1. Aaron Smith

    Aaron Smith Banned Contributor

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    What defines good literature?

    Discussion in 'Discussion of Published Works' started by Aaron Smith, Apr 19, 2020.

    Can we collectively define good literature or is it entirely subjective? If so, can it be meaningfully quantified?

    Is it fair to dismiss the quality of a piece of literature just because you do not like it?
     
  2. Dogberry's Watch

    Dogberry's Watch Swaggin like a Baggins Contributor

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    The short answer is yes, we can collectively define it. Literary writing has specific elements involved that make it considered literature. The longer answer is a mix between yes and no, because in the end it is entirely subjective.

    I don't think it's fair to dismiss the quality of a piece of literature just because I don't like it. My reasons are because of the above. There are set, specific elements in a piece which designate it literature. I detest The Scarlet Letter, but it's literature because it touches on those aforementioned elements.
     
  3. Wreybies

    Wreybies Thrice Retired Supporter Contributor

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    The person defining it.

    Some want depth.
    Some want simple entertainment.
    Some want formula.
    Some want originality.
    Some want A Particular Assortment of Characters Based on a Correspondingly Particular Set of Demographic Concerns™, and these sets come in many, many varieties.
    Some want to see themselves.
    Some want to see others.
    Some want a worldbuilding folder cursorily strung together with a few verbs and some stand-in characters.
    Some want to burn that worldbuilding folder.
    Some want a story that matters.
    Some want a character with whom to fall in love or to wear like a costume.
    Some want lushly lavish verbal gymnastics.
    Some want narratives that never make you reach for a dictionary.
    Some want you to let them imagine the characters for themselves.
    Some want you to paint-by-numbers every single tiny little thing on the stage.
    Some want sex.
    Some clutch their pearls at the idea of sex.
    Some want SCIENCE Fiction.
    Some want Science FICTION.

    This list has no end...
     
    Last edited: Apr 19, 2020
  4. Dogberry's Watch

    Dogberry's Watch Swaggin like a Baggins Contributor

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    I hoped you would respond, @Wreybies and I'm delighted by your answer.
     
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  5. EFMingo

    EFMingo A Modern Dinosaur Staff Supporter Contributor

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    There are a number of issues here that underlay the definition of "good literature."

    The first, which was the most damaging early on, in my opinion, was who was qualified to define the status. Matthew Arnold created the idea for "Touchstone" pieces, ones that the collective whole could base their idea of "great literature" off of. This was problematic because there were really only a few countries that were included in these definitions inherently due to proximity: England, France, Spain, Italy, Russia, and the historical Greeks. This idea completely shut out the multiculturalism for hundreds of years, and the battle is still being fought today, though schools have now become more receptive and forceful of spreading the range of literature from the Euro-centric ideas the "Touchstones" originally were based out of.

    It was even more damaging on women's literature. Basically up until the late seventies, and even somewhat today, women in literature and writing were being taught to "think like a man" in order to actually pass these courses and get their writing published. They had to spend a huge amount of time fighting against the patriarchal definition of literature. Virginia Woolf remarks effectively on it in her long essay A Room of One's Own, where she speaks about the voices in women's literature that would subvert the men's voice entirely and speak a very different and subtle language in comparison. She also spoke a lot of the atrocities women were forced to commit in order to get some sort of return on what's now considered great literature. Charlotte Bronte sold her entire collection for a few thousand pounds, and George Eliot would negate the quality of her work as "silly," among other things, just for the shot of publication.

    "Touchstones" are still used today, as they do make a good starting point for new students to base off what is good, but in my own concern they almost completely leave out genre fiction. The selection of these leading works of literature to base the quality of work of others off of is a difficult subject because of just how subjective it is to opinion and experience. Essentially, I'm always left hacking at myself from both sides on the subject. On one hand, the masses could define great literature, but that's more of a popularity contest than anything. I remember taking a course on popular American literature in college at one point. The selections of the work weren't any of the considered "great" works of literature, except possibly on the lowest level House of Mirth, but authors like Edward Bellamy, who wrote a novel about the future of technology called Looking Backward, which is a god-awful plodding run-down of technology with no real plot. But it sold extremely high and was praised vehemently in its time. It was a fad, and completely in fashion in its publishing during the 1880's. Praise by the masses doesn't make for great literature, as it died off and almost no-one has heard of it anymore. On the other hand, the authorities on "great literature" are highly subject to bias. This has vastly improved, but I remember growing up in the American public school system, and read exclusively American or English authors and poets. Hawthorne, Twain, Coleridge, and so on. They lacked multiculturalism, and usually lacked women writers. It wouldn't have been hard to implement authors such Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who implemented themes and styles such as Magical Realism, which is rarely found in American literature, but highly praised in Latin. It is also extremely easy to understand, and far more clear in use of metaphors, which could be a handy teaching tool. But the American English system in public schools is designed by this "experienced" group, who have shut out, or been intentionally blind o the different styles of writing available around the world.

