Categorically Great: Bad, good, and great fiction and film
Some books and movies make us think, others make us feel – a smaller selection of the truly brilliant do both. So what separates a good book or movie from a great one?
In one of his ever-perceptive essays on reading, Alberto Manguel writes that “badly written books will always be with us to test our charity”. The dichotomy between “badly” and “well” written (or made, or painted, or performed) is appealingly more objective than many other sorting systems; it also carries, for what it is worth, Oscar Wilde’s approval – the writer once denied the existence of moral and immoral books, claiming that “books are well written, or badly written. That is all”. These distinctions, however, are not the whole conversation. What do we do with the books and movies we don’t believe are well crafted and yet adore anyway?
I’m convinced that, of the fiction and film we colloquially and often flippantly refer to as “good”, we can find three categories into which these books and movies might fall. I picture this as a Venn diagram. We have a circle to represent all those that are what Manguel or Wilde might think of as well written or made; there is another circle to encapsulate those that we love, that we take great pleasure in; and then there is the overlap, where sit the greatest of what we call good, those books and movies that use great talent, technical skills, complex thematic exploration, and rich characterisation to tell us stories we connect with at the most human levels of emotion.
There are distinctions to be made between these three categories, and it’s worth getting into the weeds to blaze a trail through them and find our way to a clearer understanding of what we love and need from fiction and film.
On the righthand side of a large page, we pen the first circle of our Venn diagram. I’ll label this circle Pure Pleasure. This is the bunch of books and movies that I effortlessly enjoy, that inspire an emotional response as immediate as it is visceral. I am not required to analyse the craft to understand that I “like” what I am taking in, any more than I need consider the biology of taste to know whether I like a flavour or want to spit it out. In fact, this category of Pure Pleasure depends on the presence of flaws; these are novels and films that I know are not art, and sometimes aren’t even technically well-made, but despite my intellect, my emotions are still enjoyably tangled up in their narratives.
For my tastes, this circle includes movies such as Baby Driver, which is a thrill-ride of fun and made with plenty of passion and Edgar Wright’s signature cinematic tricks, but is remarkably hollow. As a movie, it isn’t about anything. It is flashy, it is fun, but it says nothing at all and asks no hard questions. You might also find here, for other reasons, the Indiana Jones movies (two of them, anyway), or Midnight in Paris, or the Mission Impossible and MCU franchises. Books that belong here are Jurassic Park (nostalgia and child-like pleasure, rather than literary merit, bring me back to it year after year) and A Christmas Carol. Like some of the other titles here, Dickens’ tale is not devoid of artistry – but artistry alone is not enough to make art.
There are two reasons a book or movie ends up in the circle of Pure Pleasure. The first is an absence of thematic complexity – Baby Driver, the Mission Impossible movies, and the Marvel movies are not saying anything of real depth, nor asking questions of real complexity. Of course, this is entirely subjective, and I have heard from those who find the issue of state surveillance and its handling in Captain America: Winter Soldier to be quite profound. But I don’t, though I do find that movie fairly enjoyable, so into this circle it goes.
The second reason these books and movies are Pure Pleasure is simply that questions of profundity or craft are largely absent in my response to them. I think of these titles in terms of the joy they give me more than anything else. I re-read A Christmas Carol not to critically analyse the text, but to relive my early Christmases when my dad read the story to me and my siblings. Spielberg obviously loaded his tomb-raiding movies with practical effects and rich cinematic language (and, in the two bad instalments, racism and sloppy CGI), but the cumulative result of this skill is not to get me thinking about the deepest matters of existential concern, but to augment the joy of their narratives. Those two Indiana Jonesmovies are, for me, the purest of Pure Pleasure.
The question of what it is that makes me so love a story of this kind is one that puzzles me. There is undoubtedly the escapist wish-fulfilment of witnessing a story that appeals to my sensibilities. I fell quickly in love with Call Me by Your Name for its portrayal of summer romance and a sunshine-soaked season in Italy. Midnight in Paris caters to my nostalgia for the silly Romantic ideal of the bohemian writer in Paris. These stories seem to fit, Tetris-style, into spaces that are waiting for them. The craft of a book or a movie can also shape it into the precise geometry needed to fit comfortably into my heart. As Martin Amis writes:
“If [a writer] can lay down a verbal surface free of asperities (bits of lint and grit), you will already be giving your readers some modest subliminal pleasure; they will feel well disposed to the thing before them without quite knowing why.”
It is no small nor easy thing to be able to write the kind of prose that I think of as “air” – as a reader, I breathe it smoothly without conscious effort – or like water – it washes over me and all I need do is allow myself to be swept down the narrative stream – though by definition it often goes unnoticed.
These rationalisations aside, a story that makes me quickly excited at having found something that I want to spend more time with, though I don’t (yet, perhaps) understand what is so compelling about it, seems to be a kind of magic. It is a matter of the heart, and as Pascal wrote in his Pensées, “The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing.”
On the left side of our page, we scrawl another circle, this one labelled Big Ideas. We fill this circle with those books and movies that are cryptic puzzles, ideas in debate with ideas, the formal elements presented in their most elegant attire, and which are simply exhausting. The end goal seems to be for the reader or viewer to “get it”, but these books and movies may be so inhospitable to the narrative and emotional needs of the audience that we give up before getting it. These titles are frequently referred to as important, meaning their greatness is beyond the question of our pleasure. They are not (necessarily) unpleasant in totality, and they certainly aren’t (necessarily) boring. But no one would call them fun.
