Praise Inflation: Is Good No Longer Good Enough?

I’ve just finished reading an Ian Rankin mystery novel, one of his John Rebus series.  The Naming of the Dead, if you’re interested.  I’m not a big mystery reader, but I like to dip into the genre now and again.  This is the first Rankin I’ve read.  It’s a recent book, perhaps his most recent, and what strikes me more than anything is what a good writer he is.  He’s solid.  He knows what he’s doing.  He’s in control of his craft.

Then I wonder:  is it enough to say he’s good?  Has “good” been devalued?  Ought I to say he is excellent, great, superb, remarkable?

Can’t I just say, “he’s good,” and leave it at that?  Because I’m always impressed by a good writer.  It’s not easy to be a good writer.  It’s all too easy to be a bad one, a mediocre one, a merely acceptable one as opposed to a solidly competent one.

And yet in these times “good” maybe doesn’t mean what I think it means.  Maybe I’m temperamentally or culturally inclined against making the big bold crackling magnifying statement.

Editors occasionally send me manuscripts in the hope I will like the novel enough to provide a quote for the cover.  Sometimes I decline (not always because of the book–I may just not have time to read it, and I don’t quote for a book unless I’ve read it).  Sometimes I write up a quote, a tricky proposition.  I don’t like slinging around words like excellent, great, superb, and remarkable in these contexts, when it seems required as a form of praise inflation, but at times I feel I have no choice.  When I tried out one quote for my spouse, he remarked that if I said a book was “good,” readers would think I was damning it.  “It can’t just be good,” he said.

But you know what?  This Rankin fellow?  He knows what he’s doing.  He’s in complete control of his craft.  I feel that I am in the hands of a master, not a journeyman or an apprentice.

He’s good.

That–to me–is high praise.

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  1. 1. C.E. Murphy

    See, I’m a lot more likely to trust, “He’s good,” than “He’s fantabulously wonderfully amazingly brilliant,” because, well, look, not much is actually fantabulously wonderfully amazingly brilliant, and furthermore, if you think it’s all of those things I’m not necessarily going to, because if it’s hitting you that hard it’s probably written for Just Your Particular Kink, whatever that might be, and odds of us sharing that kink are perhaps not skyrocketingly high.

    I think, for example, pretty much everything Guy Gavriel Kay writes is in fact fantabulously wonderfully amazingly brilliant (even when I dissect it, and know how and what he’s doing, it *gets* me. Every time. In the gut. So it clearly *works* for me.) I know a number of people who absolutely can’t stand him, and others who just twitch at the way he puts together sentences, etc. It’s an enormous YMMV situation, and if I’m willing to wax rhapsodical, it doesn’t necessarily mean everybody’s going to want to.

    Of course, sometimes books are as good as everybody says they are. I think TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD was the first book I ever read that was, despite everybody saying so, was in fact brilliant. Kind of like Shakespeare and Casablanca.

    I’ve noticed that when I do cover quotes I tend to try to specific things I *am* impressed by, and pull those things out. If the worldbuilding’s especially good, I like to mention that. If the author’s done something with a sequel I didn’t expect and am pleased by, that’s worth talking about. If the emotional impact of the story is what leaves me reeling, that’s what I say, ’cause those are all selling points to me.

    But I think I’m most likely to actually pick up a book and read it if somebody I know says, “Oh, yeah, you know, that’s pretty good.” I can see why editors and marketing don’t feel like that’s a resounding recommendation, but for me at the bookstore, it’s about the most reliable indicator I could ask for.

    (…and this has nothing to do with what you said about THE QUEEN’S BASTARD, which quote Betsy forwarded to me and which I keep going back and gazing at with admiration. Thank you so much for that. Wow.)

    -Catie

  2. 2. Kristine Smith

    I’m a fan of Rankin/Rebus. Yes, “good”, said with emphasis, means more to me than “greatest mystery writer since Christie” (if you’re no fan of Christie, you’ll run the other way) or any other bucket of superlatives. It implies above average abilities in all areas–character, plot, style, setting–that tells me I’m in for a fine overall read. I won’t admire a single aspect while shoving the rest under the mental rug because it just doesn’t match up.

