markus Zusak)

3. Substantial, vivid and believable characters that don’t stand still (George Eliot, Malorie Blackman, Thomas Hardy, Margaret Forster, Carol Shields) or that are humorous or exaggerated without loss of humanity and connection (Dickens, Jane Austen, David Lodge, Anne Tyler, Nick Hornby).

4. A complex interior life for the characters, quite as rich, individual and surprising as any plot, drawn through reflection, emotion and associations that include memory. (Tolstoy, Carol Shields, Flaubert, Virginia Woolf, Dostoevsky, George Eliot, Susan Fletcher, Marilynne Robinson, Ian McEwan, Sarah Butler)

In addition, perhaps:

5. A new world to experience through multi-sensory immersion that creates or deepens understanding. (Andrea Levy, Tolstoy, Susan Fletcher, Siobhan Dowd, Khaled Hosseini, Michael Ondaatje, Tracey Chevalier, Toni Morrison, Anne Michaels)

6. A warm spirit of humanity that makes possible a strangely powerful soul-connection between reader and author. (Michael Morpurgo, Carol Shields, George Eliot, Anne Tyler, Marilynne Robinson, Harper Lee, Siobhan Dowd)

I don’t need plot twists (or much plot) and I don’t want cold author detachment or darkly and relentlessly dysfunctional characters. I don’t appreciate the kind of minimalism that delegates to me some responsibility for filling a vacuum.  I hope to suspend disbelief, so I don’t welcome stylistic or structural devices that break the spell and show me the workings at the back of the embroidery. And I believe in the educative power of fiction, so I see authors on a mission to enlighten in the cause of social justice, from Dickens to Alan Gibbons, Morpurgo and Malorie Blackman, as literary angels.

Any author who can achieve a few of the above will leave me stirred, changed and grateful for a gift I won’t forget. Inevitably, they are my own goals as a novelist, but I’d be thrilled if any reader considered – or felt – that I’d attained even one of them.

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