The Storytelling Layers of Literary Merit
What makes certain works of literature more than just a product of their time? What is it about such works that current and future artists can derive from them to tighten their grasp of the literary craft and the humanity they convey?
Given the medium’s age, it’s no secret that literature plays host to sundry appraisals of works across the eras. Chief examples include Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon (1994) and Encyclopædia Britannica’s Great Books of the Western World (1952).
Such endeavors are meant to catalog specific literary breakthroughs that highlight a particular quality. It’s one that sparks as much discussion around it as the breakthroughs themselves do. Not to mention as many qualifications for said quality, including “providing insight that creates a stronger understanding of the world and of the human condition.” 1
That quality is literary merit.
Due to the term’s use for works like those of Shakespeare and Twain, one may believe that literary merit separates literary fiction from genre fiction. In other words, works that put emphasis on character exploration from works that prioritize plot and action.
Yet with passing generations, literary tastes and standards for how a book should read change. What that means is that a book’s quality is hardly set in stone, thus opening the door to reassessments. With the power of hindsight, they can reveal how far a book stretches its roots of influence across other literary works beyond said book’s original release window.
Literary merit, then, isn’t necessarily an indicator of a book’s place in either literary or genre fiction. It instead comes from dissecting a book, irrespective of its genre, that reveals how deep the author went into studying humanity. The author uses their creativity to weave a tale with poignant observations on how folks form worldviews and societies that, in turn, mold people.
The writer can accomplish this feat via three qualities shared among works of literary merit:
– A Personal Worldview and Voice, which involves the author’s embedding their innermost selves into their work’s throughline and prose style — inviting readers into the author’s unique psyche and thus promoting empathy via the reading experience
– A Deconstruction of Society, which has the author dissect and critique real-life civilization, giving them a chance to show how human values can contrast with and challenge societal mores in order to promote a message of change in the social fabric
– Personal vs. Interpersonal, which concerns change — both inner and outer — through the characters’ interactions with their environment and vice-versa, giving readers a chance to understand how they can shape themselves and the outside world
A book with literary merit doesn’t need to “mimic real life, but it [can use] its magic mirror to reflect on the world around us” 2 as well as on those populating said world.
A Personal Worldview and Voice
The first indicator of a book with literary merit revolves around the author’s unique worldview. Said worldview can be embedded into the thematic fabric of the story and even via the narrator’s voice. This can further contrast the mindset and temperament of the point of view (POV) with the wider world.
From isolated island life in Circe (2018) to obsessive whaling in Moby-Dick (1851), the idea of seeing the world with unvarnished eyes and creatively dissecting it is a trait shared among works of literary merit.
This can be conducive to generating character development, what with the character’s unorthodox mien clashing with a world intolerant of uncertainty. It can also present a unique perspective on life that can open readers to new outlooks and make them think about the world’s quirks.
One book that exemplarily achieves the above is Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker (1980). It does so right from the get-go, with the audience being treated to prose that reads like a reconstructed rendition of the English language.
Said prose is meant to simulate the speech and thought patterns of the titular character in a post-apocalyptic world. But it’s not just a stylistic tool for having the reader’s view of post-apocalyptic Kent filtered through its inhabitants’ senses.
Hoban leverages the prose and first-person POV to narrow the gap between the main character and reader. “The language [draws] us into an utterly changed world and gives us some idea of its challenges: The reader’s grappling with the language mirrors Riddley’s struggle to survive life.” 3
The reader thus witnesses alongside Walker the mysteries of the world and the creation myths that highlight the folly of folks in their annihilation of Earth. It’s done in a way that has the reader empathize with Walker’s struggles and observations about neo-tribal humanity.
Without the POV’s unique voice and take on human nature, Riddley Walker still makes for a solid work of post-apocalyptic fiction. But Walker’s mien and adventurousness allow Hoban to broaden his narrative focus beyond mere daily survival and resource wars.
Ergo, the protagonist and reader intimately explore together the relationship between neo-tribal humans and a past they treat as forbidden knowledge. It compels the audience to make assessments about how real-life society treats its history. Riddley’s world may not be like ours, “but his flesh and mind are. And one of the great tricks of this novel is that by the end, the things we share in common with Riddley seem as fascinating as those that make him strange.” 4
Worldview and/or voice are stylistic devices the author can use to explore topics that generally yield literary merit. This includes analyzing humanity in general and portraying points of view that fall outside the mainstream but have something pertinent to say about human nature.