  3. 3. Joe

    Having taught at the college level, I am experience the dreaded grade inflation and it is somewhat similar. To me, a ‘C’ is an average grade, unfortunately, that’s not what a lot of students think these days. So while in my book, a ‘C’ means one thing, they will argue that it means another. Do you get into college by being average? Of course. Do you get into college with ‘C’s? Probably, but maybe not as easy of a sell.

    So are you damning the author because you are giving what you think is an adequate representation of their work? Too some people maybe, to others, probably not. But I can’t just inflate my own rankings, just because that’s what others want. If we stayed true to what we actually thought, we wouldn’t be in this mess in the first place!

  4. 4. Madeleine Robins

    I’d have to say tone of voice is all: I take a bite of something wonderful and my reaction is “Omigod that’s good.” I read something that directly connects with my forebrain and good comprises (in my mind) quality of story and quality of storytelling. The work may also be wonderful, thoughtful, hilarious, heartbreaking, etc. but those qualities I generally tend to apply to aspects of the work (the characters are wonderful, the voice is hilarious, and so on). The work, overall, is good.

  5. 5. Charles

    “Good” is one of those words that – because people may interpret it in so many different ways – requires it be spoken to really get the person’s intention.

    However, “Really Good” would seem to – in written form – convey more of the meaning you attribute to just “Good”.

    I think “Good” has been devalued. The fault most likely lies with advertising agencies pitching products to consumers.

    One could suggest the moment Tony the Tiger exclaimed “They’re Great!!!” the meaning of “Good” was instantly and permanently diminished.

  6. 6. Mark Sutherland

    My first evaluation as a Navy Hospital Corpsman was made by a new charge nurse who was doing her first evaluation. She evaluated me very honestly as someone new to the job who still made mistakes but was trying hard and doing a “good” job. When I turned the evaluation in, the clerk who received it looked it over and said, “Man, this nurse must really hate you”. It turns out that anything less than “outstanding” or “superior” on a military evaluation was the kiss of death. It probably cost me a promotion a few months down the road. Now, as a college teacher, I feel like I’m destroying student dreams when I give out what used to be a good grade of C. I guess we all live in Lake Woebegone.

  7. 7. Mike Brotherton

    Reference letters in academia have also suffered from praise inflation. It’s becoming more important to read through the specifics to see what the qualifiers actually mean.

  8. 8. Kate Elliott

    Even Bs can be suspect these days, which is a pity. It’s kind of an extension of the Winner-Take-All society, perhaps. Or, indeed, Lake Woebegone. It’s got to be rough to write evaluations and reference letters these days, because of that.

    Catie, yeah, when I write a quote I try to figure out a specific element I want to praise rather than a generic gush of adjectives, which mean much less to me as a reader than an indication of what are the strengths and/or tone of any given book. Or as Mad says: what the different aspects of the book are like, and how likely they are to fit what I want to read.

  9. 9. Dan Ronco

    Praise in book blurbs is certainly inflated. Not every book released this year is breathtaking, thoughtprovoking, populated with fascinating characters … but that’s what the reader sees on the cover. If your best blurbs say that this is a pretty good story with solid characters, well, don’t bother to check your Amazon sales rank. Besides, my book was populated with fascinating characters.

  10. 10. George V. Reilly

    I’ve been rating books on my blog for the last year, on a 0-5 scale. I hardly ever give more than a 4.0. I have to really, really like a book to give it a 4.5, and only one book so far has captured a 5.0, Ian McEwen’s Saturday. On the other hand, hardly anything gets less than 3.0 because I’m good at avoiding books that I won’t like.

    I gave the The Naming of the Dead 4.0. It fell apart for me towards the end when he gratuitously tied the two investigations together.

Author Information

Kate Elliott

Kate Elliott is the author of multiple fantasy and science fiction novels, including the Crown of Stars series and the Novels of the Jaran. She's currently working on Crossroads; the first novel, Spirit Gate, is already out, and Shadow Gate will be published in Spring 2008. Visit site.

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