What is Good Literature?
This is just me having a little chat about what people think makes a good book, what I think makes a good book, and maybe it'll be interesting. Maybe not.
Personally I think it's quite hard to judge literature or any art objectively, I think literary tastes are very subjective. A lot of people have their personal favourite books that have a particular meaning for them, or that they particularly relate to or mean something to them in some way.
I find it quite difficult to talk about what makes a book really good and why I love a book, and easier to talk about what makes a book bad and why I hate it. I feel that there's more general consensus about what makes a book bad, and just on a personal level I often find it easier to list the reasons I've hated books, than the reasons I've loved them, because books I like, or books which are often considered good books don't always have much in common.
So, something which I found very interesting was an article by Christina Hartmann called How to Tell if a Piece of Fiction has literary merit, and I'll link it below.
I'm not going to go through it line-by-line but there are a couple of ideas I wanted to discuss.
The first thing Hartmann mentions as making a good book is good characters. And I agree. Personally the characters matter a lot to me in a book. A lot of my favourite books appeal to me because of the characters. Murder on the Orient Express is about a group of people who carefully plan and carry out the murder of a man who abducted and murdered a child. And one of the things I thought was really well done was the different personalities and characters of the murderers, who are convincingly different people, but at the same time it's so plausible that all these different people could have gone through the emotional processes necessary to commit this murder. I think Count Andrenyi is one of the most interesting of all Christie's characters. Cassetti never wronged him personally, he stabs him in the name of his wife. And his story is kind of left at that really. I can only speculate that he must have loved his wife very much, but I'd really like to have found out more about Count Andrenyi. I feel Christie in a way didn't value the character enough. But maybe she did it on purpose, to just leave us with this impression of him to think about. And I think Poirot's characterisation was also interesting. One of Poirot's catch-phrases is "I do not approve of murder", but at the end of Murder on the Orient Express he presents two solutions to Monsieur Bouc and Dr Constantine, allowing them to choose the solution of a stranger from outside committing the murder and shielding the real culprits from punishment. So it seems that there are some circumstances in which he doesn't think murderers are a threat to the public—his disapproval of murder comes more from it's effects on the murderer than from denying that some people deserve to die—and I thought that was an interesting piece of character development. Perhaps because the murderers arranged the murder collectively and saw themselves as merely executing a sentence on a criminal the law had already condemned. Christie's books generally contain a lot of memorable characters. A lot of her books, especially the Poirot books, explicitly hinge on psychology and character study, and she writes psychologically complex casts. One of the other characters that stood out was Jacqueline de Bellefort in Death on the Nile, who fell for a completely unscrupulous man, and was completely blind to his faults. She helped him murder her former best friend, she was completely ruthless, completely unscrupulous and love made her dangerous. It's a very unsentimental description of what love can do to you. Lawrence Wargrave in And Then There Were None is very interesting. He's not just a random sadist, he's an instrument of justice. He wants to actually achieve social good by killing these people. So in a way it can be seen as a kind of sequel to Murder on the Orient Express, but rather than avenging a personal wrong, he's motivated by justice for wider society. He was a judge, professionally, and he's kind of carrying that work on to a higher level.
It isn't just Christie who writes good characters. H.G. Wells writes very good characters, and often they connect these amazing, outlandish plots and exotic locations to the reader. One of the reasons I like science fiction is because of the weird and wonderful that's possible and the characters make it feel real. In The Island of Doctor Moreau, Moreau is this man on a mission. He wants to create people and this becomes his life's work, and makes the idea of the vivisectionally anthropomorphised talking animals becomes very plausible because it seems like something he would do. In The First Men in the Moon, Bedford is a failed play-wright who only becomes a lunar adventurer through his chance meeting with Cavor humming outside his window. He becomes this kind of audience surrogate on the moon, and one of the reasons why the moon world is so compelling and we suspend our disbelief and I remember as a kid finding the whole moon-world so vivid and real and plausible in my mind. And I knew it was fictional, but it didn't feel far-fetched. And Cavor is another brilliantly compelling character. He's a brilliant, driven scientist who puts the scientific possibilities of the moon above the commercial possibilities which are more interesting to Bedford. He brings that wonderful, pure excitement.
