Making Great Literature

Right now the mainstream literary world is agog over Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, a sequel of To Kill a Mockingbird that was actually written first, and has set off all sorts for musings, such as whether there will be another “great” book of Southern Literature, or Southern Gothic, or whatever the literary buzzword is at the moment. When someone starts banding about “the human condition,” my eyes start to roll. I’m extremely skeptical of the whole literary analysis thing. A group of UCLA college students once told Fahrenheit 451 author Ray Bradbury that his interpretation of his own book was wrong, which pretty much sums up how I see literary analysis: arbitrary and based more on fads and rhetoric than literature itself.

The same goes for what is considered “great” literature. Last year I discovered Their Eyes Were Watching God, a book that was panned by all the “right” people when it came out, only to be rescued from obscurity decades later. Author Zora Neale Hurston’s tale about a black woman in the first third of the 20th Century is well told, but, alas, the story she told was not what the “right” people wanted to hear. Some black authors of that age found the story embarrassing. This was a time of deep racism, and many authors of the Harlem Renaissance thought the best way they could combat it was to portray blacks in the best possible light. Even though the novel struck a solid blow to racist stereotypes, Hurston’s story, told with remarkable frankness, didn’t fit that vision. The novel languished until the 1960s, when the narrative of Janie Crawford resonated with emerging feminist views, and the book was suddenly regarded as a classic fit for required reading. Yet the books is the same as it was all those years ago. The only thing that changed were the critics and the notions they brought to the table.

Whether or not To Kill A Mockingbird is a good book (I’ve never read it), we’re seeing some of this right now. Not everyone is pleased with Go Set a Watchman, apparently due to the portrayal of Atticus Finch. Yet this betrays something about readers and their expectations and how it affects their interpretation of a novel. They approached Harper Lee’s latest book with a certain idea of Atticus Finch already in their minds, only to discover it didn’t match what was on the pages. That doesn’t make it a bad book any more than criticism of Their Eyes Were Watching God made it a bad one in 1937. It only means that what makes “great” literature is as much, if not more, due to what the critics bring to the table than the book itself.

That’s something to think about if you pick up a highly praised book only to discover it’s not fit for the compost heap, and wonder why it’s considered great. Maybe someone really thought it was good, or maybe, like those who think Fahrenheit 451 is about censorship, saw only what they wanted or were told to see. Ultimately, what makes a novel great is you. If you enjoy it, find the writing compelling, and, in general, think it’s a good read, then it is a good read. If you get your jollies going through mental contortions to make a book fit someone’s off-the-wall literary analysis, well, more power to you. Either way, you are the final arbitrator of what is great literature and what is not.

Whether your read “great” literature because you’ve heard it’s great, or because you just want to, or even if it’s required reading, the only opinion that matters is yours. Even if you have to regurgitate the accepted line in class, know that the only difference between that impression and yours is you are graded on theirs. And never forget that no matter how bad a “great” novel can be, there are thousands of truly good books just waiting to be read. All you have to do is to open them and begin.