What are some arguments against using aesthetic beauty to judge literature?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

This is a good question, I think, but one that is difficult to answer directly due to the looseness of the term beauty.

Beauty is as much a description of an individual's reaction to an object as it is a characteristic of that object, which means it is not necessarily an "objective measure" at all. 

So, for me, the short answer to this question is that aesthetic beauty is not a clear enough concept to be used as a literary criteria, especially as a comparative criteria. 

What is a beautiful sentence? What is a beautiful novel structure or plot structure? Where does the beauty happen, in well-wrought phrases or in images depicting visually or emotionally stunnning moments? Does a book with a depressing story line but beautiful landscape description qualify as a beautiful book? 

In addition to being recognizable, is beauty also a discernable quality? If you have to "know it when you see it" then we are not really engaging in criticism, at least not criticism that will help us have a rich conversation on literature. 

This is not to say that term "beauty" should be left out of our talks on books, but to use a term as potentially and commonly vague as beauty to judge the quality of our literature seems close to evading the act of criticism and judgement. 

Of course, there are times when it is enough to say, "I liked it". If we are going to dig into a piece of literature we need to use more specific language. I would suggest that talking about beauty as a criteria is best as an opening and from there we should go on to attempt to describe, define and examine what goes into making the work beautiful. 

In other words, we need to make the term "beauty" meaningful. 

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Beauty is not necessarily what some authors aim at. Many, rather, aim at gritty realism or moral gravitas, or even fear, perversity or absurdity. I wouldn't call the works of, say Elie Wiesel beautiful, but I think they are wonderful. To cite a less extreme and more recent example, I find most of the characters in Jonathan Franzen's books to be thoroughly unsympathetic, but I still think his books are marvelous. Some of the great works in Western literature have been almost unremittingly bleak. So to set aesthetic beauty as a standard would disqualify a lot of good literature.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Approved by eNotes Editorial