But Hartmann's description of what is an interesting and compelling fictional character is rather vague, and I think this is a problem with trying to find objective standards for literary merits. I think I mentioned this before, when I was talking about heroes and anti-heroes, that often what makes a good character depends on the tastes and values of the reader. A Doll's House is widely considered a great play and personally I found the heroine insufferable. The same goes for the eponymous hero of Hamlet, whom I find not merely unlikeable but extremely dull, and really the opposite of an interesting or complicated character. I've talked about all this before, so I needn't go into it again.
I don't agree with Hartmann's criticism of "outlandish" plots, or her praise for plots that are "true to life". I think most readers are willing to suspend our disbelief long enough to be carried away by the story. A lot of very famous classic science-fiction novels have outlandish plots. The First Men in the Moon is about a scientist and a failed play-wright building a sphere of some mysterious gravity-repelling substance called Cavorite in Cavor's back-yard and flying it to the Moon. As you do. Jules Verne's Twenty-Thousand Leagues Under the Sea is about an exiled Indian prince who lives a self-sustaining life in a giant sub-marine. And these are some of the most brilliant, exciting books because they're out-landish. That's one of the things science-fiction can do. It's escapism. It's eye-opening. It stimulates the imagination. And does Hartmann really judge a book's merits on how "true to life" it is? What about Shakespeare? What about Macbeth? Macbeth features witches, prophecies, ghosts and apparitions. What about Homer's Iliad? At one point Xanthos just starts talking. In real life, needless to say, horses don't talk. I really think one of the great things about our imagination is that it doesn't matter if the plot is out-landish. Fiction lets us play "what if?". What if we could fly to the moon is a sphere? What If dinosaurs were still alive at the centre of the Earth? Or on an Amazonian plateau? What if a pterodactyl were released to soar above the chimneys of New Georgian London? It doesn't matter that we know it isn't real. It's fun to play along, to join the author in this magical place that they've invited us to.
One of the things I noticed about Hartmann's criteria for objective literary merit is that they often are criteria which most people think make a book good, but it's subjective whether a book shows those qualities. What I mean by that is for example Hartmann's discussion of theme. She says that every story is about something, and that some authors treatment of themes is insightful, deft and original, and others are just trite and boring. And I agree that that's quite a good definition of good literature, but I think it's very subjective what is insightful and original and what is trite and boring. Often, what counts as original depends on what's original for the reader, so a book which offers a perspective very different from anything they've previously read can be original and insightful for them. And a reader who encounters the same ideas over and over again is likely to find that it gets trite and boring after a while.
Also, sometimes it's not entirely clear what the theme of a book is. Not all books can be explained as a simple theme, or at least not by me, that might be my fault, maybe I'm missing something. But I think a lot of books don't necessarily make it obvious what they're trying to say. In Beau Geste, for example, the protagonists live life by a very idealistic code of honour, but it doesn't get them anywhere expect misery and death. So is the theme that these ideals are worthy, and an example we should follow, or that they're futile and pointless? So often to assess the literary merits of a book we're trying to work out what the theme is, before we can assess whether that theme is insightful and original, and a reader's interpretation of what the theme is is often their subjective opinion.
And I think it's also a question of the reader's own values and beliefs. Often the reader finds that if the author's world-view corresponds with theirs, they're probably more likely to consider the book insightful. And this isn't confined to "great literature". Romance novels are a good example of this. Often readers who are more idealistic will think that such themes as enduring love, soul-mates and devoted self-sacrifice are more valuable than people who think all that's codswallop. An example more common in discussions about kind of "serious" literature is the author's politics. So, often critics discussing for example Ayn Rand's novels, their judgement of the literary merits of the novel becomes a judgement of to what extent they agree with her Objectivist philosophy.
