More Thoughts On What Makes Literature Great (or Not)

I like the idea of resonance! I think a sense of familiarity or connection (even when the setting is another planet or time) makes it possible to bridge the gap between an author's context and our own. The human condition changes in particulars but never in substance.

I also think there's a great deal to the idea that good works (novels, movies, etc.) allow readers to enter the author's world. In my thesis, I argue that a flexible work is a work that contains space within it. If we can enter, find a place for ourselves, the work has creative potential.

My only caveat (to myself) is that the ability to relate appears to come as much from the reader as from the author. I can still remember a rather uncomfortable discussion with a fellow student back when I was an undergraduate; he desperately wanted to convince me that our professor's fiction book was a great piece of a literature, especially since he felt a connection to the main character of the book who had suffered a death in the family. As he described this part of the book, tears came to his eyes.

I thought the book was good but rather pedestrian. My embarrassment was not so much that it was our professor's book--I actually don't think my professor would have had a problem with my opinion--but that the fellow student's "review" was based on such heart-rending personal evidence. How does one say, "Yes, I'm quite sad for you, but really, this book is not great writing." (Okay, some people can do that, but I find it very hard.)

But the book just didn't have that something else, that "oomphiness." When I hear Katrina's final speech in Taming of the Shrew or "You Can't Always Get What You Want" by the Rolling Stones, my reaction is the same: someone human wrote that?! I don't care about the chauvinism. I hardly care about the message. At that moment, I just care about the art, the "more," the bigger than big sensation which lingers afterwards.

When I was writing my thesis, a single idea kept cropping up again and again amongst those analysts that I actually found useful; C.S. Lewis, Camille Paglia, Arnold Weinstein, Wayne Booth, Umberto Eco all refer to the same idea:


For example . . .
Paglia: Yet poetry is not just about itself: it does point to something out there, however dimly we can know it.

C.S. Lewis: Literary experience heals the wound, without undermining the privilege, of individuality. There are mass emotions which heal the wound; but they destroy the privilege. In them our separate selves are pooled and we sink back into sub-individuality. But in reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself . . . Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do.

Resonance is clearly a key component here. In A Scream Goes Through the House, Weinstein also identifies the reader's desire to reach beyond the self, arguing that pain, loss, and love within art connect us as human beings.
C.S. Lewis's quote comes from An Experiment in Criticism in which he postulates an interesting approach--we should judge literature not by what it contains but by how it is read. He fingers transcendence as one of the signs (not the only one); with great literature, the reader is carried out of him or herself. (I discuss Lewis's approach more in the thesis's first chapter.)

Which brings me to the idea of self-forgetfulness. The seeming contradiction here is that a piece that can carry us outside of ourselves can also encourage us to relate but only by not reminding us (or itself) that that is what it is doing.

To put it another way, the work is caught up in being simply what it is. As, I would argue, is the artist.

There's a relevant scene in Amadeus (not based on real life) when Mozart's wife visits Salieri, bringing with her some of Mozart's pieces. When Salieri wants to borrow them, she shakes her head--These are the only copies. Stunned, Salieri stares at them. In that moment, seeing the unrevised compositions, he realizes that he is a craftsman while Mozart is a true artist.

My point is not that great artists never revise--shoot, most of them from Monet to Shakespeare to Austen revised and revised heavily. What I always remember about Amadeus, however, is the idea of Mozart's self-forgetfulness, his ability to get caught up in creation rather than in what the art means.

Tolkien was the same--Middle-Earth mattered, not what Middle-Earth meant. It was its own excuse. C.S. Lewis started the Narnia series with an image of a lion. Austen spoke of Elizabeth as a living person. The very thing that academics (at least in my program) criticized--the unreflective nature of the consumer--seems to be the very thing that great writers have.

(Except for George Bernard Shaw, and I'm not counting him today.)

These writers, not just the readers, seem entirely non-analytical about their creations. Even Christie, who carefully and concisely mapped out her books, seemed to think that another dead body was its own excuse (after all, it produced another 1,000 words!). Asimov--who claimed to never revise--typed his books without stopping while Stephen King--speaking of the symbolism in Carrie--states that he didn't notice it until the second draft.

In his book On Writing, Stephen King compares discovering a story to uncovering a dinosaur skeleton--the story is already there, whole, waiting to be found: sui generis. Likewise, Salieri perceives Mozart's compositions as translations of work already fully shaped in Mozart's brain.

I'm frankly in the Salieri (the imaginary character)'s homeroom than in Mozart's. But when the writing really works, when it flows, when I feel for two seconds that I'm almost in that other room . . . those are the moments when I stop thinking about the writing and just write. What comes next comes naturally, inevitably. (And then I'm back to trying to fit pieces together twenty different ways, but since I actually get a kick of that part of the process, I'm plenty happy to stick to craftswomanship.)

I hate to propose the idea of the "muse speaking through the artist," simply because many people (i.e., students) use that idea as an excuse not to draft--like speakers who want to "wing it." Well, sure, there are great speakers who can "wing it," but most of us need notecards--and waiting until the last minute for the muse to pay a visit is a really lousy idea!

And yet, I think the idea of the muse--even the working muse--has merit. The book or painting or song is made because the artist's creative need demands that it be made--yet the artist seems hardly aware of the need, only that the thing's existence is warranted. Once created, it becomes rather like a pet that sinks its claws into people's hearts--so much so that even the artist may go, "I own that?! Wow!"  (Okay, I'm also excluding Picasso who would have said, "Of course that's mine! I'm amazing!!")

To bring the two ideas together: I think great art, including novels, is art that captures the human condition while carrying the reader/viewer into a story or image that seems like it always existed. For lack of a better word, a great work of art has a whole-ness about it.

Which naturally doesn't prevent people from carving that work up for any number of reasons! 

And, having said all that, there are plenty of non-great books that I'll always keep and never give up just because I love them--whether they meet the above criteria or not.

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