What literary criteria would you use to judge the best book?If you had to judge any book for a prize, what literary criteria would you use to apply to the book and judge the winner? Would it have...

What literary criteria would you use to judge the best book?

If you had to judge any book for a prize, what literary criteria would you use to apply to the book and judge the winner?

Would it have to convey an instrumental message of any kind?

Would it have to be written in third/first person?

Would it have to be original?

Expert Answers
Lorraine Caplan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

This is an interesting question, but a difficult one.  Some of your follow up questions are quite easy to respond to, so let's dispose of those first. 

In my opinion, there is absolutely no value in using point of view as a criterion for judging a book.  Each point of view, first, second, and third, and the subdivisions, omniscient or not, can have literary merit.  Every writer is entitled to decide which is best to tell his or her story, and limiting a prize to a particular point of view is likely to have a chilling effect on anyone's writing. 

Originality is a must in any context.  A work that is not original is plagiarized, in other words, stolen.  Why should we ever reward an illegal and unethical work? 

Now, assuming that a judgement on a "best book" is taking place with a pool of candidates, I do not see how any literary criteria can be a constant.  What happens if none of the books meet the literary criteria?  Is no prize awarded?  What happens if all of the books meet the literary criteria?  Do they all win? 

If one uses the "message" critierion, the judges are likely to disagree on what the message is in each book.  Most of us have participated in a discussion of books, in a classroom, among friends, or in a book group, only to find that each of us sees something different in a particular book.  This is because each of us is bringing a different combination of experiences to the book.  The "truth" of a book occurs as we, as individuals, make meaning of what the writer has put down on the page.  So the "message" criterion is a problem.

Many of us who "judge" literature believe that time can be the best criterion for greatness.  A bestseller today might find itself on the remaindered table and fade away five years from now.  Or, it might find itself in the literary canon, as for example, in the case of The Great Gatsby.   Many award recipients have faded away, while others will continue to delight us. 

Someone who is called upon to judge a group of books might look at the universality of the work as one standard, but even that can be a difficult standard to apply, since some will see universality in a work about a particular time and place, while others will see the work as limited to its time and place. 

Judging books is a subjective and messy endeavor, and while it is quite easy to say what should be eliminated, for example, unoriginal works, it seems impossible to say what should be included as criteria.    

Writing and reading are to a large degree quite subjective, and so are the judgements made about them.  Most of the time, book prizes are based upon votes, with a panel of judges who apply whatever individual criteria they like upon the candidates. 

stolperia eNotes educator| Certified Educator

There are so many types of books and purposes for writing books that I don't think you could establish one set of criteria that would be applicable to all situations.

I would assume that originality of the work would be a primary requirement for most literary awards. Personally, I would place weight on books that use language well to create vivid and engaging word pictures, enhancing the educational or recreational purpose of reading the book. Note that this means different things for different types of books. A book written for a beginning reader may be more difficult to write than one for a college graduate!

e-martin eNotes educator| Certified Educator

One criteria that I would look for would be an attempt to grapple with a significant theme. For me, there must be an idea behind and/or within a story in order for it to be truly "good", so I would put theme at the top of my list for criteria in judging a book. 

Another way to say this, perhaps, is to go beyond theme as theme and look at theme as vision and look to define really good books by how well they convey a vision of the world using the vehicle of a narrative. 

wannam eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I think the criteria for judging a book would depend on the type of award.  For instance, an award for a children's book would have different criteria than an award for a novel.  Many awards are given based on the educational value of a book.  Other awards are given based on the entertainment value of a book.  Any award is going to look for a book that is well written and free of errors.  Beyond the generic points of writing, criteria will be based on the type of award.

shake99 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I like to see a book reflect real-life in a meaningful way. This requires deep, realistic characterization. Books that are tightly plotted are nice, but if the characters don't have depth I don't find it very meaningful.

To create deep characters, writers have to look at the things that have a meaningful effect on people's lives. The emphasis is on how character's respond and change as they deal with the kinds of things we all deal with at one time or another.

kiwi eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I would want to feel that a book is worth at least a second reading. I like layers of meaning, intense description, vivid allusions and an engaging, original plot. I would put Zusak's  "The Book Thief", Dickens' "Great Expectations" and Fielding's "Tom Jones" . Think classics, and you are usually there. 


litteacher8 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I would not care what point of view the work was written from.  I think that is secondary to other considerations.  The theme and style would be important to me.  The work would have to be strong in terms of a compelling plot, well-drawn characters, and unique and moving style.

bullgatortail eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Certainly originality and a "universal message" are most important. (There is really little bearing on whether it is written in first- or third-person.) For me, the beauty of the language, the subject matter, and the "can't put it down" effect are most important.

wordprof eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I was going to add a comment, but #4 said everything I was thinking. wordprof

pbjessop | Student

I have served on several prize panels for literary fiction. They are more fraught with politics, competition and power hungry strategizing than any election campaign. But oh what fun! And how wonderful it is to see a writer, smiling (often with tears) when they receive the prize winning cheque that means they can keep writing. Makes it all worth it!

