What Makes a Good Novel? In Laurence Cossé’s A Novel Bookstore (2009) (Trans. by Alison Anderson)

A Novel Bookstore

I was drawn to this novel not just because it is about books but because of its initial premise. This revolves around the various people in the running and creating of The Good Novel bookstore in Paris, which has a secret committee of people who select the novels for the store and these are of course “great” novels, not necessarily the latest fad or hit novel. Of course for this book to feature on my blog there needs to some sort of criminality and there is. A few months into the running of the bookstore, it begins to receive a lot of criticism and even threats. Eventually this extends to three of the committee all having either very frightening or very nearly fatal experiences. Sinister walkers on a cliff side terrify one of the committee, another nearly ends up dying of pneumonia and cirrhosis after being led into a woods, punched in stomach and made to drink very strong alcohol, whilst another is caused to have a car crash. Although secrecy is the priority both Van and Francesca who created the venture realise something needs to be done before anything worse happens, so they go to see a police official called Gonzague Heffner and to him they unfold the story of how their store came about and what has been happening since. Is this a conspiracy? Or is just one person behind all these events? And will Heffner be able to find them the answers they need?

In itself this was a very good premise for a book, yet even this does not save the book from being the very opposite of a good novel. For starters the beginning of the novel tries to be enigmatic but just ends up being annoyingly confusing. This does improve as a more linear narrative style takes over, but on the other hand this linear narrative is slow and often includes uninteresting and obscure literary tangents. Within the middle section of the novel (which is very long) there is too much back story given about how the bookstore came about and the initial crimes we are told about are left unaddressed. At points I did enjoy finding out more about the committee members (who are all writers) and their writing habits, but sometimes this did feel unnecessary. Moreover, a separate mystery entirely is who the narrator is, who seems to have connections with some of the characters. In short it is a story with a great premise but is a story which is not told well. I equally found it very difficult despite being a book lover to get attached to the central protagonists. In the beginning this was because these characters came across as very exclusive and snobby and then once these traits diminished it felt too late into the story to start caring about them. I think I also felt rather cheated as the story lures you in with the initial crimes and shadowy guilty party, but then doesn’t address these events until the end of the novel by which point the book (which is too long at 416 pages) has lost all of its momentum and energy, with the ending feeling depressing and flat.

I think the only good thing about this novel was that it got me thinking about what makes a good novel. Although I didn’t condone the threats and criticism thrown at The Good Novel bookstore in the story, I didn’t necessarily agree with Van and Francesca’s ideas of what makes a good novel, which (certainly initially) came across as elitist and snobbish. I don’t have an issue with demarcating novels as good or bad, as this is something many readers do naturally, as well literary prize committees, libraries, bookshops etc. I just think I am concerned with the criteria used to make this decision, as I don’t think in this story Agatha Christie or other great crime writers would have made the cut, yet who wouldn’t say for example Christie’s And Then There Were None (1939) is a good, nay great novel? Regardless of genre (as I do read non-crime fiction sometimes) I think for me a good/great novel needs to contain as many of the following criteria as possible:

  • Characters who you can engage with and get attached to (or at the very least take an interest in).
  • Is written with a narrative style which hooks you and is not belaboured or unnecessarily dense. It has to make you care about the journey you are being taken on. The narrative itself doesn’t need to be 100% linear but it shouldn’t leave the reader irritatingly confused.
  • I acknowledge that I have a preference for narrative styles which are humorous or comic to varying degrees, though this isn’t necessarily an essential criterion for every reader, as some may prefer darker or grittier novels.
  • The story emotionally impacts you, meaning it stays with you after you have read it and this usually evidence for me that I have been successfully hooked into a book and have had an invested interest in the characters.
  • Quirky or clever premise (I apply this criterion more to my non-crime fiction reading), but with this criterion it is important that this premise is executed well, as a poorly executed quirky or clever premise is worse than no quirky or clever premise.

Over to you:

Have I missed anything off my list of what makes a good novel? Let me know below. But in conclusion to this review…

Q: What’s a good novel?

A: Not this one.

Rating: 2.5/5

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About armchairreviewer

Qualified English teacher, with a passion for literature and crime fiction. On a random note I also own pygmy goats and chickens with afros (it doesn't get any cooler than that).
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7 Responses to What Makes a Good Novel? In Laurence Cossé’s A Novel Bookstore (2009) (Trans. by Alison Anderson)

  1. realthog says:

    I actually quite enjoyed A Novel Bookstore (note title) and didn’t find it boring, although I was a bit annoyed that I’d been lured into it by a blurb that suggested an Agatha Christie-style mystery. Still, it’s often fun when a book turns out to be something other than you expected.

    who wouldn’t say for example Christie’s And Then There Were None (1939) is a good, nay great novel?

    Me, I’m afraid. I’m no huge fan of Christie’s anyway, but that particular novel seemed to me completely contrived. And that’s even before we start talking about the racism of its original title. (Yes, I know, in historical context, yahdeyahda, but I still found it pretty offensive.) Oddly enough, the various screen adaptations work much better, perhaps because they acknowledge the artificiality of the setup — in the service of either a comedy, like the Rene Clair one, or a near-noir,* like the much more recent Russian one.

