Friday, 6 September 2013

What Makes a Great Work of Literature?

Of course there are thousands of boxes that must be ticked in order for a work to be considered as ‘great’, but there are a few which I feel are necessities.

In my view, the pre-eminent trial to determine the greatness of a work of literature is time. Any novel that can survive the change in time, along with the changes in culture and popular opinion, and still be recognised and respected, ought to be highly esteemed, and classed as great in terms of literature. However this does not mean that decidedly commended modern works of literature, such as A Kestrel For A Knave, are not great, it simply means that ‘the jury is still out’, and it is not yet certain that these works will become what we call ‘great’. Another thing that helps us to classify literature as great is the work’s ability to continue to convey emotions and concepts to every generation, and for those feelings to remain valid in modern society.

Of course the writing also needs to be able to convey the writer’s own feelings and beliefs about particular ideas and events that have happened. For example, books such as Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four communicate Orwell’s ideals about Communism, and other systems, which he believes can be the downfall of a nation. These books are particularly great in my mind because they don’t explain the significance in a direct manner, but rather the author writes in the style of analogies to present his beliefs.

Finally I consider a great work to be one that is able to draw the reader in and keep them encapsulated in the words that they read. If the writing style is successful in doing so, then the writer will be able to enter the mind of the reader and adjust their central principles or politics.

I suppose this is not really a definition, but in fact a checklist of what ought to be categorised as great literature. I do not believe that great literature can be defined in one sentence – it would take volumes upon volumes to really do it justice. However if I must endeavour to define great literature, I would say: A great work is one that leaves a lasting imprint on humanity, and changes the way in which certain beliefs and events are viewed in popular culture. I think this definition is almost characterized by this quote of E.M Forster: "What is wonderful about great literature is that it transforms the man who reads it towards the condition of the man who wrote." 

1 comment:

  1. Some interesting points there. You are definitely right about there needing to be some time passed - I often think about this with regards Booker and Nobel Prize winners, who are the top writers of their day but are often forgotten a generation later.

    Another thing that's very important though is that our perception of what makes a "great" work of literature is shaped a lot by the priorities and values of different cultures and societies. To list just two examples-

    1) Sir Walter Scott & Jane Austen were rough contemporaries (early 19th-c). At the time, Scott was considered the greatest novelist ever, as is testified by the enormous memorial to him in Edinburgh, while Austen was thought of as a fringe-interest "womens'" writer. Today, the two have completely swapped places: Austen is (rightly, in my view) lauded as one of the greatest writers of all time while Walter Scott is thought of as a rather lightweight writer of adventure stories. This isn't because of any change in what they actually wrote, just that Scott's work appealed more to his generation while Austen's appeals more to ours.

    2) Similarly, King Lear, which is now often cited as Shakespeare's greatest play, was for centuries vilified and hated as being much too miserable and gloomy, and was rarely performed (and even then most often in a re-write which gave it a happy ending). The Victorians in particular hated it. Yet it seems to have appealed a lot to audiences today - probably because we've much more of an appetite for the macabre and grim (consider all the crime dramas we watch and the popularity of so-called 'misery lit').

    There are many critics who will tell you that there is no such thing as "great literature"; or at least that the nature of the literature itself isn't what makes it 'great' but rather the way we treat it. Certainly, it's worth bearing in mind that the notion of what is and isn't great literature is not fixed.