Often a discussion about what's a good book becomes a discussion about the merits and de-merits of the morals and values which the book advocates, or people think it advocates, because it's not always as clear as it is with Ayn Rand what morals a book advocates. I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing. I think personally that a discussion of a book's ideas and philosophy can be more interesting that discussing the nuances of the prose style, but I do think it's very subjective and a discussion that really goes beyond the book and into what we value in the world generally.
Hartmann also places great store by prose style. Personally, I don't think prose style is very important in a novel, but there are some people who really care about beautiful prose. I think it's really a matter of taste. I admit I have a horrible tendency to skip descriptive passages. Rosemary Sutcliffe is an author that I love, for her vivid characterisation and her ability to make magic totally plausible. She's famous for her ability to describe land-scapes. I wouldn't know because I skip those paragraphs. In the same way, I've read a lot about Shakespeare's brilliant writing style and his imagery and how skilfully he used language and I just don't see it to be honest. I love Shakespeare for the characters and plots. Othello is one of my favourite plays of all time, but what I remember is the plot, not the language. I think the most important thing a writing style should do is communicate. And there are some novels which fail in that, often very amateur teen-age fan-fiction or alternatively very modern authors getting carried-away on their own cleverness. But beyond that I think the style is an over-rated category by which to judge a novel. A lot of novels which have with-stood the test of time, like anything by Walter Scott, can have quite a clunky style and it doesn't seem to put people off. They're still gripping stories. But it's a matter of taste. To a lot of people, and not just literary professors who analyse texts for a living, talk about how beautiful they find the writing when they're reviewing a book. However, I think Hartmann's in the minority when she says "some writers's words are so transcendental that the quality of their stories almost doesn't matter". The examples she uses are Nabokov, Wolf and Faulkner, and I admit I've never read any of these authors, but personally I can't imagine finding any writer's words so transcendental that the story doesn't matter. I think the point of the book is in the story. A really interesting article I found is called A Reader's Manifesto, from The Atlantic magazine, which I'll link below.
The basic argument of A Reader's Manifesto is that often a fancy prose style is used to make a mediocre or even trashy story seem like great literature. I think this is often true, sadly. Some authors seem to have taken a little too much to heart the motto "if you have nothing to say, say it well". What would otherwise be air-port novels, paperback thrillers, Harlequin Romance stuff, chick lit, becomes Great Literature because of the literary style of writing. And I just don't think you can make a book great art through the style. I think that most good books, you can summarise the plot in your own words and someone could still see why this book is so good. The majority of good books, at least. You should be able to describe the plot and the characters and it should still have appeal, and I'm not sure that all modern literary fiction can do that. But this is like what I was saying about how it's easier to find reason why books are bad than why books are good. Returning to why books are good.
Another thing Hartmann mentions as very important is dialogue. And I think that's interesting, because it isn't really something I'd thought about before, specifically. But, as she points out, it's very important for developing character. And it creates realism. If the voices feel authentic, we're more likely to suspend our disbelief. One of the things I really like about Beau Geste, is the dialogue and the authenticity of the voices. I think I've mentioned before the conversation in the court-yard of the barracks that's so heart-breakingly optimistic. Wren's also very good and writing children's speech. That's something authors struggle with a lot, and especially struggled with when writing serious adult fiction in the early twentieth century. But he could do it very believably.
So the main thing I took away from Hartmann is that there are certain things, such as characters and plot, which most people agree is important in making a novel good, but it's much harder and more subjective to define what these good characters and good plots are.
Another article I wanted to discuss is What Is Literary Fiction & What Sets It Apart? by Harvery Chapman, which I'll link.
