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

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

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

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

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. 

"

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

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.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

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!

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

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.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

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. 

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

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.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

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.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

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. 

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team

We’ll help your grades soar

Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.

  • 30,000+ book summaries
  • 20% study tools discount
  • Ad-free content
  • PDF downloads
  • 300,000+ answers
  • 5-star customer support
Start your 48-Hour Free Trial