Halfway through the first year of the COVID pandemic, I was finally able to mask up and set foot inside a cinema to see Christopher Nolan’s Tenet. I could spend the rest of this essay using the multiple failures of that film as examples of how the intellect minus the heart results in a cold, lacklustre experience, but there is one feature that succinctly captures the problem: the sound design. It is a cacophonic mess of barely audible dialogue and incidental background noise raised to the foreground. It sounds like six movies playing at once. Nolan chose to mix his audio this way, which he defends by saying that he is less interested in the viewer hearing the lines of dialogue he wrote than in using “sound in an impressionistic way”. He is sacrificing clarity for what he calls the “experiential”. We should feel, he believes, the confusion his characters feel in certain moments.
That’s all nice and academic, but I cannot be compelled to care about Nolan’s film or his grandiose explanations for why he made it as he did. I have no objection to the idea of experimenting with sound design to put the viewer “in” the movie, but those experiments can fail, as this one does for me. Nolan protests that directors can “make a film that looks like anything, [they] can shoot on [their] iPhone, and no one’s going to complain”. Well, we will complain if shooting on an iPhone means we can’t see what the hell is going on. His ideas may be highly intellectual, I may find them interesting on paper, but the experience of this “experiential film” ends up being alienating and makes me lose interest in his big ideas.
This category also contains that “cold pudding of a book” (Nabokov’s pitch-perfect summation) that is Finnegans Wake. Martin Amis’ imagines Joyce’s novel as a great house that the author has invited you to visit. Amis describes what this house and its host would be like:
“The cryptic directions you were given lead you to a house that does not exist, or, rather, to a vast and gusty demolition site through whose soot and grit you can glimpse, in the middle distance, one unrazed building. And so you slither and hurdle your way down there and squelch through the mud and somehow activate the elaborate gong, and after a lengthy soundless wait the door is wrenched open to reveal a figure who is angrily arguing with himself in several languages at once ...”
It is this final image of the mad-genius arguing with himself that pierces the heart of the problem (or the lack of heart that is the problem). Our host is oblivious to his guest. While he is intelligent, he is rarely intelligible; though we are witness to a learned monologue, we are not eager to join in and make it a dialogue. Bringing this back to Nolan, I often feel that he is making his movies solely for himself, then attempting to ennoble his disregard of other viewers and their enjoyment (let alone their patience) with the facade of artistic integrity – as if to be considerate of our desire to connect with characters, or to hear what they are saying, would be to sell out his values.
A movie or a book need not be as obnoxiously abstruse as Finnegans Wake, as self-important as Requiem for a Dream, or as onanistic as Tenet to end up in the Big Ideas category. I recently watched Spielberg’s Minority Report on the recommendation of a friend. I watched the movie, noted its impressive craft, and the passing of those two hours was pleasant enough – but ultimately the movie left me giving a shrug. I was not excited to see it again, and I certainly did not feel the joy I feel watching those movies and books in the Pure Pleasure category, many of which are far less well-made, thoughtful, or thematically rich. Sometimes a movie, for all of its success, ends up in this category simply for failing to create an emotional connection between me and its story.
Finally, our circles overlap in the centre of the page, giving us the vesica piscis (literally “bladder of a fish”, here referring to the intersection of two discs), which I like to label: It Doesn’t Get Better Than This. Here, we have the marriage of mind and emotion, the union between the two sides of our Venn diagram. Some of these unions are weighted more by the circle of Pure Pleasure: Spielberg’s best films sit here, taking us on exciting journeys and giving us something to think about along the way. Others sit nearer the Big Ideas circle, making us work for what they offer, while entertaining us in the process. I’m thinking here of Bataille’s Story of the Eye, Mark Z Danielewski’s House of Leaves, and movies such as Arrival and The Fountain. Sitting as close to dead-centre as is possible – and this is one of the reasons it might also be my favourite movie – is Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. You will have, of course, your own titles in your own Venn diagram.
And it is your taxonomy that interests me. This is where so much of the conversation lies, where so much discovery – both personal and of the external world – is made. We can discuss nuances, refine our definitions, stress-test ideals and values so as to compliment, challenge, and rearrange the ways in which we evaluate books, movies, music, and art. It is a sad irony that these things are of so much importance, of tremendous value and centrality to our lives, and yet are so often reduced to small-talk and simplistic summations of “I liked it” or “I didn’t like it”.
There may also be something larger in this, something that influences our politics, our ethics, and our relationships with each other. Look to the great debates of the last half-century, including traditions resisting postmodernism, science against faith, and liberalism versus identity politics. In all of these we find two extremes, one that claims a hard-line objective position and one that denies absolutes in favour of relative values. Even conversations about fiction and films are so often scuppered by the axe of relativism, which swings in time to the mantra that nothing can be said of art except how we individually feel about it.
Rather than pitting the subjective aspects of art against the objective facts of its composition or context, I would like to embrace a curiosity that stands in awe of transcendence while asking tough questions of it; an attitude that is not content to accept a surface reading nor requiring a reductive, totalising account of all of art’s mysteries. Perhaps if we encourage a culture of open-minded and open-hearted conversation, the kind in which we push because we are fascinated, not because we are determined to prove the other wrong, we might have more productive conversations. And these deeper interactions with culture may well lead to a more fulfilling engagement with life itself.
• Into the Looking Glass Wood, Alberto Manguel (1998)
• The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde (1890)
• Pensées, Blaise Pascal (1670)
• Are Nolan Movies Too Loud? A Look Back at the Director’s Defense of His Sound Design, Zack Sharf in “IndieWire” (2020)
• Christopher Nolan Says Fellow Directors Have Called to Complain About His ‘Inaudible’ Sound, Zack Sharf in “IndieWire” (2020)
• Lectures on Literature, Vladimir Nabokov (1980)
• Inside Story, Martin Amis (2020)