Again, I'm not going to go through it line-by-line, there are just a couple of things I want to mention. Chapman says that literary fiction is just another genre, the way horror or science-fiction are genres, and it isn't necessarily better than genre fiction, it just serves a different purpose, the way a table serves a different function from a wheel-barrow. However, he does make some generalisations about genre fiction which are rather strange. One of the things he mentions is that literary fiction places character over plot, and genre fiction vice versa, but he defines romance novels as genre fiction, despite the fact that I'd guess—I don't know, I don't tend to read romance novels— are character-driven. They're romance novels, they're about this developing relationship. Also, quite a lot of literary novels are basically romances. There always seems to be some sort of love triangle going on. He also seems to have a slightly strange idea about how characterisation works, and that the plots of genre fiction novels kind of take time away from the characterisation, which I don't think is true. I don't think his kind of assumption that genre readers get bored any time the pace slackens is true. For example, in The Island of Doctor Moreau, after Moreau and Montgomery die and Prendick is left alone on the island with the beast-folk, he spends several months in helpless horror, essentially, watching them regress back to their beast form. And the focus is just on his emotions and his horror. It's very suspenseful. It's horribly psychologically plausible. And it's a very vivid depiction of a man essentially on the edge of sanity, pushed to the brink by the horrors he's surrounded by. Chapman's main focus, and this is why I think he does think literary fiction is better, the idea that literary fiction more meaningful than genre fiction. He says that literary novelists have more time to explore the ideas and insights in their novels, which is a bit weird because, for one thing, an author isn't restricted to a particular page count, the book can be as long or short as necessary, just look at Les Miserables which is enormously long. But he seems to think the ideas slow down the plot, as if we park the plot to have an idea, and then abandon the idea and go back to the plot. And really, of course, a novel can often only express its ideas in the form that it's in. The ideas grow out of the plot, they're shown by the plot, they're not something you have to put the plot on hold for.
So take science fiction. The genre of the novel, and the beauty of the genre of the novel, is the limitless range of ideas. It's the what if? game again. The Island of Doctor Moreau is about what if a scientist tried to turn animals into humans? Is that possible? What's the difference between animals and humans anyway? Is it physical? Mental? Social? Moreau attempts to give the beast-folk a simple religious ritual based on "the Law". Is that what makes us human? We follow rituals, we obey laws? The plot of The Island of Doctor Moreau doesn't get in the way of the ideas. It's a way to explore the ideas. And I promise this whole essay isn't going to be an H.G. Wells love-in.
Or take comedy. Is that less meaningful than literary fiction? One of my favourite comedies is The Last Re-Make of Beau Geste, directed by Marty Feldman—I know I said this was going to be about books, and this is a film, but who cares? It's taking the piss out of Beau Geste, which is one of my favourite books, and it does it very well. It's still funny if you haven't read the book, it's just an inherently funny film. But it basically makes the values and behaviour and antics of the characters in the book look ridiculous. And like most parodies, it's most popular with fans. Basically it's taking the piss out of me, and a genre I love, and it's brilliant. The book's a tragedy, it's wholly serious literature. The film is very light-hearted, very funny, and taking jabs at that. It's by no means vicious parody, but it's self-aware. I still think the book is one of the best books I've ever read. But the film, just by refusing to take the book seriously, kind of makes a serious point. And I think it goes beyond the book, it's talking about life generally, saying "do we look ridiculous?", "with our ideals?" "with the whole concept of having ideals?" "is this how we all look from the outside?". It's the sort of thing that you could do cynically and write a grim pile of glurge, or you could do it funnily and actually create something appealing and engaging. First you laugh, then you think. Then you go read Beau Geste again, because it's one of the most beautiful, heart-breaking books ever written. Now this is turning into a P.C. Wren love-in.
So, I'm afraid my conclusions from Chapman are that I don't think I agree about what makes a book meaningful and I don't think he knows much about genre fiction, or what fans of genre fiction are looking for.
