Monday, November 14, 2011

Defining Great Literature

Every one of my literature and creative writing professors began class with the question 'what makes great literature great.' Not until I began reading more prose for my own benefit and less for class was I able to solidly define what great literature is to me.
Great literature is defined by effective character development and the efficacious use of metaphors, similes, and other literary devises. A great piece of prose must entail layers that the reader has to recognize and peel away. If a reader is not allowed to think, to search for truths, then the reading becomes mundane and lifeless. I want to finish a book, a poem, a short story and feel disappointment and a sense of accomplishment simultaneously.
I do not want the author to give me the answers, but rather make me want to search further, dig deeper, and start asking the questions to understand the truths that the character may never fully realize.
Please do not misunderstand me. I don't like when the author confuses the reader with inconsistent plot development, vague descriptions, and confusing characters. Instead, a great piece of literature entails clear and succinct prose, the effective use of symbols, imagery, metaphors, as well as other literary devises, and cogent character development.
Unfortunately, good and bad literature outweighs great literature. As a result, I continue my quest to find the great literature that I know exists.
To initiate discussion, I would like to ask you to add comments describing what great literature entails. The elements of what makes great literature great is purely subjective, and no wrong answers exist. So you tell me, what makes a great piece of literature great?


  1. Agree with all you are looking for but must say Character development is at the top of my list.

  2. I think this is a great discussion. First, is it subjective? In our culture some of the 'greats' that are considered are Shakespeare, Hemingway, and Steinbeck. I've read all three. I remember the stories of one.
    Surely, Steinbeck and Hemingway wrote good stuff. It just didn't stick except for the titles. If we went and asked people the themes, plot development, etc. for such greats, how many would be able to discuss beyond the titles?
    So, it's important that great literature is not just great in the moment of reading, but that it makes a lasting impression, is not overly complicated to remember, and has the ability to influence future writers with its schematics. Shakespeare has done that over and over for centuries. It's practically cliche how rooted he is in so many types of media and stories.
    Yes, the characters must be multidimensional, the plot must be relevant and reflective. Great literature should make you keep thinking, well past your bedtime.

  3. At the top of my list of what makes literature go from good to great is emotional connection. If I cannot relate to a character, no matter how well rounded or developed, then it's a wash. When I say relate or connect, I mean that the actions and behavior of the character is believable. The bad guy killed someone is bad, but what was his motivation and does it make sense? Even if he is a psychopathic killer, what drives him? This is what makes good characters into compelling characters, IMO

  4. Great literature is what lasts, what remains relevant even 100 years later. That's the tough part. You can't really tell now who of the good writers will still be read down the road.

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