Everyone has that one book or movie. They love it to a thousand pieces but have reservations about recommending.
“Yesssss! It was amazing. The arcs were so real, and the characters. And I can’t believe the plot twists. But…” *tries to explain what others might consider objectionable content without making it seem the worst piece of work on the face of the earth.*
There are a few things like this for me. The musical Hamilton. Movies like Hart’s War. And Brandon Sanderson.
I love Brandon Sanderson’s books and am slowly working my way through all his novels. His worlds are epic. His themes are amazing. His characters are among the most realistic and relatable I’ve ever read. His plots, subplots, arcs, twists, politics, and foreshadowing are bewildering in a good way. Think Charles Dickens, but fantasy.
Sure, his prose leaves things to be desired. He could show more and cut down on unnecessary exposition. Still, I can ignore those faults due to the story catching me up. Which says a lot since I’d probably not read any other author with prose like Sanderson’s.
And yet… there are things in his books that I wouldn’t write myself. If books had ratings, I’d give most of Sanderson’s work a PG-13 rating.
So—to read or not to read?
The violence doesn’t trouble me and isn’t too graphic or gory simply for the sake of violence. It’s realistic, and sometimes horrible, but that’s the point. There is swearing to some degree, made up in some worlds, ‘minor’ swear words in others. Generally such language is only for a single character when it’s part of their character. There isn’t swearing just because.
Then there is the occasional sensuality, for lack of a better word. Sometimes it is cultural. Or a character who has a mistress. Or we see a man’s thoughts about his betrothed or his wife. They aren’t thrown in simply for the sake of it—they’re part of a character. It doesn’t venture beyond speech or thought in any detail. Still, there are things that make the books something I’d not just recommend to every reader I come across.
Yet I read them myself and love them. This brings the question: do the good aspects of the books cancel out the bad?
I’d present the option that the outlook of a book matters as much as the actual content.
A villain or antagonist will generally act in ways that are morally wrong. It’s expected from villain. A writer must show the darkness, otherwise the light has no power. Even good characters will slip or start in a dark place. The point is not so much what they do as how it is portrayed. If a character lies, steals, or murders, are there consequences?
A book could be completely ‘clean’ of any sort of graphic details, yet not be a good book because a child stealing to help her sick mother is lauded as a great act. A book might show a character murdering someone at the beginning, yet be a very good read as it brings the readers on his journey of guilt, consequences, and eventual justice. A man thinking about his betrothed or wife in relation to the physical aspect of his love toward her may be more right than a story where it’s acceptable for two characters to become lovers because they don’t want the bonds of marriage.
Moral problems make for exciting dilemmas, but in the end the right needs to be portrayed as right and rewarded while the wrong needs to be portrayed as wrong and judged. Poetic justice must take place.
The second aspect is focus and builds on the first. Say the end portrayal of right and wrong is sound, does this justify reading anything you please? What does the scene, or book, leave you thinking about? Is the focus on sensuality or violence and leave you with pictures you’d rather not have in your head? Or is the focus on the love or anger of a character and the results of their actions?
The two ‘guidelines’ are fairly simple. How are actions portrayed and what is their focus? When it comes to Sanderson, good and evil are masterfully portrayed as right and wrong through the struggles and results with each character. While he goes more in-depth with some aspects of life than I would, they are merely a natural extension of his characters and not a focus of the scenes.
The aspect of how detailed a book can get and still be good is as much a matter of personal conviction as anything else. I don’t think anything is acceptable so long as a Christian label or right worldview is slapped on. At the same time, there are those who are uncomfortable with too much drinking in a book, while others don’t even notice heavy swearing. What lines there are and where they might be is too long a topic for here.
For me, if a book promotes a right worldview and doesn’t go into graphic sensuality or swearing, then I can enjoy and learn from it even if I don’t agree with every point. With Sanderson, I would say yes. Read him. His books are fascinating in general, but studying what he does and how he does it can help writers learn and grow as well.
What do you think makes a book good or bad? Where is the line for you and how firm do you think it should be?