So, one thing that I'd like to talk about now is a book called The People's Favourite Poems, by Gary Dexter. Dexter is a performance poet, and this book is an anthology of the poems requested most often by random people in the street. And I felt it would be interesting to look at because it's less kind of self-selecting than poems considered good by, for example, a literary magazine or an English professor, who's kind of thinking about what's a good poem. It's quite spontaneous. And I just thought I'd look through it and see if I can find any recurring themes or any traits which these poems share.
It isn't easy. The favourite poetry of the people of Norwich is quite diverse. There's Shakespeare's Sonnet 18, but most of the poems are 18th century to twentieth century. There's quite a range of styles and themes. On the Ning Nang Nong is a nonsense poem. WH Davies' Leisure is a nature poem. The Life that I Have is a love poem. But we can make some generalities. If is Dexter's most-requested poem, and The Charge of the Light Brigade is another popular one, and these are poems which I think are holding up some kind of example that we want to emulate—or at the poet wants us to want to emulate. I think they're poems with quite a clear "moral" to them. Love poetry is another popular one. Sonnet 18 and The Life That I Have are both quite traditionally devoted love poems. They both refer to the idea that love can transcend even death, with Shakespeare seeking to immortalise his addressee in verse and Marks describing "the peace of my years in the long green grass will be yours and yours and yours". And it makes sense with love being a strong emotion, and a very common emotion, a relatable emotion, and I think maybe it says something optimistic about life that people still relate to or at least see the appeal of the kind of devotion Marks describes. Rossetti's Remember is a love poem with greater focus on the power of death, and the suggestion that actually love doesn't transcend death, and people do forget, but there's a similar streak of selfless devotion in the wish for the addressee to be happy over the narrator to be remembered. Nature poems are another popular choice. I admit I'm personally not too keen on nature poems generally, but there are clearly a lot of people who do enjoy them, I think perhaps because a nature poem is one of the styles which really allows the reader to focus on a picture building up in their head, and to admire the power language has to create images. The Daffodils is one of Dexter's most-requested poems, followed by Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening. Leisure is number 19. While Daffodils is a very pure nature poem, just the daffodils and really not much else, Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening takes a philosophical turn. The last verse sets up a contrast between the lovely dark deep woods, which seem so inviting, and the miles to go before the narrator can sleep. Maybe he's just complaining about long he has to ride to get home into the warmth and have nap, but I think he's making a point about life, essentially, and how you can't just go wandering off into the woods, you have to carry on even if it's gruelling and it feels like you kind of want to lie down and die, essentially, however bleak that sounds. He mentions having promises to keep, so I think there's an idea that you have certain obligations to fulfil.
Some of the poems in the collection are harder to classify. Ozymandias, which is a poem I really like, I find it very evocative, is quite a melancholy poem about the passage of grandeur, and how human achievements turn to dust. I think it's quite a humbling poem, and a warning not to get an inflated idea of our own importance. Cargoes, which is another poem I really like, I think the main appeal comes from the exoticism of these beautiful far-away places. Even saying them is fun. Nineveh. Ophir. You can roll the words around your tongue. Then come the deluges of nouns. Apes, peacocks, emeralds, amethysts. These piles and piles of strange exotic things. Every bit of description really does its work. Mention palm-green shores, and diamonds and the whole image materialises, of the ship on the water in the tropical sun, of the whole Spanish conquest of America, of the mountains of loot. A very glamourised image, I think, but still a vivid one.
Well, I hope you enjoyed that whistle-stop tour of the British public's favourite poems. I don't think we discovered anything conclusive though about what makes a good poem or good literature.
So I'm going to try to conclude. I think one of the most important functions of a book is to connect emotionally with readers and thrill them and move them and really make them feel something. And I think if a book can do that, then that's a good book or that's a great book. The books that I really enjoy, personally, are books where I can remember, above all, how I felt reading them. And I think that because people's emotions are highly varied, then books are going to move different people differently. And I think that even if we try to judge a book by some standard criteria like character and plot, then our judgements of what is a good character and plot are ultimately very subjective.