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Questions/Help Section > What Qualifies a Book as Having "Literary Merit"?

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message 1: by Tabitha (last edited May 02, 2014 07:57AM) (new)

Tabitha Vohn In my AP Literature and Comp. classes, one of the conversations that frequently arises is what constitutes a work of “literary merit”. Many of my students often find it frustrating when they are prohibited from analyzing works such as The Hunger Games or Harry Potter because these works of fiction are not up to snuff with what’s considered literary merit. However, more recent works such as The Kite Runner or The Secret Life of Bees have been deemed more worthy of their time and attention by the academic powers that be.

I find this interesting when considering some older works of fiction that have been deemed “classics” or works of literary merit, especially as it relates to genre. Take, for instance, Pride and Prejudice. Surely, this novel could have been looked upon as mere comedic romance in its day. But now we read so much into it, we study it for its cultural criticism and label it a classic.

So what does constitute a work of “literary merit”? What characteristics qualify a novel to be amongst this elite group? Is it the quality/style of the writing? The thematic content? Is it the originality of the piece? Must it stand the test of time? Etc.

message 2: by BK (new)

BK Blue (paradoxically) | 33 comments I'd say it is all of those, plus the "message".

Maybe being a series is a disqualification in itself?

message 3: by Lily (new)

Lily Vagabond (lilyauthor) In the 21st century, I've often found that what was once defined as "classic" isn't defined as such now.

Standing the test of time, I think, is a good measure. I'm thinking Charles Dickens. How many versions of A Christmas Carol have we seen now? At the same time, how many turn their nose up at Charles Dickens for being one of those old stuffy authors? A Christmas Carol still has literary merit, regardless.

I feel the definitions are changing. After all, 19th century authors' styles can't rule the norm forever. I also feel that it's near impossible to really call a book as having literary merit unti years after the fact. Maybe 100 years from now Harry Potter will be defined as having literary merit, long after the fanatism simmers down.

By the way, Harry Potter is a random example and only used because Tabitha used it first ;)

message 4: by Courtney (new)

Courtney Wells | 1826 comments Mod
I see it as people demanding we respect/appreciate books that we might not find engaging or relatable anymore. Any book that has symbolism, messages or anything people might discuss for hours in relation to execution of the story and how we might learn from it's example has literary merit.

But I don't have a PhD so nobody cares :p

message 5: by Mark (new)

Mark If the book is a coherent story then it has literary merit. I bristle at the opinion that something doesn't have merit because it's written in the wrong genre or by the wrong person. Literature is a story told through the medium of books. That's it.
Philip Roth writes The Human Stain and that is automatically considered literature (and I do like the book and like Mr. Roth's writing) but Stephen King writes Bag of Bones and that's not literature?
I don't understand it.

message 6: by Lily (new)

Lily Vagabond (lilyauthor) Perhaps the defining factor is whether the book can be studied in a classroom setting. Just because it's more commercial fiction and there's nothing to study per se, doesn't mean that lacking "literary merit" makes it a bad book. There's just nothing to study.

(Bonus points for naming Bag of Bones, that's one of my all-time favs).

message 7: by Amy (new)

Amy Butcher | 46 comments There are many people who think that what is considered "high art" is meretricious intellectual fakery too; it really depends on the scholar or writer in question. It's highly subjective and massive amounts of trees have lost their lives to this very debate.

One problem is that the broad sense of "literature" means anything written down and the more restrictive sense means of "being held to certain standards" changes greatly over time. I have to say, I love the Great Gatsby, one of my favourite books ever, but I highly doubt it would be accepted for publication today, or if it were, it would be heavily edited.

message 8: by Mark (new)

Mark Most books-even bad books-are about something. I suppose there are a few exceptions here and there, books that are shallow and meaningless, but I think those are rare exceptions. Almost all books have something to say about the human condition, they reveal things about the world we live in. Just because a book doesn't have a meticulously planned out theme, doesn't mean there isn't one. Maybe the author wasn't trying to change the world, maybe they were just trying to tell an entertaining story. Even in that case, they usually have something to say about life.

message 9: by Lily (new)

Lily Vagabond (lilyauthor) I was more so thinking from the perspective of an English class. Symbolism, metaphors, similes, literary devices, etc, etc.

I'm happy that certain books like Bag of Bones or, on the far end of the other extreme, Harry Potter, doesn't have anything to study. That would ruin the books. I think it's best not to take the term "literary merit" literally or overly seriously.

message 10: by Wren (new)

Wren Figueiro | 215 comments For me it's any book that makes me think, rather than just being entertaining.

message 11: by Lily (new)

Lily Vagabond (lilyauthor) Well... Wren just ended all arugments nicely. What she said.

message 12: by Virginia (new)

Virginia Rand I think 'literary fiction,' books with 'literary merit,' and books that work well for teaching in schools and classrooms are all slightly different things.

I think most books have literary merit but some have more than others. I also believe that it's extremely subjective. Many books we consider classics now where criticised as having no literary merit when they came out, like the work of the bronte sisters.

Books studied in classrooms will usually be ones that show good examples of literary techniques, and may have sacrificed fast paced story and wider appeal to do so. It also tends to be stuff that has been around for a while.

message 13: by Tabitha (new)

Tabitha Vohn Amy wrote: "One problem is that the broad sense of "literature" means anything written down and the more restrictive sense means of "being held to certain standards" changes greatly over time. I have to say, I love the Great Gatsby, one of my favourite books ever, but I highly doubt it would be accepted for publication today, or if it were, it would be heavily edited."

I think you bring up a very interesting point. Many classics I read spend a long time building up meticulous character descriptions or meandering imagery of landscapes or events ( which I oftentimes enjoy if it's done well). But I think there is more pressure now for authors to "get to the point" quickly as opposed to wowing the reader with the poetry of their words. It reminds me of an article that a colleague shared about how the attention span of readers has significantly diminished, thereby making it more difficult for the average person to read a lengthy novel, like a Tolstoy or Steinbeck. It kind of saddens me; I hope it's never lost completely.

message 14: by Tabitha (new)

Tabitha Vohn Wren wrote: "For me it's any book that makes me think, rather than just being entertaining."


message 15: by Lily (new)

Lily Vagabond (lilyauthor) I really feel our perceptions are currently in constant flux and we're all waiting for new definitions to establish. We call Tolstoy or Steinbeck as having literary merit, but were they called as such when the first book was published? Unlikely. History takes time.

message 16: by Virginia (new)

Virginia Rand Very few people were fans of Steinbeck when he was writing. Most of his recognition came later.

message 17: by Amber (new)

Amber Foxx (amberfoxx) | 274 comments Literary merit is almost easier to define by its absence. I know when I have just read empty fluff--which I seldom do--and when any book, genre fiction or not--makes me think, feel and notice more deeply, as well as being written with skill and style.

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