    So, through all that rambling, I'll leave my personal thought on the question. No, I don't think the world can collectively qualify a piece of "literature" as great, but I do believe that the ones who study literature highly and understand the qualities that define higher level literature need to be adaptive and receptive to change. The new leadership needs to be more inclusive, and be more willing to break the standard mold.
     
  6. Oxymaroon

    Oxymaroon Contributor Contributor

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    It's both. Yes, you can apply academic criteria objectively, whether you personally like a particular work or not. However, as noted above, the criteria are culture-based and change over time, with the attitudes of a society.
    It's meaningful in the teaching and study of literature, and useful in the making of a writer.
    Fairness doesn't come into it. I'm the consumer: I have the absolute right to reject whatever I don't like, for any or no reason, just as I have the absolute right not to eat bacon and not to wear pink.

    If you want a succinct definition of good literature: the novels readers keep when they move to a small apartment.
     
    Last edited: Apr 19, 2020
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  7. Dogberry's Watch

    Dogberry's Watch Swaggin like a Baggins Contributor

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    I'd agree with this except for the fifteen or so boxes of books I have waiting to move next weekend. I know I have some garbage in there, but because of who I am as a person, they come with me. I have lived in those small places, but my books take precedence over anything else.
     
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  8. Oxymaroon

    Oxymaroon Contributor Contributor

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    I should have said, normal readers. Chronic bibliophiles are... um... different.
    Tangentially related anecdote: My SO and I had owned far too many books separately and together that we knew we'd never open again. We had to cull the library before it pushed us out of the house. We boxed up over 1000 unloved books and eventually managed to give them away.
    A couple of years later, our life changed and we started an on-line book business.
    All that potential inventory - *poof* - gone!
     
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  9. jannert

    jannert Retired Mod Supporter Contributor

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    I have a simplistic view of this issue. I define literature as 'writing which has stood the test of time, continues to be read, and is still respected.'

    Something written only yesterday—no matter how good it might be—isn't 'literature' in my opinion. At least not yet! And something that was written a while ago but is never read or studied any more isn't 'literature' either.

    I don't want to see 'literature' used as a word to describe any and all good writing. I think it has a deeper meaning than that. It implies not only worthiness, but also longevity.
     
    Last edited: Apr 20, 2020
  10. Oxymaroon

    Oxymaroon Contributor Contributor

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    But how is the time test applied? In the second half of the 20th century, I might have agreed with you - probably without even reflecting very long on it. I'd have started listing classics of the 19th century in my head, maybe cast my mind back to the renaissance, then ancient Greece and reluctantly added the King John version of the Old Testament -- minus Numbers, Deuteronomy... well, okay. Then I'd have to revise my list and add Galsworthy, Huxley, Orwell, Steinbeck, Hemingway ... oh-oh, we're getting awfully close to the present! Where do I put Kingsolver, LeGuin, Bradbury...?

    Perhaps it becomes necessary to classify literature in two or more separate compartments, each with its own application and criteria.

    I would have taken that to mean: it has to add to the fabric of the culture. And, if i didn't reflect on my own experience, I'd automatically agree. Only, here, too, I would be in trouble. Having changed cultures myself, I'm acutely aware of how biassed and narrow our assessment of what contributes substantially to a culture can be.
    In this era of globalism and communication technology, both time-perspective and cultural influence have completely altered their meaning - if they even have meaning anymore.
     
