Making literature great

Standing on the shoulders of giants …

A recent post themed to work by Richard Adin, who writes at An American Editor, prompted an exchange about the future of great literature.

Adin continues to develop his arguments on the potentially negative impact of e-books on great literature.  This post isn’t responding to the newer work; it’s a follow-up to Adin’s concern (expressed in a comment):

“Can you name a single work of fiction that was published in 2009 that has a broad consensus that it will be read 100 years from now? I can’t think of one. Yet we had no problem coming to that agreement with Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye almost immediately after its publication.”

I don’t have an answer to everything (thankfully), and I promised Adin I’d think about it.  And so I have.

I’ll start by drawing a distinction between making great literature – something writers do – and making literature great – an activity that I think of as contextual, personal and shared.

A proliferation of media, formats and devices will not deter writers from making great literature.  If anything, democratizing the tools of production has made creation of great literature easier.  Moreover, writers who create great works are motivated personally as well as financially.

The alchemy of making literature great has always been evolving. Even if Catcher in the Rye was deemed an instant classic in 1951, it didn’t crack the top 10 fiction books in that year or any year that followed.

I’d also argue that it was a “classic” in a context of male-dominated and overwhelmingly white publishing professionals.  The book meant something to the people who made publishing and buying decisions in 1951, and as one of a small set of books made available that year, it caught on.

This is a publishing example of what Stephen Jay Gould and others have described as confirmation bias: we believed in this book; we promoted it; it caught on; our judgment is confirmed.

This isn’t to say that Catcher in the Rye isn’t great, or important, but the book is made great by the people who read it, connect with it and communicate about it. Longevity may be a sign of great literature, but it is not proof.  To the extent that Catcher remains a touchstone for a generation of new readers , it does so by establishing connections with readers in the context of a much different world.

Lots of books can establish those connections, reaching a variety of different audiences.

A personal example: While I was in high school, an English teacher, likely distressed by my overly structured prose, recommended what would become my favorite book, Look Homeward, Angel.

Many have argued that Look Homeward, Angel is far from great; some have even argued that Maxwell Perkins is as much the author as Thomas Wolfe.

But the book is great for me, at least in part because I read it at a time when my world seemed as small as Eugene Gant’s home town.  In the book, I found possibility, potential and inspiration.  In reading Wolfe (or Perkins), my outlook changed, and so too did my writing.

Undoubtedly, a proliferation of media, formats and devices alters the alchemy of making literature great.  With millions of options, the importance of established filters diminishes.  What will replace those filters has yet to be determined, and so the new order can and sometimes does feel chaotic.

That doesn’t make me pine for the old order, in which a learned few decided what we should be able to read.  As it happens, standing on the shoulders of giants leaves me cold.  I’m looking forward to the conversations that occur among the learned many, some of whom will be fueled only by the passion that a connection with literature can create.


Posted by Richard Adin
Apr 29, 2010  at  11:03 AM

An excellent distinction between making great literature and making literature great. Worthy of further contemplation.

In my own defense (if I might be indulged), I would never equate high sales or making the top 10—or even the top 100—in any year with literary merit. It has always been clear that popular culture doesn’t equate with cultural longevity.

I do not disagree that having a more work available is better than having fewer works available. And I do not disagree that there has to be a better way than having a couple of people sitting in a smoke-filled room choose our reading material (although I’m not convinced that when it came to choosing presidential candidates the smoke-filled room produced better candidates than the current system), but what is that better way?

Are we better off (not financially but from a cultural perspective) with the demise of Maxwell Perkins and Bennett Cerf and the rise of Oprah Winfrey and Twitter? What do we substitute for old system that will garner the same credibility?

I have no answers, just questions, but questions that we need to address. It is insufficient, to my mind, to say let the marketplace decide. If we do that, we might as well fold up publishing altogether because the marketplace has clearly chosen YouTube and the Super Bowl over reading.

Posted by Mark Barrett
Apr 29, 2010  at  11:19 AM

My immediate response to the quote in your post was that the conclusion was not supported by data, but by exactly the confirmation bias you rightly referenced.  How many books have been certified as instant classics by the critics of the day, only to fade in short order?  And how many books were overlooked only to come on years later, taking and holding critical territory?

This is particularly true for women and minority writers used to be routinely dismissed by ‘respected’ critics.  When I started writing you couldn’t swing a cat without hitting an Updike or Cheever story, reference or quote.  Now, not so much.  (And I can’t say I miss them.)

The larger point in all this is that what’s being lamented is not the loss of literature, but the loss of the ability of the critic to be the arbiter of that designation.  Where before critics worked hand-in-hand with other publishing gatekeepers to discover and champion various authors, critics are now disenfranchised not because there is an insufficiency of content (and here I mean good content) to review, but because the critic’s voice is being drowned out by fragmentation of the market.

If a critic really believes in criticism, then they should be nothing but thrilled at the prospect of having so much material to discover.  On the other hand, if what they really aspire to is power and self-aggrandizement, then yes: they’re going to have a harder time of it now that publishing belongs to the great unwashed.

May 02, 2011  at  12:14 PM

I can almost hear the monks scurrying to their cells, muttering that books not copied by hand but created by an infernal machine just won’t be the same. It’s the content of the book that determines whether it lasts, not the format. Format is dictated by the market and limited to what technology can do; Dickens published serialized novels because he made more money that way.  We’re still reading most of them today, but not in serial form; Charlie is long gone and won’t see another shilling from his work. More people than ever can get it for free on their PCs, phone, and ereaders.

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