What is great literature?

An interesting question, one for which every aspiring writer, and most if not all published authors would give their leg, and any other body part, or parts, that wouldn’t impede their writing, to know the answer to, “What truly is a great piece of writing?”

When I say ‘great’, I mean the kind of writing that is remembered as being up there, and out there, that historically will stand the test of time and will forever earn plaudits.

I’m not sure if there truly is an answer, as an aspiring writer I strive to achieve greatness, but due to a shortage of talent and attention span I don’t even achieve the lowest levels of the giant step before greatness, success.

By success of course I mean any combination of: completed works, published works, recognition, money, fame, notoriety, or even just self satisfaction. I have yet to achieve these internal or external accolades really – though I am a notoriously bad dresser.

To be great, obviously you need to have some semblance of a successful piece of writing, though which measures of success, I’m not exactly sure – I truly want to believe ‘greatness’ is greater than simple fame and fortune – you do of course need a finished piece if work though that people can see.

I wonder on the previous note though, how many works that would actually be great, have never been shown to anyone else? Unfortunately, obvious you can’t be great unless you share. I wonder how many people have a piece that is potentially ‘great’, but they give up, and never finish it?

Greatness though, is clearly beyond from success, there are millions of books published 206,000 in the UK in 2005 alone, (for an unpublished writer being published is a pretty common), measure of success, yet only a fraction of a percent can truly be considered great, beyond the moment the world first sees it.

Even then, we could debate endlessly what actually falls into the list if greats. This tells me this ‘greatness’ we aspire to, is subjective – in the case of literature, poetry, art, television, etc…, beauty is truly in the eye of the beholder.

But wait, hang on a second that is truly unfair! I want to aspire to this, I want to believe that someday I can overcome my short comings and produce something great, therefore there must be some kind of arbitrary measure to set as a goal, some rule to follow to guide my path. How can I do that if greatness is simply a one on one relationship (one person thinks it’s great, therefore you can class it as great – because it’s great in a very specific category)? Sure if just one person out of a billion thinks it’s great, that is an achievement – but that isn’t satisfactory. I need more.

So, a bazillion people bought it, its right there number one for every general, and every relevant category specific best seller list non-stop for two years. Is that enough to call it a great? Nope, there could be a thirty pound voucher with each book, or a million pound prize give away that only book owners could enter for. PR, and controversy could make it sell, but doesn’t make it a great.

So what do I class as great? For me it would be when majority calls of greatness are achieved from, three distinct groups of people: Joe Public, Mr Snide Critic, and Professor Ivory of Tower. When there’s some sort of balance of uplifting feedback from these three (i.e. categorically more positive than negative), you’ve probably achieved some level of ‘greatness’. I would however advise it should probably take years to achieve this; your creative output should stand the test of time.

  • If Joe Public is bored and forgets book easily you’re not there yet.
  • Critics views, and indeed critics themselves change, Mr Snide Critic rarely lasts long. So a prospective ‘great’ must buck trends and be steadfast in the eyes of ever changing critics.
  • As to the Ivory Towers, it is hard enough to get them to take notice, and it will probably rely on positive feedbacks from Joe Public and the Mr Snide Critic.

If after several years your book still sells (Joe Public usually votes with his feet, though these days, he also votes online – which is a measure to watch), critics don’t reverse a positive review (and the sum total of reviews is overwhelmingly positive – don’t just be measuring on a small handful of a favourable reviews),  and it gets attention from academics (ideally you want it to be required reading, or mentioned in some kind of syllabus (which isn’t about worst, or most mediocre books ever)), then I think, fairly you can class your own work as ‘great’, because likely, in the eyes of the world that’s where it stands.

This is how I would measure ‘greatness’, but the measure of greatness is subjective so many would consider me wrong, and have their own measures. Measures that are more favourable to some, and less favourable to others – likely as not, if I ever do achieve success, I might be more specific about what I call ‘great’, and how I judge my own writing. It is in human nature to revaluate our senses of achievement, because sometimes the goals we initially set, aren’t actually the places we are happy, (that and we’re selfish).

I think, having put these thoughts down, that general greatness is probably not quite achievable. Maybe it has been achieved by a select few writers, but I do wonder about the fairness of my views: can the likes of Henry Gray’s Anatomy of the Human Body, and Darwin’s On the Origin of Species be safely measured against A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh, or J. K. Rowlings Harry Potter? Can an airport novel reasonably be considered against an historical biography?

My answer is no – blowing all my thoughts out of the water, the measure of ‘greatness’, even certain measures of success simply have to be subjective. Can you imagine how much work it would involve to compile a list of the greatest ever, if the category was “anything”? Even if you specify it to books, or poetry, or pieces of music – it would take a monumental effort to classify what is greater.

So my conclusion would be that ‘greatness’ is subjective, that hard and fast rules are hard to apply (though my impressing of three distinct groups could work, if each measured group is filtered to category specific sub-groups).

What does this mean for me? Well if I were to ever write anything good enough to be published – my aim would be for it to be the one of the ‘greatest’ in as many of the genre’s or categories it applies to. So if I write a romantic comedy, set in Berlin, during the year 2080, based on the dating life of an albino alligator, it would be one of the greatest romantic comedies, one of the greatest novels set in Berlin, one of the greatest future based novels, one of the greatest novels based on the dating life an alligator (and albino alligators). Of course you would have to practice some common sense, there probably aren’t that many books based on the dating life of an albino alligator after all, so unless you were really desperately to put “greatest” next to the blurb of your book, or your writing CV, you would probably not be quite that specific.

Of course, ‘greatness’ may not be something I’ll ever achieve – which is why my happiness at being a writer is not dependant on this measure. That isn’t the point of the story – that point is, I’m at my happiest if I’m trying to achieve ‘greatness’.

In Barrington Moore’s Reflections on the Causes of Human Misery and upon Certain Proposals to Eliminate Them, he says this of revolutionaries: “[…] He is corrupted by the very process of achieving power”, which I, being the romantic that I am, believe it for it to apply, it must apply in both positive and negative senses, therefore striving to achieve ‘greatness’ through scrupulous means leads me to happiness and satisfaction, before I even get there.1

1 Of course what Barrington Moore probably meant was you have to use unscrupulous means to achieve power, and therefore you are corrupted before you get there – I’m just a silver lining kind of guy, and wanted to finish on a positive, after setting the self destruct on my cosy little idea of ‘greatness’

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