It’s becoming less of a strange concept these days: Just because you like a book, it doesn’t mean it’s good; just because you hate a book, it doesn’t mean it’s bad. People often talk about this concept under the guise of “guilty pleasures”.
That’s the reader interpretation side of the issue. On the authorial intent side, we have goals vs. execution. An author might have sophisticated thematic goals, deep understanding of their characters, or brilliant and edge-of-your-seat plotting ability. But that doesn’t mean they can put all of it on the page so the reader can see it. I’ve heard many writers discuss the goals of their book, their plans for the characters, etc. And quite often I’m dying to read that book. But when I finally get my hands on a draft, or even a published book, it’s awful, or I hate where they went with it, or both. Casual readers might be more familiar with this issue from reading back cover blurbs. They’re written to sell the book, often by someone who is not the author, and they make it sound like the most fascinating book in the world. But then you read it and it’s trite, or boring, or predictable.
In order to visualize this, think of a three-dimensional graph using Cartesian coordinates: x, y, z. x is the goals of the author. Are they unique? Interesting? Well-constructed? Then they get a high x-value. Look at the execution. Is it elegant? Is it good? Does it get across what the author wanted to get across? High y-value. Finally, and this is arguable, but the most important issue to some people: Did you like the book? Were the characters interesting? Did the plot twist blow your mind? Did everyone get what they deserved–or not? High z-value.
To give you a better idea of how this graph works, high scores on all three axes mean the point on the graph representing a given book is in the back right corner. The further away on the y-axis, which should pierce your belly-button, the better the craft behind the book. The farther to the right on the x-axis, the loftier the goals of the story. Finally, the higher up on the z-axis, which should be running parallel to your spine, the more you enjoyed the story.
As an example of a book to be plotted, let’s take The Scarlet Letter. This was a brilliantly crafted book, with lofty thematic goals. And I sort of liked it. So it would sit somewhere to the bottom of my sternum, well past my right middle finger-tip, about five feet in front of me.
Nova Ren Suma’s Imaginary Girls, which was a fantastic example of magical realism, had lovely prose and interesting characters, and which I thoroughly enjoyed, would be fairly close to the upper right, back corner of my book box.
And then there are the tons of mediocre books that I might not read again, but don’t regret reading the first time. And then we have Haruki Murakami, who is no doubt a great author, but whose penile adventures I have exactly zero interest in. If we stuck the z-axis right down through the top of my head, he’d be about at knee-level and to the northeast of me.
I think “guilty pleasure” does a decent job of describing the phenomenon of knowing something is not particularly good and still liking it. Kind of like McDonald’s. I love McDonald’s even though I know it’s horribly unhealthy, and try not to think about the process of making it while I’m eating–or ever.
More bro-type folks then I might find Natty Light to be a better metaphor. It’s an atrocious beer, tastes like watered-down camel-piss, but at least it gets you drunk.
And now I’m going to go feel ashamed of myself for suggesting that anyone compare natty light to literature. Even Twilight-level literature.
ETA: If I were a good writer, I probably would have opened with that Twi-light/Natty-light line…
(This is not hating on Twilight. I don’t like it, and it’s horribly written. But plenty of people I know have said it’s their guilty pleasure. Other readers may feel differently.)