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?