What Makes Great Literature?

Literature Posters Recently, the idea of why one reads has been a discussion in our household.  And it turns out that my wife and I read for entirely different reasons.  We look for something completely different in literature, and because of that, I don’t think either of us really gets the whole experience.

She reads for the words.  The way the language is put together.  She wants to see what interesting and fun things the author can do with words.  Because of this approach, she languishes on each page, reading more slowly, but enjoying literally every word on the page.  Because of this, she is a fantastic writer and editor.

I read for the story.  I want to know what happens next.  In fact, I want to know what happened before, too, that got us to this point.  I want to know about the characters, what drives them, and everything I can about the world in which they live.  And while the writing style matters, the overall narrative is much more important.  Which I think makes me a pretty good storyteller.

Roger Ebert said that “a book is not about what it is about.  It’s about how it’s about it.”  My wife subscribes to this philosophy, and I can’t find fault in it.  The actual craft of writing is a quagmire that most amateurs can never navigate.  The importance on cohesive and polished writing falls on deaf ears (Stephenie Meyer) more often than not.  However, Stephen King says in On Writing that story comes before all else; the writing can be fixed later.

Which makes me think Jennifer and I are both reading wrong.

I mean, I can’t get through Twilight because the writing is terrible, despite it having a passable narrative across the series.  Jennifer can’t bring herself to read The Lord of the Rings because Tolkien gets bogged down in the details of his story, which makes the prose seem bloated.

books-oldWe both read wrong because we’re too caught up in our respective reasons we’ve set up as to why we read.  Instead of just being able to enjoy a book for what it is, we have to dig deeper and rip it apart.  We do so partly because of our years of training in college and graduate school as English majors.

We also do it because we’re stubborn.

Because the thing is, there is no right or wrong way to read.  We should be approaching these works on an individual basis for what their strengths are, not what strengths we seem to enjoy other works having.  I wish I could appreciate Twilight for the story.  I wish Jenn could appreciate Tolkien’s writing style.  We can spend so much time analyzing and looking at one aspect of a novel to the exclusion of other parts that we miss the cohesive whole.

And that’s the crux of it, isn’t it?  True literature doesn’t just do one thing well.  To Kill A Mockingbird is not only written well, but the story is compelling.  The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, too, or Of Mice and MenHarry Potter has a unique voice as well as enjoyable story.  The Stand is probably the most literary of any of Stephen King’s works because it balances a conversational tone and a truly meaningful narrative.

And so do the other troves of books considered to be great literature.  The authors find the balance between story and style that readers like Jennifer and me cannot (or will not) see.

Don’t get me wrong.  There are plenty of “greats” that I feel are undeserving.  Jane Austen was more in love with florid prose than any kind of real storytelling, as was James Joyce.  I think that Steinbeck couldn’t find the right balance in The Grapes of Wrath as he did in Of Mice and Men. Nor could Mary Shelley or Bram Stoker, who tell wonderful stories in such a terrible way.

Its when readers, even professional readers, get too caught up in one side of this argument that the literary scene suffers.  I’ll admit, when writing the first draft of my novel, I did not think about how I said things.  I thought about what I wanted to say.  Jennifer, as my first reader and editor, will see that the words are right.  So even in a project approached one-sided, a balance must be struck.

literature_img01 And that’s all that makes great literature.  A balance.  A balance between words and story, artistry and technicality.  As readers, when we open a book, we need to have an open mind.  Sure, we can appreciate the story, but it’s up to us to make sure that atrocious writing is always considered atrocious.  We can appreciate the writing, but we need to make sure that the writing actually says something instead of just being pretty words.

It is our job as readers—not the Ivory Tower’s—to determine what becomes great literature.  And we can’t do that with blinders on, by being single-minded in our pursuit or either words or story.  It may take a team effort, like my wife and I have set up in working on my manuscript, but the literary landscape for the future just might be a little more hopeful if we work in that direction.

So tell me, why do you read?

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About B.J. Keeton

B.J. KEETON is a writer, teacher, and runner. When he isn't trying to think of a way to trick Fox into putting Firefly back on the air, he is either writing science fiction, watching an obscene amount of genre television, or looking for new ways to integrate fitness into his geektastic lifestyle. He is also the author of BIRTHRIGHT and co-author of NIMBUS. Both books are available for Amazon Kindle.

10 thoughts on “What Makes Great Literature?

  1. I read fiction, because a well written book can take me to other words, places, show me a glimpse into other people’s heads more then anything else in this world. movies don’t do that. computer game don’t do that. good books though (good is subjective here, btw) – I can drown in them and lose track of time and outside world more easily then with anything else. to do that the writing has to be good, smooth, engaging (I don’t focus on individual words like your wife, but rather overall voice) , and the story should be interesting enough to keep me wanting more.

