great literature

What is Great Literature?

Aristotle defined the earliest school of criticism saying that literature should please and instruct. The Roman author Horace said the writer aims to do two things—to produce a piece of writing that is both useful and delightful. Sixteen centuries later, the English Renaissance poet Sir Philip Sidney echoed Horace when he wrote in his Apology for Poetry that the purpose of literature is “to teach and delight.” Twentieth-century poet Robert Frost said that writing “begins in delight and ends in wisdom, resulting in a clarification of life.” In Shelley’s words, literature is “a fountain forever overflowing with the waters of wisdom and delight.”

A story begins in delight and ends in wisdom, an unchanging criterion of beauty and truth, entertainment and edification. But how does one delight? The secret lies in a lesser known synonym of the word, which is transport. To delight, or transport, is to enchant, enrapture, ravish—to move from one place in time to another. If writing doesn’t transport the reader, indifference fills the void.

A great book] lays its images permanently on the mind [and] is entirely irreplaceable in the sense that no other book whatever comes anywhere near reminding you of it or being even a momentary substitute for it.—C.S. Lewis

Great literature transports us from the banality of our perspectives and limits of our knowledge and ushers us to new frontiers. From mental stasis, we land in battlefields, witness the South African Apartheid and Jewish Holocaust, experience the world as a Hazara in Afghanistan (Kite Runner) or the struggle to survive the Khmer Rouge (In the Shadow of the Banyan Tree). Great literature broadens the borders of our minds by enabling us to identify with humanity in all its hues, forms and guises. We walk for awhile in foreign lands. We learn to cry with others and to laugh at ourselves.

Great literature ascends the page and materializes with all-encompassing presence. We smell the air, hear the clatter, taste exotic cuisines, the bitterness of alienation and the sweetness of conquering fear… pride… injustice… and even, if not vicariously, our very selves.

“I have always felt that the first duty of a writer was to ascend—to make flights, carrying others along if he could manage it. To do this takes courage, even a certain conceit.” —E.B. White

“Writing should provide the reader with an experience that is superior to the experiences the reader encounters in everyday life. If the reader is also rewarded with insights, it is not always the result of the writer’s wisdom but of the writer’s ability to create the conditions that enable pleasure to edify.” —Sol Stein

Great literature is at once good writing and solid storytelling. It’s pleasurable to read and worth the cost of admission. A surfeit of modern texts, however, fails to reach the benchmark.

“There are writers, and there are authors. With the demand for material as great as it is today, any poor slob who can write without bumbling over his syntax can sell. But it’s one thing to get your name under a title and get it set in type, and quite another to be a writer. Many of the latter never see print. That’s a crime, but it’s the way the world is run, unfortunately.” —Harlan Ellison

The objective of writing well exceeds the transfer of information. The writer must fix his or her subject to the reader’s passions. He does this by creating an emotional experience. Until we set our sights on a higher target, our writing will fatigue those we hope to set on fire.

I think a great book—leaving aside other qualities such as narrative power, characterization, style, and so on—is a book that describes the world in a way that has not been done before; and that is recognized by those who read it as telling new truths—about society or the way in which emotional lives are led, or both—such truths having not been previously available, certainly not from official records or government documents, or from journalism or television. For example, even people who condemned Madame Bovary, who thought that it ought to be banned, recognized the truth of the portrait of that sort of woman, in that sort of society, which they had never encountered before in literature. That is why the novel was so dangerous. … there is this central, groundbreaking veracity in literature, which is part of its grandeur.

Not publication at any cost, but publication one can be proud of—serious, honest fiction, the kind of novel that readers will find they enjoy reading more than once, the kind of fiction likely to survive. Fine workmanship—art that avoids cheap and easy effects, takes no shortcuts, struggles never to lie even about the most trifling matters (such as which object, precisely, an angry man might pick up to throw at his kitchen wall, or whether a given character would in fact say “you aren’t” or the faintly more assertive “you’re not”)—workmanship, in short, that impresses us partly by its painstaking care, gives pleasure and a sense of life’s worth and dignity not only to the reader but to the writer as well.

Let us observe ourselves at the moment we finish reading a great novel. It seems to us as if we are emerging from another existence, that we have escaped from a world out of communication with our authentic world. This lack of communication is shown by the fact that transition from one to another is imperceptible. An instant ago we found ourselves in Parma with Count Mosca, Clélia, and Fabrice; we were living with them, immersed in their air, their space, their time. Now suddenly, without any intermission, we find ourselves in our chamber, in our city, in our date; already our habitual preoccupations begin to awaken at the nerve ends. There is, of course, an interval of indecision, of uncertainty. Perhaps a brusque wing stroke of memory will suddenly submerge us again in the universe of the novel, and then with an effort, as if struggling in a liquid element, we try to swim to the shore of our own existence. If someone should observe us then, he would see the dilation of eyelids which characterizes those who have been shipwrecked.

I define the novel as the kind of literature which produces this effect . Such is the enormous, unique, glorious, and magic power of this sovereign of modern literary forms. And the novel that lacks it is a failure whatever its other merits. Oh sublime, benign power which multiplies our existence, which frees us and pluralizes us, which enriches us with generous transmigration!

I’ve always wanted my written work to be about interesting and emblematic people in compelling actions—magnetic men and women (good or bad) whose lives are watchable for pleasure, pity, terror, purgation, and instruction. And I’ve always tried to keep the prose or verse as cleanly lined and clear as was compatible with the truth of the moment—the character, the act, the thought—so yes, public objects in that broad sense, not private fetishes for my monk’s cell.

Great fiction shows us not how to conduct our behavior but how to feel. Eventually, it may show us how to face our feelings and face our actions and to have new inklings about what they mean. A good novel of any year can initiate us into our own new experience.

Written by The UnNovelist
The Unnovelist