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."