What makes great literature great?

What makes great literature great?

In this multi-part essay John C. Wright addresses the meaty question that’s been making the rounds of certain online discussion forums of whether genre books (especially speculative fiction) can be great books.

Here are some excerpts that, I think, lay out very well the foundational principles for the discussion:

The point is that it is not all about you. It is not all about your tastes. Just because you like something or don’t like something, just because you agree or disagree, has no bearing on whether a work is deep or shallow. Whether something is great or shallow is an objective judgment, determined by your reason, not a personal judgment determined by your tastes. Since the idea of an objective judgment is one the Brahmins of our age have decreed anathema, I can only invite the heterodox to continue past this point.

A work is likeable to you, if you like it. A work is agreeable to you, if you agree with it, the world its portrays fits and adorns the world as you see it.

But a work is great if it addresses the great ideas of the human condition, and this is true whether you like the work or not, or whether you agree with the author’s take on the ideas or not: and the great ideas are the ones by which and in which we live and die. They shape our notions of what life is and consists of; they give meaning to life. . . .


Mortimer Adler used three criteria to determine inclusion in his “Great Books of the Western World” series for Encyclopedia Britannica . . .
I have here paraphrased his words:

  * TIMELESS: Great Books should be works that are as much of concern to us today as at the time they were written, even if that was centuries ago. They are thus essentially timeless � always contemporary, and not confined to interests that change from time to time or from place to place.
  * INFINITE: The second criterion was their infinite re-readability. Few books are worth reading more than once. A great book is inexhaustibly re-readable. It cannot be fully understood on one, two, or three readings. More is to be found on all subsequent readings. One re-reads a great book with greater pleasure and more insight on each rereading.
  * RELEVENT: The third criterion was the relevance of the work to a very large number of great ideas and great issues that have occupied the minds of thinking individuals for the last twenty-five centuries. The authors of these books take part in the great conversation, reading the works of many of their predecessors, and answering them. In other words, the great books are the books in which the great conversation occurs about the great ideas. It is the set of great ideas that determines the choice of the great books.


In any art, there are two considerations: the subject matter and the execution. Subject matter we have already discussed. To be Great Art, the subject matter must meet Adler’s three criteria of timelessness, of rewarding infinite study, and of being relevant to the great conversation through history of the great ideas of the Western mind. But the execution must also be according to the highest standards of the art of which we speak. . . .

In written fiction, we can point to certain standards are remarkable execution, even if we cannot exactly define them (for who can define genius?).

  * GRACEFUL: Great prose delights the reader with the poetry of the language, which includes memorable passages and phrases. It is both easy to quote and worthy of being quoted. Even in translation, the metaphors and images impress. Shakespeare is the exemplar of this: his work consists not merely of ringing lines of glorious virtuosity, individual lines and phrases are so striking that they have passed into common use, indeed, form the backbone of the English language.
  * NATURAL: Great fiction draws from life, and from imaginations larger than life, characters whose vivacity and verisimilitude make them seem alive. There are many dimensions and aspects to such characters: they are not mere mechanisms for advancing the plot, mouthpieces for the author, or simple stereotypes. Once this character is alive in your mind, some real people in your life (perhaps even you) will be seen in a differing light. Homer and Milton are preeminent in this respect: Even the dullest student reading the ILLIAD remembers the wrath of Achilles, or PARADISE LOST, the hollow grandeur of Satan.
  * WISE: Great fiction is observant into the human condition. It is the opposite of a juvenile or jejune opinion. The woes and triumphs, the simple pleasures and deep passions of mankind, men the way men actually act, are depicted. The statement the story makes about the human condition, or the questions the story poses, will be a source either of satisfaction or haunting puzzlement for years, for a lifetime. I will list Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, Jonathon Swift, Victor Hugo and Mark Twain as masters of this particular aspect of the craft.


Does Science Fiction Speak to All Time?

Here we run into the crux of the argument. Science fiction stares into the future with wonder. Fantasy looks back on the past with longing, or into fairytale worlds that might have been. But the first of our three criteria for a great book is that it be timeless. Great books deal with reality, the human condition, as it was, as it is now, and as it ever shall be. Science Fiction concentrates primarily on the changes to human society that future technology or future evolution might one day produce. A great book tells a tale that would be as worthy of deep study by readers in ancient Athens, medieval Rome, or modern New York. Science fiction, on the other hand, is the unique product of the industrial and scientific revolution, and its emphasis is on the exploration of the human condition only insofar as it will be changed by continued scientific revolutions.


There is clearly a tension between the two approaches. When you write about the eternal things, it is hard to concentrate on the wonder or terror of the future; pondering the verities of the human condition is at odds with drawing out speculations on the ramification of a counterfactual. Asking what is the meaning of life antithetical to asking what would life be like if pigs could fly?

I look forward to seeing his further investigations of particular works of speculative to see how well they fit into the criteria for great literature.

(hat tip to Julie D. for the link.)


As I think further about this essay, I think one of his arguments is flawed. To be a great book, I think a writer must not only engage with the great ideas, he must also have something to say about them that is true. Thus, while it is true that Nietzsche and Marx engage with the great ideas, as Wright so rightly points out, they do so from a point of view that is entirely wrong.

Wright attributes his distaste for their point of view to a matter of taste, and thus dismisses it. But truth is no more a matter of subjective judgment than is depth. There is an objective truth and the great works are great only insofar as they approach that truth. Homer is great not only because he addresses honor, but because he portrays it correctly as a virtue; not only because he shows us what wrath is, but because he clearly shows us that wrath is a vice.  Had he shown Achilles’ anger as a virtue and Hector’s honor as a vice, the Iliad would not be a classic work because it would not be true.

I think Wright is correct when he says there is a measure of foolishness in trying to determine whether a work is classic that has been written in the past 100 years. It is hard to determine because we do not have the perspective, it is too close. Or as C. S. Lewis says, we are unable to see the particular errors of our age because they are universal. However, that said, I do think that is any work of fantasy/sci-fi is likely to be a classic it is The Lord of the Rings because it does fit Wright’s criteria quite nicely, it engages with great ideas, it clearly says something about human nature, it has characters who live, poetic language that sings, and above all it has a vision of the world which is fundamentally true.

My sister wants to argue for Ender’s Game as a classic. I am willing to concede that it is a great work of science fiction; but it seems to me it lacks the quality of a work that will endure through the ages.

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