The author thus ventures into avenues that offer commentary on how different people see and comport themselves differently in an overwhelming world. It highlights the fact that being human is an art in itself.
- The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (2003) for embedding the POV’s behavioral condition into the prose
- The Sellout (2015) for the protagonist’s wry stream-of-consciousness regarding race in America
- Jane Eyre (1847) for showcasing proto-feminist traits and the heroine’s individualistic character in Victorian England
- The Portrait of a Lady (1881) for its innermost rendition of female self-actualization and adventuring in a patriarchal society
A Deconstruction of Society
Just as the author can use characterization to bolster their work’s thematic potency, so too can they look at circumstances and surroundings that challenge their characters. This is achieved to spotlight the societal underpinnings that folks take for granted and subconsciously embrace.
Whether satirical or solemn, an author’s creative dissection of society can reveal as much about societal mores as it does about the author’s worldview. Examples include the Jewish Alaskan settlement in The Yiddish Policemen’s Union (2007), and the Pacific desert island in Lord of the Flies (1954).
By doing so, the author can invite readers to assume the writer’s vantage point and look at things from an unvarnished and maverick perspective. It compels readers to form their own observations on the inner workings of human civilization. Literary merit can thus stem from a work’s ability to inspire other artists to portray novel analyses of society in fiction.
Enter China Mieville’s The City & The City (2009). This dystopian book takes the uneasy coexistence and separation of the other — as seen in Cold War-era Berlin and Israel-Palestine — and weaves it into a New Weird narrative. Said narrative turns the human tendency to overlook that which one can’t or is unwilling to understand into a cognitive rule that rewards ignorance of the Other.
Through the mental gymnastics that folks leverage to deny the Other’s existence, Mieville uses the supernatural to amplify the absurdity of fencing oneself in. This can be seen in the recklessness of the nationalist and unionist groups in the rival cities of Besźel and Ul Qoma. The throughline’s also conveyed via the taboo around illegally crossing from one city to another, lest one summons the wrath of the secret power known as “Breach.”
By underlining said absurdity, the book exposes real-life folks’ unwillingness to learn things that challenge their view of how the world works and ought to work.
It’s a testament to Mieville’s cosmopolitan curiosity that the novel retains impartiality in its dissection and critique of the urban fabrics uneasily linking Besźel and Ul Qoma. It allows readers to be less willing to take sides and more willing to take a stand instead against institutionalized tribalism.
By making readers think that way, the book becomes more than just a supernatural thriller. It also stands as a thrilling form of edification that gives the prose thematic palpability via the timeless throughline of human bonding vs. separation. The novel offers “not just a clever way of resolving a mystery, of identifying a culprit and closing a case, but [also] a thought-provoking challenge to a whole set of social norms and conventions.” 5
Society can be deemed as a body of sorts — one just as prone to ailments and quirks as a fleshy one. The author can thus take on the role of a surgeon using the page as their operating table and pen as their dissecting tool. They do so to take a peek at what makes society tick and determine what they wish to heal via solemnity, satire, or a blend of the two in their writing.
The author can potentially stand out in the literary field with a fresh perspective on civilization that can have readers reassess what they take for granted in life. By encouraging such thinking, a book can resultingly take on more merit as a piece of art that educates on top of entertaining.
- Small Gods (1992) for spotlighting the difference between true faith and blind zealotry in religious matters
- The Master & Margarita (1967) for exposing the absurdity and cruelty of Soviet policies via supernatural fandango
- Les Misérables (1862) for demonstrating the evolution and blemishes of 19th-century France
- The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896) for exposing the lack of restraints in humankind’s dealings with nature
Personal vs. Interpersonal
So what does a look at the intimate and societal in fiction achieve, particularly when character and world clash with one another? Change, for a start. Not just in the main players and the playground they’re in, but also in how one interprets relations between the personal and interpersonal in life.
From Pip’s rags-to-riches growth in Great Expectations (1861) to the labor struggles of In Dubious Battle (1936), literature bears no shortage of works that share the throughline that separates literally meritorious oeuvres from the rest of the pack. That thematic arc is the tug-of-war between spiritual actualization and materialistic want.
By adopting this throughline, the author creates a sense of rising conflict that yields an engaging journey through the unknown — both within and beyond the characters’ mindset. They also hold a mirror to the real world that creatively renders people’s daily struggles.
By doing so, the writer asks said people to stop and think about their purpose on Earth and how they can change themselves to realize said purpose. It gives the writing an educational angle prevalent among classic works that underline the need to learn and understand life, not plow one’s way through it.