    I read nonfiction because I’m a very curious person and various things often catch my fancy, so I want to learn more about them. though it does help when non fiction is written in a smooth, flowing language that allows me to grasp a concept without having to reread the same sentence 10 times.

    Incidentally, I personally think twilight is horrible on all levels. the story is trite, overused, and full of flat unsympathetic characters and plot holes. it could have been salvaged if actual writing was good, but its just as bad as the story.

    yes, you could say that most stories especially coming of age stories have similar basic formula, but sparkling vampires is not nearly enough of a spin to give it unique voice.

    • hello,i am very pleased to contact wiyh you i agree with you that both of fiction and non fiction story take our attention and make us more curios to discover what is written down but why you can’t stand reading the story of twilight althought it is consedered as a type of fiction story .bye

  2. Agreed. Great article, Beej!

    I find myself somewhere between the two of you for the most part. I’ve read a LOT of books, though, so I tend to skip over flowery stuff more often than not and just skim read bloated text to get to the meat. I don’t mind it, and I can even stop and “smell the roses” and appreciate fine wordsmithing… but when I’m reading in default mode, I just tend to ignore it and plow on through.

    As an artist/animator trained to work on movies, I see a similar effect in myself when I watch movies. No longer can I just sit back and go along for the ride, I reflexively analyze how they craft the story, camera shots, special effects, animation and all of the other little niggling little details that I’ve trained with. That’s on top of the typical story analysis that I’ll do almost subconsciously; purely a writing analysis. I’m aware of the ingredients that make or break a movie, and I can’t help but notice when the work (or not).

    It’s crazy… and part of why I like to see how my wife and children react to a movie. Many’s the time when I don’t particularly like a show, but can derive some happiness seeing a loved one enjoy it. It’s also why I don’t tell them much about the “man behind the curtain”. Why ruin it?
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  3. That’s like asking “Why do you breathe?”

    I’ve always read from a young age, and was more comfortable in a library than almost anywhere else. Reading is my escape.
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  4. I read almost purely for the story. I was, for a long time, completely oblivious to the fact that the Ivory Tower turned up their noses at writers like Dan Brown and Stephen King; I guess that’s the beauty of not having a formal education in literature. It all goes back to the old ‘ignorance is bliss’ cliche.

    Having said that, I absolutely love, for example, writers like Lovecraft and Poe’s fusion of elegant prose and macabre tales. I really can’t see any modern writer — at least any I’m familiar with — coming up with a modern-day Call of Cthulhu.

  5. I read for much the same reasons that you do. I am very much a story driven reader (while language does play its part in my thought processes). I will devour a book in days if I’m interested and have the time. It’s one of those things. Like for instance, this summer, I have read at least 4 books. I don’t deconstruct the words and language. I am looking for what is going on within the realm of the characters.

    While I agree with you that we as readers determine what makes good literature, I believe that there have to be some people in “ivory towers” who make decisions about what stands the test of time…if the literature is truly timeless, it will pass on through the ages being as relevant as it ever was. That being said, I think if you let the readers of today determine what would be the “great” literature some would choose things like Twilight (which I could never agree with being relevant for any time but the here and now). I also believe that some things will never be considered good literature simply because of stigmas around certain authors like Stephen King and Anne Rice for instance (for writing novels in the horror genre which never seems to get a lot of respect academically…this also excites me that you’ll be teaching a class about horror literature :) ).

  6. A tangential thought: It’s been my experience that it’s far easier to read for the “how” than the “what” when I’m reading something like a Star Trek or Star Wars novel, where the universe has to stay more or less static because the crew/cast can’t change because of IP canon laws. You know that you’ll usually wind up in a similar place to where you started, so the journey becomes an exercise in “how will they get out of this?” rather than “will they get out of this?”, and that can really shift the focus (for better or worse, to be sure).

    It’s almost like the difference in serial TV shows; you get very different stories in something like BSG or LOST vs. something like Stargate SG-1, and it’s not just because of the setting. The structure is different, and that makes spotting the writing techniques easier. For me, anyway.
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  7. an average book will tell a story and may be described an interesting characters or incedence ;it might also explain how something is done or relate the history of something we usually take for granted but a great book gives us all that and”sth else”

  8. while i totally agree with what you are saying, do you think this applies for all types of books. Have you ever read the book called “The Curious Incident of the dog in the night-time” by Mark Haddon?if you haven’t, i really thin you should. this book is not really about balance at all in my opinion. if i was to give a summary of the book, i would say it’s about an autistic boy who is looking for the murderer of his neighbour’s dead dog. the story line is not good yet the book is very interesting because it gives us a new perspective due to the fact that it is about an autistic boy and his perspective of the world. the writer really captures the reader but the story line is not good at all. can this still be called good literature? many people enjoy it and there have been many great reviews about it. can you read it and tell me?