First and foremost I am looking for language.Critical language use.  Does the author use language with great care, selecting words that deeply describe and tattoo an idea, image or character onto my imagination and heart.  Language that is intelligently descriptive but not overblown. Language that draws me in and lets me think and gives me just enough to allow my imagination to work its magic.  Language that uses phrases I will remember, or that I want to pause and read again (and again.)

Here is a beautiful example: from All that I Am byAnna Funder. Her character has been released (miraculously) from a Nazi prison and has escaped to her lover in Switzerland.  From the platform, he is watching her approach him. “When she stepped down from the train Dora was more of a scarecrow figure….Her eyes were set deep in shadowed sockets and her skin pulled think to translucent over blue veins at her temple. She smiled broadly, swinging a briefcase at her side. Something in me I did not know was taut relaxed; I was home.” Wowowowowow – that is language use. That is writing at its finest.  There is nothing over done, exaggerated. In a little more than 50 words, Funder has given us so much about these two characters. From her words on the page, we feel  Dora is fragile, vulnerable, like a bird. Funder’s use of ‘scarecrow’ also gives insight into Dora’s emotional state – fearful, alert, plain scared.  Yet, in the next sentence we have a glowing smile and a carefree swinging of a brief case – the language sets up a paradox that gives us more insight into the character – she is tough, strong and will not easily be beaten down or defeated even if she is as scared as a ‘scarecrow.”  With these descriptive words, Funder has given us insight into Dora’s great interior resolve and strength.  The simplest language then describes her lover’s (playwright and poet Ernst Toller - real person) intense feelings for her…when he sees her he relaxes, feels safe, feels loved…he feels he is ‘home’ in her presence.  Now, that is love.  That is language that gives us sooooo much in sooooo few words.  That is prize winning writing. 

I also look for characters who are real, fully developed, with real ideas, real feelings and really human behavior.  Super heroes don’t work for me  unless the author makes them believable. Exaggerations and oversized abilities leave me wanting something more credible – I want somebody I could sit and talk to, somebody I might  hate but could understand. A character with a range of traits from awesome to awful.  Believable characters. 

Settings are important too – they need to fit the characters, they need to provide the characters with relevant background and complications. 

There is so much more: metaphors are vital – that is what separates literature from popular fiction.  There is imagery – the pictures the authors irons on my mind like a seal that I will never lose – Atticus Finch reading to Scout, Lady MacBeth clawing at her own hands, King Lear cursing the storm, fists raised, Juliet leaning over her balcony to better hear and see her new love Romeo.  Pictures the writer has fixed in our minds eternally. 

Finally, there is the old gut reaction.  A prize winner is going to stay with me, when I leave the book and go for a walk or go to bed, I want to be thinking,’ I wonder how that character is doing? I wonder what is going to happen next? ‘  I want the author to infiltrate my life and take up residency for a while in my brain, in my imagination , in my heart.  When I am finished a first reading, the book must make me sit in my chair and just feel and think and wonder about what I have just experienced. 

When all this comes together, I know I may be looking at a winner.  And I am keenly aware, that there are a kazillion books out there that will never get the recognition of a prize – but books and stories that are very worthy of being read andthought  about and loved for a lifetime.

 Jeesh - ain’t literature wonderful!?!


manishamishra | Student

i would see that the must contain the imagination power.how the things are imagined and plotted is important it is also important to relate each and every thing together which will make the beauty of the litrature to come out

-theme(s), theme(s), theme(s)



drahmad1989 | Student

idea or theme must be strong . if related to scince then must include some new inventions or ideas about some thing new. impressive or simple language..

isha2488 | Student

i would see the following things from literaray perspective:

1.which genure it belongs to ,ill choose my favourite ie comedy,or mystery etc

2.i would see the the theme of the story,the characterisation

3.obviously the writer or the author 

Zac Egs | Student


In every book we have three pivotal things :
- the plot
- the narrative
- the narrating

If these three components are in harmony then I think that this book will satisfy many of its readers.


Zac Egs