I should be ashamed of myself, but I will probably use the word carelessly again this very day. But still, I am ashamed of myself for it. There is not an easier word to use for both what is in fact the best and what is simply terrific, or momentarily special, or even unexpectedly good. And this unfortunate lexi-con comes to mind again whenever I have been called to account for the best in literature.
What is ‘Great Literature,’ which is to say, ‘What makes literature great?’ Such written stuff is often alluded to, without excuse, or explanation. Austen, Homer, Bronte, Hemingway, Eliot, Frost, Cather, Joyce, Melville, Byron, Shelly, et al. But the question ought to be asked, if for no other reason than to define the premises and allow you to recognize other works for what they are. That is unless you like being told what to read—in which case there is no point going further here.
‘Great’ is clearly an abused term. Nearly anything can be categorized as great in this age of the ‘insanely great.’ Mediocrity in acting, sports, architecture and just about any other public field of endeavor is now ‘great,’ just for having survived a longer time, sold well, or, too often, for having political views with which the judge agrees. The last recent film I heard referred to as ‘great,’ (La La Land) was so bad, when I finally saw it on television, I turned it off mid-way. I have asked people who make such remarks, why do you call this or that, ‘great,’ and I more often than not get nonsense—literally nonsense—for answers. I want to understand but unless I ‘get it,’ then I just don’t ‘get it.’ Three thousand years of human reasoning reduced to gibberish.
Most literature teachers I have known actually have no idea why some novel they teach is great (it just is!) and find my asking the question somehow impertinent—a personal attack on their integrity rather than an opportunity to espouse something they love—but what is worse in my eyes, their students quickly loose interest in reading because of the confusion (and I think they know it). The guilt of what ‘teachers’ do and have done is in their self-righteousness, as in ‘who are you to ask,’ and then laid bare in their abnegation of responsibility, ‘who are we to judge?’ Both students and teachers came into my shop over the years and asked for trash, rather than confront the question. Besides, most of the good trash seemed so much better a meal to them than the dust sandwich of the average classic as it was taught or the banal and bloodless tofu of most modern ‘literature.’
If those students had learned to have some rational understanding of the question from the get-go, reading Xenophon or Yeats would have been a treat. I often feel blessed because, as a poor student in the classroom, I was pretty much left to my own devices and learned to read as it pleased me. I first read Moby Dick when I was sixteen. I was riveted. I didn’t understand half of what was on the page, but I wanted more. I learned to read with a Webster’s desk dictionary beside me on the bed.
Granted, not everyone would have been motivated to read Moby Dick. It’s a difficult work. But most who do, take on the challenge, as I did, because it is said to be ‘great literature,’ and not out of the sheer pleasure of it. Too bad. It is great literature, but it is also a delight. It’s easier to read Hemingway, but far more difficult to understand what made him great. Another example, if modern feminism were not so much of a fraud, Middlemarch would be at the top of most lists and lived in as readily as any great piece of trash you see in the hands of well oiled bodies at the beach.
They ask, ‘really, is Beowulf truly great or just unique as a surviving scrap of our literary history?’
It is greater than they know.
So here’s the deal: what makes a written work great? Is it just age? Rarity or uniqueness? Theme? Plot? Word choice? Sentence structure? Or just because that’s what we are told? . . . Get to it!
I could name a thousand books I believe to be great and only pause to take a breath because I am a slow typist. I’ve actually done it. I can tell you it’s a feat most easily accomplished by working through specific authors one at a time. If you can name a hundred great authors you can likely do the same. Great works are most often the effort of great writers. An obvious matter, it would seem, though not everything Shakespeare wrote is great—but then, not everything with Shakespeare’s name on it was written by the bard. But the best authors make the effort out of their own integrity. They don’t want to put their name on a lesser work. The reason Melville wrote Pierre is likely because he had bills to pay. It might even be seen as brave, given the subject matter. And it’s not so bad as all that, anyway. Even in such a maudlin work as Little Dorrit, Dickens could not help but write some pretty fine stuff. Jane Austen is not great because of the ‘Masterpiece Theatre’ renditions and pretty picture romance films made from her stories. She is great because her characters are so well defined by the human nature revealed, her descriptions are terrific, and because she gave a serious analysis to the middle-class life of her time that was defining our Western Culture. Mark Twain is not just funny. He skewers but he forgives and his portraits of American character do not only define us, but defined the people we were to be. And they are funny too. And that was most often in a tone of voice that was unique but also very much exemplary of his age. But why are Shakespeare and Melville, and Austen and Dickens and Twain great? The shortest answer is, I think, that you won’t be the same after you’ve read them. What they write enlarges your experience and becomes part of the fabric of your own life.
Some of my favorite literature is not great. I understand that I love it because it speaks to me in some special way. A few examples would be Nevil Shute, Frederick Manfred, and Raphael Sabatini. I understand that great literature is not just about me, but it is about me as well. That is a key. I may choose to ignore it, but it does not ignore me. I may fail to understand it, but it understands me too well.
However, there has long been a movement afoot to reject the very idea of great literature. And this is part of a larger cultural rejection of value and value judgment, on the part of a pseudointellectual class, most often academics (which I know makes this a redundancy), who despise reason because they secretly despise themselves. They are the Wesley Mouch types, as so well described by Ayn Rand in her novel Atlas Shrugged—and right there is another example in itself. I have gone back and forth through my life about whether or not Atlas Shrugged is a great novel or not. I am currently persuaded again that it is. It changed my life and it at least deserves that judgment from me. And it appears to have changed many other lives, and thus might be thought well of by them. In time, it will be revealed. Time will determine its place in the Canon, not acolytes and apostles.
But the Western Canon is no longer taught in most American colleges. The idea put forward there by the Mouching mediocrities is that our literature is no better than any other. Why should there be any exclusivity to it? So it might as well be asked, is anything better than anything else. . . .Why?
Our tongue is English. You may prefer French, but I cannot understand French so what you say will not be understood by me. (True, I love Victor Hugo, but I read him in English—and I blame Charles Laughton and Maureen O’Hara for that. They started it all with me). I do not read Russian but I am in awe of Dostoyevsky (a gift from a friend also when I was sixteen) and Tolstoy. I read English and what I understand is written in that language. If you do not want to speak to me, that’s fine. Don’t. ( But then don’t ask me to pay for your schools. If you don’t teach the Western Cannon, I have no interest in supporting you. You may force me to, by confiscating my property to pay for your ideas, but you should not be surprised if I am resentful of this and work against you—that again would be a result of the lasting influence of Ms. Rand ). In any case, in these times and many places, the very idea of great literature is verboten. But that is a directly political matter I would like to avoid for the moment. I would rather simply stick with the topic: what is great literature and why?
I have touched upon a couple of these markers already. And I think it is that simple. All the subtext and semiotics and critical theory in the deepest sub-basement of Harvard will not help with it. That literature is great which moves us, changes us, and generations. How great is a matter of its durability. A book must be read and appreciated. If that appreciation goes beyond the fashion of a generation, then it just might be great. But, much like a democracy, it must have a natural audience, and as with a republic, it must have the bones to hold up to the winds of time.