I ran across this college handout a dozen years ago and I liked Professor Lye’s simple, clear evaluation of what makes literature good. I know there are many answers to this question and arguments are legion. Right now, I have worked abundance of bodily fluids appearing in the text to my personal definition of good literature. It’s often a very personal thing.
But despite the personal angle, there are examples of good literature (great even) that are often vilified by those readers who rely on personal experience to evaluate a book. I can’t tell you the number of serious students who dismiss Shakespeare a fuddy-duddy that no one reads any more (except college professors).
So this is for me a good start at defining the things that make literature good.
Depth, Complexity, Quality
A common way of identifying the qualities that characterize literature as ‘good’ is through the concepts of depth, complexity and quality.
The basic idea behind depth and complexity is that literature, as does any art form, represents human experience in a way that is both revealing and compelling, that tells us something about the world, holds it up for our examination, and does so in a way that engages us. This telling about the world will also tell us about ourselves, about the nature of human experience.
As there are local as well as broader components to any understanding of the world — values and ideas which are common to a particular place and time as well as those which tend to encompass many groups over time — fiction will also tell us something about the specifics of a time and place, about how a certain group or time saw the world.
The skilful use of the resources of the art form in evoking depth and complexity is known as quality.
The idea behind complexity is that our human experience is:
- governed by a number of interacting factors — environment, character, situation and so forth, and
- consisted of a number of elements — thought, feeling, sensation, memory, imagination, significant symbols, conventions, culturally formed ways of saying and thinking.
Representation of experience which best evokes these varying and connected elements of our experience will give us the truest sense of the world and its meanings and of what it is to live life. That’s the gist of the argument which values complexity.
The concept of depth as a value begins with the idea that we are historical and symbolic beings who are formed largely by culture but who also have common human needs, and who experience life with the complexity that I have just referred to. Depth is the word used to capture the representation of the symbolic and historical meaning of life:
- to explore the hidden forces of which we are seldom aware;
- to invoke, often through images, the ways in which we think and feel that are not usually represented in common speech;
- to disclose and dramatize the often hidden effects of history and culture.
There is more to us than our surface, more to life than our physical sense of it. For a work of literature to have depth is for it to create a sense of this, to define some of the forces and feelings which give resonance to our being.
In order to evoke the complexities and the depth of experience, literature has to use all of its resources well:
- an apt, precise and powerful use of language, one which uses the resources of sound, connotation and description to evoke the experiences to which the language refers;
- a feel for the telling detail, and for the comment, incident, nuance of behaviour or feeling which will evoke the most intense and illuminating response, the clearest and most complex or most immediate realization of the experience being described;
- a use of comparison which illumines;
- the putting into play of conflicted and supportive relationships between ideas, incidents, voices and characters which brings us as fully as possible into the lived experience of life with all its tensions, ambiguities, richness and meaningfulness;
- the drawing on our stock of knowledge to embed the matter of the text, with all its power and meaning, in the context of our social, historical, and personal lives, and
- the drawing on our previous knowledge of literature to enrich this work with the experience and meanings of other works: we should remember that reading literature is something that one learns to do (it is not a natural capacity), and that literature, like any art form, has its own traditions of meaning, the understanding of which are important to being able to respond fully to the text.
The more the resources of language and meaning are used to reveal the depth, complexity, lived experience, and full potential meaning of the issues and events introduced by a work, the more we say this work has quality.
[Originally posted by Professor John Lye, Department of English, Brock University]