I have been pondering this question silently since I entered the world of book publishing. While, thankfully, there are many good books in the world, truly great literary works seem to be rare indeed.
This led me to wonder–can literary greatness be defined or boiled down to a single formula, or does it defy such rigidity? Are there characteristics which all great literary works share?
Wikipedia apparently believes “great books” are easy to define. It does so in a single sentence: “great books are those books that are believed to constitute an essential foundation in the literature of Western culture.”
I, however, am not so convinced. Other than finding this definition incredibly short-sighted in that it leaves out literature of non-Western culture (big Oops!), I think the concept of literary “greatness” deserves re-thinking, as “greatness” is a rather vague idea in and of itself.
It could mean that a work sold many copies or was read by countless individuals. It could also imply that a book won a famous award, like a Pulitzer Prize. Or, it could signify that a novel became a social media sensation a la Twilight or the basis for a cult following like The Lord of the Rings. “Greatness” could also be a derivative of writing quality or fantastic characters.
Perhaps another way to think about the greatness of books is to consider the origin of the greatness.
Does literary greatness derive from the author? Can only literary geniuses write great books as a result of inherent talent or does one develop the skills necessary to create great literature over time? This could also be a false dichotomy. Maybe it takes both innate talent, a bit of luck, and hard work combined.
Or, does greatness come from the interaction of the author and society. Bill Dorris in his The Arrival of the Fittest: How the Great Become Great (2009) posits that “greatness” involves solving a key generational problem in a given field or in society. By extension, do books become great because they answer an essential problem of their time?
As an editor-in-waiting, I have also been wondering if literary greatness has to do in part with the audience of a given work. Are books great before they are read for the first time by someone other than the author? Does a great editor or publisher develop a “sixth sense” over time that allows them to identify the next Great Gatsby? There is some evidence that this might be the case.
The National Endowment for the Arts published an interesting article about the creation of To Kill a Mockingbird. Apparently, at one point in time, Harper Lee became so frustrated with her novel that she threw the manuscript out the window into the snow–her agent made her retrieve it.
Or, does the audience play a certain role in making books great? If a book “solved” a problem of society, but it was never read, would it still be great? Can a book be great if it never reaches wide audiences or garners acclaim by critics? I’m imagining a manuscript festering unknown in some poor attic, waiting to be discovered.
What role does the enjoyment or interest of the audience play in the greatness of a book? How about what they learn or if the work “changes” them? Does this have to hold for the generation in which the work was published or for all time?
Further still, literary greatness could have to do with how a work fits in with literature as a whole. Did a book bring something novel to literature? Start a literary movement? End one?
Greatness could also have to do with the properties of a book. An unmistakable voice. Characters which engrave themselves in your heart and mind. A fabulous story and a larger message which touches lives. Quality writing, vivid imagery, a unique style, packaged into an accessible bundle.
In thinking about these questions, I would like to hazard a few, purposefully open-ended characteristics which I believe great books share:
1) First and foremost, I think the relationship between the author and his or her audience is an under-appreciated essential of literary greatness. A great book imparts a deep and abiding message which changes the lives of countless individuals. It should make readers re-think their worldview, or teach them something truly insightful about human existence. To do this, however, a great book needs to be accessible to a wide readership and stand the test of time.
2) Great books should be superbly written. They should bend the conventions of the written word with originality and an unmistakably unique voice. All elements of the story–plot, characters, description–should reverberate with their own individual lives which leap off the pages with a vivacity all their own.
How would you define literary greatness?