A swell example of a book that teaches one to pace themselves in life so as to properly see and study it is Michael Ende’s Momo (1973). The novel’s an urban fantastical romp and meditation on the perils of rushing oneself in life as if the devil’s right behind one’s tail. In this case, the devil consists of Men in Gray who fuel the fear of not being a relentless go-getter.
The novel isn’t shy about exposing readers to examples of a fast-paced society tempting its members with conveniences that ask for sacrifices. Such sacrifices involve downtime for recuperation and reflection getting in the way of “utilizing the present moment as a way to get something in the future” 6 and in a get-rich-quick fashion. Examples include the scene showing the breakneck pace of fast-food work and another depicting a Man in Gray’s attempt to persuade Momo into consumerism via a doll with limited dialog options and little room for Momo to use her imagination while playing.
But the book doesn’t give a face solely to materialistic vice — as if to show readers only what not to do. Ende also provides the likes of zen street-cleaner Beppo and the tortoise Cassiopeia to personify virtue. By virtue, Ende means temperance and the need to focus on the present rather than worrying about the future and therefore rushing to conclusions.
By doing so, Momo shows that one isn’t alone in the struggle against social woes. They can look to others for sussing out the best way to target the culprit behind said woes without losing their faith in the interpersonal.
Crafting a tale that pits the individual and collective against one another is one thing. Presenting an outcome that shows how both sides are changed by their interactions and struggles is another. It compels the author to inject agency and consequentiality into both sides so as to creatively reflect the ways in which people shape — and are shaped by — their world.
This begets commentary that can turn the book’s series of events into a success story or a cautionary tale about human nature. Readers can thus take lessons from it regarding the need to change oneself and others for the better.
- A Canticle for Leibowitz (1959) for highlighting the pressures of protecting potent knowledge from an ignorant world
- The Alchemist (1988) for portraying the hardships of seeking one’s personal legend in a world not made for self-actualization
- Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885) for underlining the struggle between innocent boyhood and rotten attitudes in 1840s America
- Oliver Twist (1838) for depicting the ways in which poverty can taint (young) folks’ character in desperate times
As George Orwell puts it in his essay Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool (1947), “There is no test of literary merit except survival.” And as generations pass, one can see which work of art stood the test of time. Such a work of art embodies qualities that not only shine on their own, but may also serve as the foundation for subsequent pieces of literature. It can have writers and readers alike look back to the past, and build upon the Parthenon of traits and ideas that looms over the literary landscape.
Literary merit thus showcases what current and future artists can live up to should they choose to have their work transcend their times. That work may have one “leave behind the problems of reality — but only to re-encounter those problems in transfigured form, in an unfamiliar guise, one that helps [one] understand them more completely, and feel them more deeply.” 7
- Duque, Carolina. “World of Literati: The Debate between Literary Fiction versus Genre Fiction Is Meaningless – The Daily Free Press.” The Daily Free Press, 7 Feb. 2019, dailyfreepress.com/2019/02/07/world-of-literati-the-debate-between-literary-fiction-versus-genre-fiction-is-meaningless. ↩
- McKenna, Juliet. “The Genre Debate: Science Fiction Travels Farther than Literary Fiction.” The Guardian, Guardian News & Media Limited, 21 Aug. 2019, www.theguardian.com/books/2014/apr/18/genre-debate-science-fiction-speculative-literary. ↩
- Keeley, Matthew. “A Walk Around Inland: Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker.” Tor.Com, Macmillan, 23 May 2017, www.tor.com/2017/05/24/a-walk-around-inland-russell-hobans-riddley-walker. ↩
- Jordison, Sam. “Finding Your Way around Riddley Walker’s World.” The Guardian, Guardian News & Media Limited, 21 Aug. 2019, www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2017/nov/14/finding-your-way-around-riddley-walkers-world. ↩
- Gioia, Ted. “The City and the City by China Mieville.” Postmodern Mystery, 23 Aug. 2011, www.postmodernmystery.com/the_city_and_the_city.html. ↩
- Pines, Giulia. “Why a Classic German Children’s Tale Is Ripe for Revisiting.” The Atlantic, The Atlantic Monthly Group, 19 Mar. 2018, www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2018/03/momo-michael-ende-childrens-novel-wrinkle-in-time/555158. ↩
- Petite, Steven. “Literary Fiction vs. Genre Fiction.” HuffPost, BuzzFeed, Inc., 28 Apr. 2014, www.huffpost.com/entry/literary-fiction-vs-genre-fiction_b_4859609. ↩
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