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What is Literary Merit, Exactly?

To a certain extent, genre fiction like fantasy, science fiction and romance are disparaged as being "lesser" than literary fiction. Like Margaret Atwood’s "The Handmaid’s Tale" however, the line between genre and literary fiction can often be blurred.

It begs the question: what is literary merit, exactly?

Is literary merit purely contingent on thematic complexity? Is it the author’s mastery of prose? Can purely "feel-good" works be considered as literarily meritious?

  • This is a good point. Perhaps the way to approach this topic is look at several classics in literature and how they were accepted or not accepted when they were first released--not every classic now was a classic the moment it was released. – Joseph Cernik 2 weeks ago
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  • Fascinating topic! As Joseph pointed out, you can't answer this question without looking at historical context: Dickens wrote lowbrow serials and was paid by the word, Shakespeare's plays entertained the masses with bawdy jokes, and in the 18C, novels were thought to be immoral and foolish. How did these come to be considered "literarily meritous"? Could part of it be the way they represent the literary movements of their times? I think Atwood's prose is divine, but I wouldn't say the same of Godwin's Caleb Williams (and I read that in multiple college-level English courses) so could it be that it earned merit by standing up to the test of time (and immortalizing a contemporary way of thinking)? I wonder about Jane Austen, too, whose novels some people see as merely "feel-good," while others read her as a witty social commentator. Then perhaps literary merit has more to do with how the majority of people interpret a work over time than its content necessarily? – rosebo 4 hours ago
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