What makes great literature great? What comprises great literature? Why are some works still relevant, while others have been relegated to the studies of period specialists or the perusal of those who enjoy archaic culture? Why do we even study literature?
Coming to the end of the material from my first year English on-line literature discussions, it seems fitting that the final installment should be a broad-picture consideration of literature itself. There is always the risk, when speaking of literature, of coming across as pretentious. Snooty, even. “What do you read? Paranormal romance? Oh, I’m into literature.” And there is some basis for that perception–somewhere along the line, literature ceased to mean simply “a written work” and became more narrowly applied to written works deemed worthy of the term by some scholarly fraternity of cultural gatekeepers. I don’t say that as an exclusively bad thing–yes, there is always the potential for elitism, but there is also a lot of benefit reaped by recognizing and preserving works of above-average merit and value.
On the other hand, “literature” can also be a sort of catch-all term. Take the example above: romance. The genre recognised as “romance” deals almost exclusively with the relationship, everything else in the story relegated to being incidental. Any “literature” come to mind with that characteristic? Starts with “Romeo” and ends with “Juliet”? So it’s not just the subject matter or the type of story being told that determines whether something is up to scratch for the label “literature.” Literature by and large is difficult to categorize as any genre at all because it is less about the accepted tropes and patterns of a particular archetypal story and more about the meaning and style. So “literature” becomes a kind of broad term spanning entries from many genres, as long as those individual entries also include or display some quality, depth, and/or innovation in their writing and story. I began to express something like this in my original response to the topic as presented on the discussion forum:
I think that great literature has to have an inherent quality of style and meaning. In the whole work there must be a purpose or message that the author wants to convey, besides simply having a compelling story and characters. If I think about what comes to mind when someone asks me about great literature, I automatically think about works like 1984, The Grapes of Wrath, Little Women, Lord of the Flies, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and The Scarlet Letter. Something these all have in common is a worldview: a commentary on society and on what the author cares about. It can be thought of as propoganda, I suppose, but is really more like a sharing of ideas through the medium of fictional works.14 February 2017
It’s noticeable that all of these works that I listed as top-of-my-head examples of great literature (and ones that I’d read) are by authors from Britain and the United States. That is certainly indicative of the kind of worldview being presented. The argument can be made, and I think is valid, that the appeal of these works is broader than their place/culture of origin and deal with universal truths and experiences common to all. That’s part of what makes them literature. Still, what we generally perceive as literature today is coloured by our cultural past and prejudice. Is that an inherently bad thing? No, it’s just a result of where we grew up. If we want to expand our knowledge and learn more about literary traditions from other places, we already have a good groundwork to build from and compare to. And if we don’t want to pursue literature (or, alternately, realise that there is not enough time in the world to do justice to every literary tradition ever conceived by man), at least we know something about it even if it’s limited to our cultural background or exposure.
Another measure of great literature is whether it has a life separated from its author. Here’s what I mean–is there a great bulk of people that have heard of the book, but couldn’t necessarily name the author? Compare that with the opposite phenomenon of people having heard of an author but not being able to name one of their books. Take something like Gone with the Wind, which the majority of people have heard of, but probably never read, and couldn’t pull Margaret Mitchell out of their consciousness as the author if their life depended on it. For me, the opposite of this might be Danielle Steele, whom I’ve heard of but couldn’t name one book of hers if my life depended on it. There’s a difference between great literature, and a great/successful author. One is a work recognised, maybe not even in the author’s lifetime, on its own merits. The other is an author recognised for the sheer volume and consistency of output into the market in their lifetime. That’s not to say great literature and being a successful author are mutually exclusive; however, they are two different conditions that are not always present at the same time. Generally speaking, if a work has a life independant of its author, it’s safe to say it qualifies as great literature.
Unfortunately, sometimes authors try to create literature for literature’s sake. Many of these “modern literary” works are consciously, painfully aware of literary traditions and trying to be the next Great Expectations or something. I don’t really subscribe to this aspect of the “literature” genre on the whole. When I think of literature, what I really mean is classic literature. I try not to be a purist who thinks a work has to be a hundred years old to have any merit, yet there is a certain presumption in claiming a work more recent than the last century to be “great literature,” or even a “literary” work without the qualification of greatness. Just call it fiction, or whatever genre it fits best, and let the coming years decide whether it’s “literature” or not. There are works around today that I think have great merit and probably deserve to be recognised as literature in the future… in the future. Some of them may be, some may not, time will tell. Meanwhile, I think it’s pretty silly to gorge the genre with works that may be booted out in fifty years when someone is collecting readings for their Y2K literature class. Just let it rest on its own merits instead of placing all these expectations and inevitable comparisons on your baby manuscript.
Consciously pretentious literature isn’t a recent trend, either. It was going on in the early 20th century to the extent that James Joyce wrote a 265, 222 word parody of it: his novel Ulysses. Now, don’t take my word as gospel that that’s what he was consciously doing; I haven’t researched it fully and don’t know for a fact that he ever stated that’s what it was. But I know it’s been suggested, and when I read it, I could totally see the humour and the irony with which all the droning, pedantic literary references were laced. And, irony of ironies, now Ulysses itself is seen as great literature. I think James Joyce played the system. Of course, it never hurts a work’s popularity status to be so controversial that it is banned in places for some time, but that’s a whole different subject. And that’s another reason I think Ulysses may have been a joke–it’s not really aesthetically pleasing on the whole. I saw glimpses, mostly at the beginning, of the style he used in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, but the overall construction of Ulysses was so episodic and disjointed as to be hard to enjoy, and probably as hard to write. Not to mention the sheer bulk of it–more is not always better.
I feel that’s where a lot of modern writers of “literature” go wrong and that Joyce was trying to convey that–if the story isn’t coherent and the experience isn’t enjoyable, no amount of literary “merits,” references, imitations, or epic length will make up for a complete lack of narrative feeling. On the contrary, the meaning will get lost in the distracting construction and side-tracks, as I think a lot of it did in my reading of Ulysses: glimpses of profound thought and shrewd commentary on society and human nature were dispelled by the next artsy section written as a play or stream of consciousness. That’s the real shortcoming I see in literature for literature’s sake: the individuality is gone, replaced by regurgitated perspectives and topics from years gone by and authors long dead.
There’s a quality inherent in literature that has to come from deep within the author–it may be filtered through the lens of the narrative or narrator, and be embroidered in outright fiction (as in, untruth), but there shines through a core belief or thought that the author holds, and we know they do because otherwise they wouldn’t have written the book in that way. Even a work that claims to have no meaning or merit aside from “art,” Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, showcases some of the most basic societal values in its message. In spite of himself, Wilde laced his only novel with truth that shone through all the lacing of lies.
In his essay “Why I Write,” George Orwell says, “When I sit down to write a book, I do not say to myself, ‘I am going to produce a work of art.’ I write it because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention… But I could not do the work of writing a book… if it were not also an aesthetic experience.” The story is what makes you care, the meaning is what makes you remember.14 February 2017
The story needs to be told and told well, first and foremost. Through that, the deeper meaning comes, shown to better advantage because housed in such beautiful telling. That’s what great literature is made of.