Making literature great

A recent post themed to work by Richard Adin, who writes at An American Editor, prompted an exchange about the future of great literature.

Adin continues to develop his arguments on the potentially negative impact of e-books on great literature. This post isn’t responding to the newer work; it’s a follow-up to Adin’s concern (expressed in a comment):

“Can you name a single work of fiction that was published in 2009 that has a broad consensus that it will be read 100 years from now? I can’t think of one. Yet we had no problem coming to that agreement with Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye almost immediately after its publication.”

I don’t have an answer to everything (thankfully), and I promised Adin I’d think about it. And so I have.

I’ll start by drawing a distinction between making great literature – something writers do – and making literature great – an activity that I think of as contextual, personal and shared.

A proliferation of media, formats and devices will not deter writers from making great literature. If anything, democratizing the tools of production has made creation of great literature easier. Moreover, writers who create great works are motivated personally as well as financially.

The alchemy of making literature great has always been evolving. Even if Catcher in the Rye was deemed an instant classic in 1951, it didn’t crack the top 10 fiction books in that year or any year that followed.

I’d also argue that it was a “classic” in a context of male-dominated and overwhelmingly white publishing professionals. The book meant something to the people who made publishing and buying decisions in 1951, and as one of a small set of books made available that year, it caught on.

This is a publishing example of what Stephen Jay Gould and others have described as confirmation bias: we believed in this book; we promoted it; it caught on; our judgment is confirmed.

This isn’t to say that Catcher in the Rye isn’t great, or important, but the book is made great by the people who read it, connect with it and communicate about it. Longevity may be a sign of great literature, but it is not proof. To the extent that Catcher remains a touchstone for a generation of new readers , it does so by establishing connections with readers in the context of a much different world.

Lots of books can establish those connections, reaching a variety of different audiences.

A personal example: While I was in high school, an English teacher, likely distressed by my overly structured prose, recommended what would become my favorite book, Look Homeward, Angel.

Many have argued that Look Homeward, Angel is far from great; some have even argued that Maxwell Perkins is as much the author as Thomas Wolfe.

But the book is great for me, at least in part because I read it at a time when my world seemed as small as Eugene Gant’s home town. In the book, I found possibility, potential and inspiration. In reading Wolfe (or Perkins), my outlook changed, and so too did my writing.

Undoubtedly, a proliferation of media, formats and devices alters the alchemy of making literature great. With millions of options, the importance of established filters diminishes. What will replace those filters has yet to be determined, and so the new order can and sometimes does feel chaotic.

That doesn’t make me pine for the old order, in which a learned few decided what we should be able to read. As it happens, standing on the shoulders of giants leaves me cold. I’m looking forward to the conversations that occur among the learned many, some of whom will be fueled only by the passion that a connection with literature can create.

About Brian O'Leary

Founder and principal of Magellan Media Consulting, Brian O’Leary helps enterprises with media and publishing components capitalize on the power of content. A veteran of more than 30 years in the publishing industry and a prolific content producer himself, Brian leverages the breadth and depth of his experience to deliver innovative content solutions.

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