    (* Not a typo for “neonoir”, although you could conceivably class it as that, too.)

    Liked by 1 person

    • I did note the title, I just don’t think it is novel to bore the pants off people, derailing a perfectly good mystery plot to tell me about Van’s weird relationships and obscure writers I haven’t heard of and will probably never read. And I wouldn’t say that this novel particularly reeks verisimilitude, as a lot of the plot events, particularly the ending was kind of artificial and predictable. As to the contrived-ness of And Then There Were None, I think it is meant to be deliberate, as the killer deliberately manoeuvres events and creates an artificial situation (but still real) in order to carry out his plans and I think it adds to the mounting hysteria and stress the characters on the island feel, as what they are experiencing is so out of the ordinary and feels so unreal that it has almost nightmarish qualities. To be fair you could probably substitute my Christie title for any other great GAD novel of your own choosing and I still feel it wouldn’t get a look in at The Good Novel bookstore.

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      • realthog says:

        Sorry, my comment about the title is that you’ve called it In a Novel Bookstore in your heading.

        I just don’t think it is novel to bore the pants off people, derailing a perfectly good mystery plot

        As I say, it didn’t bore the pants off me. Modern French literary fiction, so far as I’ve read it (which is not nearly enough), seems to dance to a different tune than its anglophone equivalent, which can be a bit offputting. My own approach, which may or may not be valid, is to go with the flow and see what happens. In the case of A Novel Bookstore, once I’d realized this wasn’t a mystery novel in any shape or form (I don’t think you can talk about “a perfectly good mystery plot” being “derailed”, because there isn’t really one there in the first place), I found myself having fun with it.

        And I wouldn’t say that this novel particularly reeks verisimilitude

        No, it doesn’t. It’s almost magic realist, in fact.

        To be fair you could probably substitute my Christie title for any other great GAD novel of your own choosing and I still feel it wouldn’t get a look in at The Good Novel bookstore.

        Yes, but surely the whole point of the Novel Bookstore is that you can pick up Agatha Christie et al anywhere, but you’re unlikely to find much by way of literary fiction on the average station bookstall — hence the need for a store that specializes in nothing but literary fiction. If you’re going to rail against this as snobbish, then you have to rail against the late, lamented Murder One in Charing Cross Road for being elitist, record shops (I show my age) that specialize in classical music as being snobbish, etc., etc. The Good Novel is simply a specialist bookstore along the same lines, and I see nothing wrong with that.

        Now, if you want a roughly contemporaneous French novel that did bore the pants off me, you could try The Elegance of the Hedgehog (the translation’s from the same publisher as did A Novel Bookstore, and if memory serves it’s the same translator). Such a shame, because I adored the movie based on it, and went into the novel with high expectations.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Oh I get what you mean by the title now, I didn’t actually think the title was In a novel bookstore, but I couldn’t italicise the name. I was literally just meaning IN A Novel Bookstore. I’ve changed the title of the post to prevent further confusion. I have read a number of modern French novels and really liked them, particularly those by Sophie Divry and Antoine Laurain, alongwise novels from many other different countries so I am used to different cultures writing different ways, but the way this novel was constructed didn’t work for me. And for me the point of the good novel bookstore was not to just stock books you couldn’t get elsewhere but to just stock good novels regardless if other people were selling them. I’m sure there are a number of bad novels which are rare and wouldn’t just get stocked at the bookstore just because they were rare. I don’t think stores specialising in one particular thing is snobbish, such as purely crime fiction shops or classic record shops as you suggest, as they just focusing on one genre. The difference with the good novel bookstore is that it is selecting its contents on a much more judgemental and subjective basis, which in the first half of the novel comes across as snobbish, but that may well be due to how it was written and how I couldn’t engage with or get attached to the protagonists.

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  2. Thanks. I have this book in an online shopping cart but am going to take it out now as it doesn’t sound like my sort of thing after all.

    The subject of what makes a good novel has many answers I think. I know my own notions of what that is have changed over time, let alone how my notions might contradict someone else’s. I can’t tell you how many times I have been stumped by the selection of some novel as the winner of an award. But then when I was a judge for an award it was difficult to get agreement between the three panelists let alone the wider reading audience.

    I basically agree with your list of criteria (where I think the issues arise is that what is emotionally impacting for one person can be dull as dishwater for another and so on). The only criteria I struggle with is the one about quirky premises. While I do enjoy this element when done well I find more and more that some books have nothing more – it’s like the author/publisher has devised the world’s best premise/elevator pitch for a novel and all their creativity has been used up on that – a book has to be more than just a premise.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh no I agree with you on the quirky/ clever premise thing, writers needs to give you more than that for it to be a good book, as arguably this book has an unusual premise but the way it is told ruins whatever effect it could have had. And again you are right in suggesting that the criteria for what makes a good novel is subjective and that is why I have my doubts about having a bookstore which just sells good novels.

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  3. Pingback: When We Were Orphans (2000) by Kazuo Ishiguro | crossexaminingcrime

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