A friend of mine recently posed a series of interesting questions on his blog and, rather than hijack his space, I want to take a look at the big one in some detail (spoiler alert: don't expect any definitive answers):
"Am I really asking what makes great literature great and, if so, what makes great literature great?"
What makes literature great? That's a heck of a question. It's not a new one by any means, but that does't mean it's not worth reconsidering from time to time. My knee-jerk reaction is that you know it when you see it, but that's a cop-out. How do you know it? What about it makes you recognize greatness in literature?
Thinking about this has led me to wander over to Wikipedia, where I ran across the idea of "literary theory." I'll grant that my understanding of literary theory is shallow beyond measurement, but I'm pretty sure that it's not an approach I want to take when addressing this question.
Instead, I'll start with looking at a list of great literature. For no compelling reason other than the fact that I need to start somewhere, let's look at The 100 Best Novels Written in English, as per Robert McCrum. At this point, there is a pause in my writing as I've gone off to look over the list and then look over it again. Thanks to the magic of text, you won't actually experience this pause, but I wanted you to know that it exists.
Ok, now that I've gone over the list, I'm not certain that it gets me any closer to my answer. I've read a reasonable number of the books on the list, but most of them I read decades ago. I hope that they'd make more of an impression on me now because, honestly, while all of them may qualify as Literature-with-a-capital-"L", they didn't leave much of a mark on me. That's good, though. For something to qualify as great literature, at least using my proto-definition, it needs to leave a mark on the reader.
Fortunately, McCrum himself addresses the question as to what make literature great in a related article:
"Calvino’s definition – 'a classic is a book that has never finished what it wants to say' – is probably the sweetest, followed by Pound’s identification of 'a certain eternal and irresponsible freshness'...Thereafter, the issue becomes subjective. Classics, for some, are books we know we should have read, but have not. For others, classics are simply the book we have read obsessively, many times over, and can quote from."
A little romantic, and I'm not sure it's useful if one's looking for a systematic approach to answer the question, but still, it's not bad...until he continues with:
"The ordinary reader instinctively knows what he or she believes to be a classic."
And now we're right back where we started.
I've tried to make a list of the books which I've read and consider great, and then list out the defining traits of those books. I won't both sharing that because it was a fruitless approach. Have you ever tried to decided if you should stay with a romantic partner by listing out their good and bad traits and then adding them up? This exercise worked every bit as well, which is to say, not at all. If I were a literary theorist, I'd suggest that the greatness of literature is an emergent property, but I'm not, so I won't.
So, after all of this, I'm just going to take a stab at what establishes the greatness of literature in my opinion. The book in question is great literature if...
* The book sticks with me. If I can't remember reading it, it may be literature, but it wasn't great to me.
* The book changes the way I look at the world or broadens my perspective in some way. I learn something of value from it.
* I enjoy reading the book. This may seem like an extremely lowbrow way of looking for greatness, but it's hard for me to consider a book great literature if it's an outright chore to read, no matter how innovative the structure or clever the prose or intricate the plot.
* The book is novel. Yes, I did that on purpose, but I mean it. If it seems new and fresh, I'm more likely to regard it as "great."
* Finally, the book needs to end well. The ending seldom saves a poor novel, but if the ending isn't up to the quality of the rest of the novel, or if the it doesn't "fit," it leaves a bad taste in my mouth.
These generalization are how I recognize greatness in literature...at least, that's how I do now. The whole thing is subject to changes. I may someday read something that doesn't tick any of these boxes and I still think it's great, which will mean I'll have to reevaluate the whole thing. Which is fine. I expect defining greatness in literature to be a work-in-progress for as long as I have the wits to consider it.
Now, what good is a list like this? For me, it's a target. When I write, these are the impressions I'd like to leave on the reader: That the work is memorable, that the reader learns something from it, that they enjoy it, and that it offers something different than other things they've read.
Of course, I'd like to stick the landing as well, My personal example of an ideal ending is Terry Pratchett's "Small Gods." I doubt I'll ever land as gracefully as Sir Terry did with that one, but if I come close, I'll be more than satisfied.