The Truth About Great Literature

In the most recent issue of Poets & Writers, Steve Almond writes about some interesting issues in his article, “The Problem of Entitlement: A Question of Respect.” In it, he attempted an amateur psychoanalysis of his students’ skepticism towards the actual greatness of the stories anthologised in Best American Short Stories. To this extent, I could agree with him that many students attack anthologised stories as a defense mechanism similar to that of sour grapes: “I most likely will not get published in that anthology, so it must not be very good,” goes their thinking.

Those are the indeed the thoughts of an immature and insecure writer. No doubt, any aspiring writer must start out that way. That is not to say that they are somehow inherently wrong in their criticisms though, as Almond seems to suggest. To him, these students “didn’t seem to understand—they were too entitled to understand—that the production of great literature requires deep engagement with great literature. In fact, they were more likely to talk about a movie or TV show…than the last great book they read.” 

But I do not see the problem as one of entitlement. Is it possible that it is not the fault of these young people that they do not read much? Perhaps the true problem is that there has been no great literature to read in recent times. Perhaps movies and television series have found a much more effective way of telling stories. It is too easy to step onto the mantle of an old man shake our fingers at the youth for losing touch with what is “actual” greatness, too easy to blame them for not recognising the merits of the old canon. 

Almond complains of this young generation’s sense of entitlement and the dismissiveness that it brings. He says of his students, “You guys do a fantastic job in class of being generous with one another. The larger world of writers deserves the same respect.” But do they? Is this not a sense of entitlement itself? The larger world of writers does not somehow inherently deserve respect from anyone. Stories are not somehow important simply because “a human being made it,” as he says. Perhaps young aspiring writers react to anthologies and other publications in the way that they do precisely because they know that publication and accolades are ultimately a game of politics, and not a reflection of the quality of the work. After all, how often do we see celebrated works and end up feeling that there was in fact no reason for its critical acclaim, that it was something we could’ve done ourselves or something that could’ve come out of one of our own lowly workshops? The disdain for the annual anthology is in fact an important indicator of the mistrust of institutions that young people have. Why should we give our respect to a work simply because it has been anthologised or otherwise held up as a work of great literature by some unseen ruling body consisting of people who we have never met? Besides, is great literature truly great if nobody reads it? 

SO WHAT EXACTLY is ‘great literature’? Is it the work that becomes anthologised? Published in esteemed magazines? In any particular case, one must question who is making the distinction greatness, and why they consider it to be worthy of preservation and dissemination. Critical thinking is important, and this attitude is absent in Almond when says, “the stories in those collections are always great.” This tells me that he has simply drank the Kool-Aid. Ultimately, we should each judge for ourselves what is ‘good’ and ‘great’.

To me, great literature is a story that is read widely. It is a story that is simple enough that it can be appreciated by and accessible to the layman, yet complex enough to be dissected by academics. Great literature shows mastery of plot, which is the concern of the layman. The average person wants to know what happened to who and how, and often why. This is because they seek to gain knowledge about life without incurring on themselves the cost of making the decisions or mistakes that the protagonist makes. The mastery of said plot must also be presented in an artful way—it must be crafted, so to speak. This is a demonstration of the mastery of language, which speaks to the intelligentsia. 

Almond argues, though, that one should “look past your own sensibility, your biases—to assess the piece of writing on its own terms.” In this respect, I concur. Certainly, one should at least attempt to transcend one’s personal tastes and biases. For instance, in one workshop I attended, one young man wrote about a warrior family in a Viking-like time and culture, something along the lines of the video game The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. I personally do not enjoy that setting, but I was able to engage with his work and learn something from it by looking past my biases.

And while I agree to a certain extent, I do recognise that so much of the literature we are supposed to study as students of writing is distant from our own concerns and interests. I argue that the content of the work is just as important as the craft. Many works of literature are written by older writers who typically lack an understanding of young people as evidenced in their content, voice, or perspective. My impression of this so-called great literature is that many stories are written by and for middle-aged people. Oftentimes, the stories are about mid-life problems of the middle class such as the strain of economic realities on marriage. This is not the experience of a young writer. These are not the concerns and anxieties that occupy their minds. It is no mystery that they do not hold these pieces of “great literature” in high esteem. By asking young writers to look beyond the content, we are essentially saying that craft trumps content when the two are inextricably linked and equally important.

Aside from demographic divergence, there is the matter of accessibility. I have hunkered down with pieces of literature that were anthologised in those heralded volumes, read many stories that were published in esteemed magazines. And, in many cases, I could find nothing compelling about the stories. Perhaps they were good examples of craft. But more often than not, they lacked emotional content. Commonly, works that were presented to be studied did not incite emotions in readers. They were too obtuse, too inaccessible. The only thing that held the reader’s attention was the instructor’s implicit threat of exposing them as ignorant by way of irresponsibility.

Almond would likely criticise these students for being entitled and displaying “a curious arrogance toward published authors, as well as an inflated sense of their own talents and importance.” Is it not even more entitled and pretentious, though, to demand that young writers engage with a work that they do not truly connect with? There are two presumptions here. Firstly, he presumes to assert his authority on what is important onto his students. Secondly, there is a presumption that young writers are obliged to connect with these supposed works of great literature. If the works were so great, surely they would have held the students as a captive audience. Case in point: there is a reason that The Catcher In The Rye has never been out of print—because people have always connected to it and enjoyed it, treasured it. That is a work that can be considered great literature.

I believe that values also play a part in this rejection of published authors. Almond makes the point that the “student who was carping the loudest” against Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love had not, in fact, read the book. To him, this is evidence of the “problem of entitlement,” as he puts it. To him, it’s not right to dismiss a work based on its principles. To him, that it was written “from privilege” is not reason enough to lambast a work. Oh, but it is, Mr Almond. If a reader cannot engage with a work because of the terms on which it was written, there is no sense in forcing the issue. There are many more works out there that can be analysed and that the reader can engage with. Why choose ones that one cannot get along with? In this way, the cultural values to which young writers subscribe to determine what they will read and, to an extent, what they will write.

So what will the new generation of writers produce? I for one was driven to write because I could not find the sort of book that I wanted to read. Too many of the more modern works of literature that are considered to be great were simply not my cup of tea. I was in a place of spiritual need, a time in which I was questioning my identity. I wanted to read and connect with something that was about someone like me: a young person trying to make his way through the insignificance of a big city’s anonymity, someone dealing with loneliness. I wanted to read The Catcher In The Rye, and I did. But one can only read a book so many times, analyse it so many times before it becomes a necessity to move on, to find more depth and meaning in another book. I wanted to read something more modern, something that dealt with the same problems that I was dealing with. That is why I write, and that is why I suspect many people write.

And if we are to write these chronicles of our troubles for the benefit of others, then it stands to reason that we should put our best foot forward. That, I believe, is one thing that a Master’s degree in the Fine Arts of Creative Writing should give us the ability to do. To achieve that end, instructors should do their part—not by fighting the attitudes of their students, but to examine why they feel the way they do and to encourage and guide them to find positive role models. Rather than saying that these anthologised stories are all somehow ‘great’, ask students what they didn’t like about the story and ask them what they would like.

Ultimately, I would argue that generosity and humility undoubtedly yields better results than close-minded dismissiveness when it comes to learning how to write. But the true issue young writers face now is not so much a question of disengagement from “great literature,” but the lack of its existence. The truth about great literature is that it is hard to find in this day and age.