I have been thinking lately about what makes a literary work good or bad. Why is one worthy of scholarship and praise from the intellectual and literary elite, while another is not. As a student of literature, I have spent an inordinate amount of time and effort studying books. I have considered their faults and merits, their literary devices, the author’s intention, the book’s themes, rhetorics, and suppositions, and its position within the literary canon. Two degrees later, however, I still do not know why or how one book could or should be valued over another.
The only thing I understand is what the book means to me. I understand that certain texts may be more obtuse or difficult to read than others, but I do not think that these books are by default ‘better’ or more valuable. To birth a book is a tremendous feat, good or bad, and I feel uncomfortable condemning a text as unworthy of critical review. The problem with the literary canon or other such value systems is that they are based on taste, but masquerade as truth.
I met with a former professor recently and asked him if he had read a certain book that I was interested in reading. He said he had not and described the writer as an “HBO author.” Meaning, the literature is good, but not demanding; creative, but not intellectually challenging. Such novels can be gritty and controversial, but always tie up in a nice bow at the end. He’s not a writer’s writer, he said. I respect this professor immensely (after all, he was the one who introduced me to Joan Didion, a writer who I respect tremendously and sits at the top of my personal literary hierarchy), and I felt a pang of embarrassment at my supposedly middlebrow tastes. But, after all, what to read is a matter of taste, of personal interpretation of and response to the text. One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.
Instead, the professor recommended George Saunders's, Tenth of December, a collection of narratives on modern America life that was released earlier this year. Saunders is often heralded as a literary genius, a true writer’s writer. His work has received praise from every corner of the highbrow literary elite. Bourdieu, who is quoted above, might suggest that reading Saunders would increase my cultural capital — “a form of value associated with culturally authorised tastes, consumption patterns, attributes, skills and awards.”
I found Saunders’s collection difficult to read. Not because it was challenging, but because it did not hold my attention. His writing is full of valuable political, economic, and social criticisms and positions, and yet the execution of his ideas felt hackneyed and even dull. I kept breaking from his writing to instead read reviews of the text — glowing, celebratory essays on his talent, exceptional vocabulary, and cultural significance. I could not find a response that was critical or his work — it would seem that once the literary heavyweights bestow their approval, it is difficult to say otherwise. And yet, the book did not challenge me, it did not teach me anything new, it did not excite or inspire me.
Which in turn reveals, I suppose, how I decide what is good. A text has to provoke me to think outside of my existing set of ideas and opinions to consider a new perspective. A text has to grip me to its pages so that I do not want to stop reading; a good book inspires me to write. I want to enjoy what I read, not because it is easy, but because it interests me and propels me to read more. To even define something as good or bad feels arbitrary, as what matters is what it meant to me.