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  11. Dogberry's Watch

    Dogberry's Watch Swaggin like a Baggins Contributor

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    This link goes to what I referenced in my post, the elements of literature, by which I define literary things.

    https://www.sunnyvalepubliclibrary.org/online-catalog/elements-of-literature.html

    I think this discussion has brought about the second point of your topic fairly accurately, that it's highly subjective and proves that we can't actually come to a consensus on a general definition of literature.
     
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  12. Oxymaroon

    Oxymaroon Contributor Contributor

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    That's a comprehensive list of elements to consider, but it's not at all helpful in our assessment of whether each element is a) present b) employed appropriately and c)executed well in any specific example.
     
  13. Dogberry's Watch

    Dogberry's Watch Swaggin like a Baggins Contributor

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    I'm not sure I follow how it's not helpful. If we take the example I gave earlier of The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne hits almost every single one of those elements.

    Edit: The elements are present, and I think asking if they're employed appropriately falls under subjectivity, and while I don't think they're executed well in the sense the writing is anything but boring, the elements are executed in line with what they're defined by.
     
    Last edited: Apr 19, 2020
  14. Oxymaroon

    Oxymaroon Contributor Contributor

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    In that case, I must respectfully disagree with the list. I don't think either that every one of those elements needs to be present in every piece of literature or that their simple presence is sufficient.
     
  15. Dogberry's Watch

    Dogberry's Watch Swaggin like a Baggins Contributor

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    Oh, I don't think they all need to be present for it to be literature. But they are some of the elements of literature. Mainly the ones that stick out the most when I think of those books people consider literature are theme, tone, symbolism, mood, motif, and metaphor. All of those, plus every now and then allegory and allusion, make up a majority of those texts you see considered "vital literature." I'd even go so far as to argue we could apply these elements to something as mainstream as the Hunger Games trilogy and while I'd be right in some aspects, I'd still be considered a weirdo or something because those are recent and don't have the same gravitas behind them as something like Lord of the Flies. But why don't they have the same gravitas? They both deal with human nature under pressure and what happens with the impossible choices of children, so why wouldn't they both have the same heft to them?
     
  16. Lazaares

    Lazaares Senior Member

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    I'd stick to the good old "collective" definition to good literature. That is, we all have different priorities and tastes for the various literary elements, and so a different ranking of various works too. Theoretically, if a million humans read every single literary work in existence and ranked them, and if we concatenated these rankings into one mega-list, we'd get the "best" piece overall. In absence of such a toplist, the best we can do find people with similar tastes to ours and question them of their favourites.

    Generally, I consider good literature any (regardless of genre) that lingers on; here I refer to a thought, a lesson or an experience that I feel is present years after reading (or watching). You could say with RPG terms that I prefer literature that "develops my character". The authors I listed in my favourite-list all managed to do that through sheer words. In contrast, I have found less and less enjoyment in "entertainment" works. I used to be a great fan of crime investigation & Whodunit?! works (even written some shorts), though grew to avoid them completely.
     
  17. peachalulu

    peachalulu Member Reviewer Contributor

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    Personally it's a writer with a good and fresh handle on language, that can transform ideas into beautiful imagery, that can create characters that have the ability to move us and ideas and themes that aren't lazily thought out, but even if they're simple universal truths they offer fresh insight onto the subject or time period.
     
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  18. Oxymaroon

    Oxymaroon Contributor Contributor

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    As I said, it's a comprehensive list of elements in literature. In any great book, we are bound to find some grouping of those elements, just as we are bound to find some of the elements in schlock. Just ticking more boxes doesn't guarantee good literature.
    What the list doesn't tell us is how to tell whether an allegory is appropriate, whether an allusion is recognizable, whether the theme is carried through the narrative, whether the tone is consistent, whether the symbolism fits the subject matter, whether the mood conveyed effectively (I'm not clear on how motif is distinguished from theme and metaphor is independent of allusion). And then there is the matter of originality, reader involvement, emotional depth and aesthetic presentation. (I avoid saying beauty, because some subject matter may be better served by jarring imagery or crude language.)
    Wasn't Shakespeare as mainstream as he possibly could be? You don't have to be dead to produce good literature.
    Not having read it, I venture to suggest: because the Hunger Games is a trilogy.
    There seems to be a wide-spread compulsion these days to keep writing the same book, volume after volume. You're comparing premium extra virgin Tuscany and Californian pomace.
    Gravitas tends to concentrate in 200 pages and dissipate in 1500.
     
