31 Days of Halloween:What Makes Literature

What Makes Literature

*Note: This post on Half Lit has been written by John Cross’ “biographer” – author and professor, Jeremy Billingsley. While John is on his adventure in Northwest Arkansas, I thought I’d take this time to address the differences between genre fiction and actual literature.

When I talk about creative writing with my students, I introduce them to elements of the craft and to vocabulary that helps us better discuss craft. We talk about character and setting/atmosphere and dialogue and … Do you know the difference between story and plot? I do. And they do. We discuss free indirect style and village chorus and concrete images and passive v. active voice. We discuss diction and syntax and the difference between a scene and a summary. We discuss what makes interesting sentences and what makes for boring sentences. We read and we write and we workshop.

But at some point in time, I find I must discuss at some point genre fiction. I have found that incorporating Lisa Roney’s text – Serious Daring: Creative Writing in Four Genres – has helped me and my students gauge the difference between good and bad writing. Roney mentions some authors in her book, for clarification. I might repeat that here. But people need to understand what we’re ranking. We aren’t saying that some of these names aren’t bestselling authors, and even that they haven’t written an entertaining story. We are judging them only on literary merit, on the mastery of the craft itself, so please do not find yourself a detractor or think that I’m bashing your favorite author.

As Roney states in the first sentence of Chapter 15, “This chapter will make some people mad, maybe even you. Maybe even your instructor” (247). The discussion of literary quality can be as dicey as critiquing a freshman storyteller’s prose for the first time. Both sides of the literary discourse are controversial and deeply personal. I understand that (as does Roney), and neither of us are out to offend any reader’s personal taste. To better understand the layers with which writing is judged, we must establish a rubric for which literature is judged. We can then rank literature based on these agreed upon notions. It should be noted that, while I copy these bullet points from Roney’s book, the criteria for what makes for good literature isn’t hers alone, but is a universally agreed-upon standard by academics. As they hold the bar high, we should rate ourselves comparatively, for why not bother to strive for the best.

As a litmus test, most forms of high literature meet most of the following criteria—

–often associated with “realism” but that doesn’t define literature by itself

–distinguishable style

–depth of meaning and unusual insight

–often contains elements of social criticism

–usually character-driven with complex human nature on display

–ambitions beyond mere entertainment

–lasting value

–complexity, calling for rereading

–pleasure in the language, not just the plot


In conjunction with all of this, a writer writes for sympathy and social change. The writer respects the individual and affects the individual. The writer is a rebel.

These are indeed lofty standards to reach, and if we use this as a checklist, and do so honestly, then we can see what works live up to this standard and what works don’t. While this might exclude a lot of authors – or keep them from attaining a higher status – this checklist also doesn’t favor the academic. After all, the strict academic eschews genre writing for the TS Eliot “modernist” view: writer’s write for realism, writer’s write for language and for art and for those who appreciate reading and not for money, the characters are deep and true to life. That isn’t bad, in and of itself, but these same academics place Shakespeare (whom I love), on a rose-colored pedestal without seeing the whole picture. They marvel at his words and diction and syntax, placing art above all else, without acknowledging that he also wrote to sell tickets to make money – a modernist “cardinal sin” in writing. They turn their nose up at genre writing: ghosts (Hamlet), witches (MacBeth), magic (The Tempest), and fairies (A Midsummer Night’s Dream) have no place in real literature, and speaking above and beyond Shakespeare, nor does sci-fi / monsters (Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein) or vampires (Bram Stoker’s Dracula).

But a closer look at these (and similar) titles finds that when academics relax their standards a bit, and consider the entire rubric, then these “genre” pieces really elevate to meet most if not all the criteria set forth as above. Hamlet’s dead father becomes the impetus for his guilt-ridden conscience in a play steeped in psychology hundreds of years before psychology was a thing. Mary Shelley’s opus was as much a commentary on the state of anatomical research of the 19th century as it was an imagining of what technology could do to extend human life (and now we have defibulators, skin-grafts, and organ transplants). Prospero is a richly defined vengeful character who happened to drive the plot by becoming a sorcerer as much as MacBeth is both protagonist and villain of his own story. Puck and Oberon as immortal beings speak as much to the human condition as their human counterparts (who themselves comment on the state of love and marriage in Shakespeare’s day), and Dracula is as much about London’s puritanical views of sexuality at the time as it is about science’s battle with old world culture.

These pieces play with characters and with story and with genre and with language and with presentation, and come up with something wholly original. There are modern versions of this kind of genre as literature. David Mitchell has written some great books, and Mark Z. Danielewski wrote a 21st century masterpiece of horror and literature. Shirley Jackson, Henry James, and Edgar Allan Poe have all contributed to the literary and genre discourse, but they aren’t the only ones. And literary writing isn’t the only level.

As it stands, there are three gradations to judge literature on. There is the high literary, of which we’ve discussed at length. There is the genre writing that attempts to elevate itself above the norm, and there is the schlock and drivel. The writing of the S&D has flat characters, standard plot and genre tropes, and is essentially the antithesis of everything that the above rubric calls for. S&D “requires little instruction to read, to understand, or to emulate – you generally appreciate that on your own” (250).

A lot of this writing is formulaic, and so negates the need for specialized instruction. Creative Writing workshops, by and large, are meant to be small classes that focus on specialized attention to aspects of the craft: character development and story and theme, imagery, voice.

It is with Roney’s third point here about devaluing genre writing that I find contention with, though this is a point most academics will agree. She writes that institutions of higher education are, by definition, “places of intellectual and higher learning, and they place value on the arts beyond their commercial appeal” (250), and I won’t contest that view (with regard to the Humanities, though we could have a long discussion on how the perception and purpose of college has shifted for the worse in recent years), but I do contest that assertion with regard to the loftiness itself, ignoring the epitome of their worship (William Shakespeare) and the motivations for his writing.

So where do your favorite authors fall? By and large, I’ll agree with Lisa Roney in her assessment that I’ll list out below, but I would encourage any intelligent debate who wants to contest the rankings. And remember, this isn’t about profitability or brand recognition alone, but it is a judgement of all the rubric criteria.

Schlock & Drivel – EL James, Stephanie Meyer, James Patterson

Elevated Genre – JK Rowling, Ray Bradbury, Stephen King

High Literary – Bram Stoker, Mary Shelley, Henry James

We have to think more complexly about the state of writing. With regard to Shakespeare, we must examine all his choices. We can’t simply dismiss elements of craft or motivations for the art to fit our own narrative. That must make us refine or at least adjust the accepted rubric.

We must recognize the gradations. There are probably more than just the three levels. James Patterson’s Alex Cross is probably as complex a character as any crafted in fiction, though his depth is spread out over numerous works.

We have fallen into a trap of nearly excluding writers because they are popular. Haruki Murakami should be the recipient of numerous awards, but because his writing can be classified, even slightly, as “genre,” he appears to be mostly disqualified. On the flipside, Cormac McCarthy has built a legacy of literary writing, but it is his “recent” forays into genre that have earned him the most acclaim.

As academics, we must relax our centuries-old standards and antiquated “modernist” beliefs, and as genre writers we must embrace the craft. I for one have started this process. I emphasize vocabulary and I stress craft in workshop, while I refuse to stifle the student imagination and allow them to write genre.

You write horror or thriller or romance or erotica, mystery, science fiction, or fantasy. But in my class, you are going to write it well.


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