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I find myself attracted to literature that creates (or re-creates) a world, or a little slice of a world. I am not referring only to setting, but also to the characters and plotlines that inhabit these worlds.
The worlds can be imaginary, like the countries that Gulliver visits in Gulliver's Travels, or the futuristic distopia in Fahrenheit 451; or they can be real worlds whose very tedium makes them interesting, such as the little deli that stands at the center of Bernard Malamud's The Assistant, or worlds whose hypocrisy is criticized by the author, such as the French countryside of Madame Bovary.
The book I am reading now is Penguin Island, by Anatole France, in which the author invents an entire civilization and traces its history from its ancient roots to modern times.
Any kind of literature which holds my interest, excites me while reading, is innovative and/or unique in the manner it is told, and makes me think about it for days afterward is quality work in my estimation.
I like this thought a lot. What IS good literature? What makes it good? I think, for me, good literature is anything that stimulates an interest in a reader; if you can sit and read something and take an author's thoughts away (or a character's experience, or anything else), that literature is good.
What is GREAT literature? Well now.
Great literature is art in its purest form -- a writer sat and expressed intangible feelings through visible words. It's music, poetry, and painting in a different format. It's effective, by use of technique and by use of imagination. It's where the wonder of an idea meets the intrigue of literary style.
I agree with others that every person gets to decide what they personally like, but to me, good literature presents me with an experience that surprises me and makes me think about myself or my world in a new way. At some point, there are only so many plots or themes in the world, but a gifted author can give me a new "slice" of an old theme and leave me changed.
We each get to decide what we enjoy, respond to and admire in all of the arts, including literature. For me, good literature presents 1) a perspective on living as a human that is compelling and thoughtful and 2) creates this perspective through an interest in the development of a theme or set of themes.
Literature has to be simple enough to grasp but complex enough to inspire thought. Without a perspective on what it means to be human, the book can't rise above "entertainment" (which is fine, but it's not good literature). Without the development of theme, a book also cannot rise above "mere story", no matter how poetic or fluid.
Criteria for "good" literature differs for every reader. In the same way people tend to like specific types of music, people also like particular types of literature.
That said, my own personal criteria for good literature are:
-The text needs to be engaging
-The text needs to evoke some kind of feeling in me.
-The text needs to be free of grammatical errors and well constructed (unless you are Faulkner or a poet).
There are at least two criteria. First, the literature should tell us something important about the human condition. It should not simply be a fun story. Second, the literature must be well written, with clearly drawn, memorable characters and a strong plot.
The main criteria must be that people read it, for example Harry Potter. If not people, then college professors, for example if Harold Bloom had the power, no one would read Harry Potter. And if not children or Professor Bloom, then the librarians who preserved the Greek, Latin, Chinese, Hindu, and Arabic incunabula. And let us not forget the Babylonian masons who build buildings with early copies of The Epic of Gilgamesh and the Persian King who preserved the Code of Hammurabi.
Also (couldn't fit this in one post because of character limit) a quick proof of how great art is subjective: obviously, people like mathematicians and scientists don't actually understand what makes someone like Shakespeare a great writer (or, for that matter, the fundamental workings of human nature that he wrote about); they hear men such as myself praise him and clamber over each other in their attempts to show who loves him most as a writer. No matter that they don't enjoy the actual reading of "classics"; so long as they have read them they are happy! Anyway, I could give my Geometry teacher a play by a non-notable 16 century English playwright and (assuming momentarily that he had never heard of it) Macbeth. Were I to ask him which was by the great writer he would have no idea; whichever play I rhapsodized about he would also "absolutely love". This is true of any art form; no doubt many a musician and painter had smiled at the thought of such an experiment.
As I see it, art is irrefutably subjective and the only real criteria for its judgement is how much we enjoy it. I mean, we are all so quick to acclaim Homer, Shakespeare, Melville etc. as greats and deride pop culture writers such as J.K. Rowling or Stephen King as the artistic equivalents of demagogues, but I cannot believe that were the Bard alive today, he would want schools to enthusiastically shove his works down the throats of unwilling students on the grounds that they are "intellectual". I can easily imagine scores of geniuses from every art, however, telling the youth of today that they would have wanted their works to be genuinely enjoyed---as they indeed were in their respective lifetimes----and for the students of today to make their own judgements about literature. In my freshman year of high school, I read everyone from Homer to Joyce and (I would punctuate this with an obscenity elsewhere) you know what? Big deal. As long as my classmates reading the Hunger Games and Harry Potter enjoy art for its own sake, we have a society that we can love.
I am going to have to side with Pohnpei here. Good literature is often different than popular literature (especially in today's world). Good literature, like any art form, contains universal elements about human nature which are combined with and expressed by plausible characters. This is not an exhaustive definition but these aspects are definitely needed. Works with these universal elements expressed in such a complete and beautiful way connect with readers fromAndy generation and any age. This is where we get the idea of a "classic"; they stand the test of time. What is merely fun and enjoyable may differ from society to society. The issues humans face just by virtue of being human do not;they are perennial. The vast majority of books at the bookstore will be erased by history within a century of their publication (at most).
Is good literature the opposite of bad literature? Can we prize low as well as high (for example low comedy)? Dickens is considered as a genius. He is said to be on a par with the greatest writers. Nevertheless, some see his novels as mawkish, an impure mix of low comedy and melodrama. Others see them as a remarkable achievement, a mixture of satire, grating irony and drama close to tragedy.
I think one common feature of good literature is that it makes the reader under the impression that it has achieved something that actually initiates, moves toward something different. Good literature has a propensity to make us wonder (call things into question and make us feel surprised or feel amazed, literally "in a maze").
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