    Last edited: Apr 20, 2020
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  19. Oxymaroon

    Oxymaroon Contributor Contributor

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    Remember when everybody's idea of the perfect novel was either The Old Man and the Sea or Of Mice and Men? They both have much in common with Lord of the Flies: distillation. War and Peace is a terrific read (is, too!) but I can't sustain admiration - or even attention to method - that long. As for Finnegans Wake, I wouldn't know: couldn't even hack my way through the first five pages on several tries at different ages.
     
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  20. jannert

    jannert Retired Mod Supporter Contributor

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    The thing is, though, all of these books are still being printed, still being read. When they go out of print and are no longer available to read, I'd say maybe they are no longer considered 'literature.' They're just old books then. Maybe that marks the cutoff 'time' period you were asking about.

    If you go to a used bookstore, you'll find tons (TONS!) of old books. Some were beautfully printed and bound, by the way. They are books that gave lots of people pleasure when they first came out, but they've dropped off the radar, and now practically nobody has heard of them. And they are very unlikely to ever be re-released or re-read by anyone other than a book collector.

    There are quite a few pieces of 'literature' written by authors that I don't particularly like (Hemingway, for example), but they still mean a lot to quite a few people. And they've stood the test of time. And are still available in newer editions, for people to continue to buy and read—and study in literature classes.

    Popularity when a book/series is first published doesn't mean it's going to end up being literature. Nowadays 'everybody' is reading Outlander. But fifty-ish years ago everybody was reading Danielle Steele. She's not flavour of the month any more. I suspect, fifty years from now nobody is going to be reading Outlander any more either. Fashions move on, and have mostly generational appeal. Literature stays.

    When I was young, To Kill a Mockingbird was just another recently-published novel in the library. However, nowadays it's being studied in schools, and is considered to be a classic of American literature. Ditto Old Yeller. That's kinda how the process works, in my opinion.
     
    Last edited: Apr 20, 2020
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  21. Naomasa298

    Naomasa298 HP: 12/210 MP: 0/130 Contributor

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    I think it was Mark Twain who defined a classic as "something every wants to have read but that nobody wants to read".
     
  22. Oxymaroon

    Oxymaroon Contributor Contributor

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    I wasn't talking about popularity. I was talking about literature that students of literature considered the epitome of good literature. I was using those examples - and might have included Heart of Darkness, had I thought of it - to illustrate that much freight can be carried by few words, if those words be chosen by a master.
    And that's why those little books survive the decades while the masses of Steele product do not.
     
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  23. jannert

    jannert Retired Mod Supporter Contributor

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    There's only one way to determine what writing is going to survive the decades, and what won't. And that's to wait.... :)

    I reckon if it was never popular (defined as : read by lots of people who liked it) it probably won't survive—even if it was beloved by critics at the time. But a lot of stuff that is/was popular doesn't survive the generation for which it was written. You just don't know for sure till that generation of readers has passed.

    I'm trying to define what is seen as 'literature' rather than passing judgement on whether something is well-written or not. There is that indefinable 'thing' that makes a book last long past the writer's life. And I'm not sure exactly what that is.

    Sometimes the writing breaks new ground—either stylistically or via subject matter. Sometimes it provides a clear window into the era in which it was written—something that following generations will find fascinating. Sometimes it provides perceptive insight into the human condition. But lots of writing does those things for the contemporary reader, yet just doesn't quite make it into the status of 'literature.'

    Time will tell.
     
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  24. EFMingo

    EFMingo A Modern Dinosaur Staff Supporter Contributor

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    Plenty of authors fall in that boat. Melville, Stroker, Charlotte Bronte...
     
  25. Oxymaroon

    Oxymaroon Contributor Contributor

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    I'll take a stab. It teaches us something we need to know about ourselves.
    (What they used to refer to as 'the human condition', but that concept has eroded down to 'what makes us human' , which isn't the same thing at all.)
    The vehicle for that something we need to know may vary from one generation to the next, because the lesson has to be illustrated by examples from the moment in history and the language has to be comprehensible to the readers of that time, and of course each culture has its icons and reference-points. Language may change too much over a century or two for literature to remain accessible to the general public; belief system may change, and laws and mores - but human madness is constant.
     
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