Is there such a thing as quality?

That’s the question which struck me when I saw the program title: Best and Worst of Young Adult Novels

Best is no problem! But I was not going to point out “worst” — even though I come down emphatically on the “Of course there’s such a thing as quality; I knows it when I sees it” side of the fence on that question. Which is separate from questions about taste and personal preference.

Well, we didn’t discuss the question of whether quality exists and how you can objectively reach a decision about the quality of a particular work. That might have been a fun discussion, but we didn’t go there. Cole Gibson did a fine job of moderating; we talked about some of the YA works that have impressed us the most, about some of the tropes and trends we most appreciate or most dislike, and other related topics. I didn’t take extensive notes, but I know I mentioned being totally tired of sexy vampires and a couple of other panelists — Deborah Millitello for one, and I think Rich Horton — nodded toward dystopia as something they’d be glad never to see again. The other panelist, Sarah Jude, writes horror, so dark is probably not a problem for her, though I don’t recall her specific like it / don’t like it opinion about dystopia.

Still, I’d kind of like to address the question of quality. Here’s what I think:

Outside of question of taste, some books are definitely just better with regard to:

a) The actual writing

b) Worldbuilding and atmosphere

c) Clever plotting

d) Interesting, unusual character and subversion or avoidance of common stereotypes (The Brooding Bad Boy With a Sensitive Side) and cliched tropes (The prophecy that the last true heir of the throne will someday defeat the dark lord).


When you’re talking about stories aimed toward younger readers, well, there’s one thing we can say for sure about virtually all younger readers: They haven’t read as many books as avid readers three or four times their age. Thus, I would argue, the sorts of stereotyped characters and overused tropes that annoy older readers are not as likely to bother younger readers, who simply haven’t encountered them as often.

So, when it comes to books aimed at younger readers, I would argue that (d) counts very little or not at all as a component of quality.

I may be biased, because the fact is, I myself read way fewer books than a lot of people. About 100 a year, which is paltry compared to the number of books I would read if I weren’t writing, and very paltry compared to the number a lot of avid readers get through. Thus when people say they’re tired of dystopia, I’m not. I haven’t actually read all that many dystopian stories. The same goes for most other out-of-fashion trends. Though I am tired of sparkly vampires, it’s partly or mostly because that was a hard sell for me in the first place. So I would say: If the author does a really good job with a, b, and c, almost anything *could* work for me, even if I particularly appreciate a cleverly subverted prophecy.

So I think I’m generally going to come down on the side of arguing that (d) is really not a very important aspect of quality.

What do you all think? What aspects of a book seem most important to you in terms of pushing a book up to the “Best” category, or shoving it down toward “Worst”?

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9 thoughts on “Is there such a thing as quality?”

  1. Sometimes I think there is a nebulous factor that is difficult to pinpoint. For example (not counting your books), I would rate Diana Wynne Jones as an example of high quality books. They just come together beautifully. My favorite trope in books is the animal sidekick, or any cat. Who didn’t love Throgmorten.

  2. The title of this post gave me a flashback to Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, thankyouverymuch. :) The main character went insane trying to define ‘quality.’
    I think a good writer can take a tired old stereotype and infuse it with new energy so that I will enjoy reading it.
    The trouble is, I might not give him/her a chance to prove it. The book would have to be amazing from the first word. I am so jaded with “Oh, another youngster Chosen to Defeat Evil in a Dystopian World, yawn, what’s for dinner?” that I might not turn the first page to read on.
    I think it would depend very much on ‘A’.

  3. Michelle, certainly, DWJ is famous for a reason! Though everyone picks different favorites. My personal pick, if I had to choose just one to have on a desert island, is Dogsbody.

  4. That first page is SUPER important if you are already turned mildly (or seriously) off by the tropes indicated on the back cover. But if the author really pulls off that first page, I will most likely go on with at least the rest of a sample, no matter what the description contains.

  5. I agree with you. (c) and (d) – clever plotting and subverting tropes, seem more like a matter of taste and what the readerships’ expectations are. There’s a big market for completely predictable genre books because many people like that, and a well-written, predictable genre book with stereotypical, but well-written and likeable, characters can sell quite well. I think that can still be a high quality book even if I personally would like to see the stereotypes subverted a bit.

    I think this comes up with film critics a lot. I don’t watch a lot of movies, and I sometimes find that movies critics complain about as tired and worn are quite enjoyable to me, because I don’t watch 20 films a week. To me, they’re fresh and well-executed. In books, I’m in the film critics’ shoes. I’ve read a ton of urban fantasies with witches, vampires and werewolves, and if the author’s going to go that route, it better be absolutely top notch or else do something new and clever. But that’s got less to do with the quality of the book than with my viewpoint approaching the genre. If I’m recommending a series to my wife, I know she doesn’t read very much in these genres, so a well executed version of something that I’m a bit tired of is a good choice for her. She doesn’t want the subversion because she’s still enjoying the original version.

  6. Allan, I hadn’t thought about clever plotting also being a matter of taste, but I think you’re right. Also good point about many readers enjoying very predictable books. Of course that’s true. The broadly predictable plotting is one reason I can read more romance when I’m working on my own projects, when secondary world fiction would be too distracting.

    Frankly, I’m glad to still enjoy practically anything as long as it’s well written, including many of the categories that are saturated.

  7. I think I’m a ‘will like anything if well done’ reader, but I can’t articulate ‘well done’ except by pointing at it. It’s been bugging me because I’ve read a book and a sample lately that didn’t quite work, and they weren’t bad… but I can’t figure out what was going wrong. In one I never quite trusted the author on the history/geography/etc (real world historical), in the other the GGK pastiche put me off and it never recovered. Somehow it felt fake, unlike your CITY, which channeled McKillip, but works really well. I’m poking at the worldbuilding being the problem, but it’s hard to pin down.

    On predictable books, there are boringly predictable, and there’re the ones where you know it’s going to come out ok, but getting there is where the enjoyment lies.

  8. It’s been bugging me because I’ve read a book and a sample lately that didn’t quite work, and they weren’t bad… but I can’t figure out what was going wrong.

    This is not that rare, and it’s always annoying. I have to say, “I guess it’s something about the writing style…” But what?

    Sometimes I think it may boil down to predictable dialogue and uninteresting description. Sometimes I truly can’t tell.

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