Literary Quality versus Entertainment

A writer is a person for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” ~Thomas Mann

There’s no such thing as perfect writing, just like there’s no such thing as perfect despair.” ~Haruki Murakami

If I don’t write to empty my mind, I go mad” ~Lord Byron

I don’t know how old I was when I found the old typewriter in the basement. I guess about nine or ten years old. It was one of those ancient, ribbon typewriters with big round buttons that hurt your fingers when you pushed them. I wrote my first piece on that machine after having had help to search the bookstores for the right kind of ribbon to use in it. The first thing I wrote was a small play, one page which ended in a punchline.

After that I wrote sporadically different things. I don’t know what compelled me to sit down and write even after I was told that it was a waste of my time. (In hindsight a very strange thing to say to a child as everyone in Iceland is a writer – almost) I know that I just did. And I loved it. And how I wish I still had that old typewriter!

So what makes a person a writer? Is it merely the fact that you put words on paper. Well, then every school child in the world is a writer when they take notes so of course it’s more complicated than that. Most people seem to agree that a writer writes and continues to do so. It’s a compulsion and it has little to do with getting paid for it. A writer writes for different reasons but he always finds himself pen in hand (or now in front of a computer). It isn’t about getting paid for it (although that would be something, wouldn’t it?). It’s about telling a story, remembering things, expressing individuality, explanations, truths, fantasy, fairytale’s, it’s about saying what you are and what you mean and what you believe more thoroughly than you can in simple terms.

And what makes a writer great? In the past years the most frequent literary topic I’ve found myself discussing is Harry Potter. I am one of those few who dislikes Harry Potter. I think the books are poorly written (only read the first one I should add) and not very interesting. The best I can say about Harry Potter is that he reminds me of Dickens (I dislike Dickens) although while Dickens shows outstanding literary quality Harry Potter lacks it. So I’ve found myself in the situation where I am forced to either shut up about it or explain why I dislike the Potter books.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mind children reading them. What worries me is when grown-ups think it’s only surpassed by James Joyce (a writers most have never read!). The discussion about Potter often evolves though into a slightly more pleasant topic. Namely the topic of What is great literature? How do you extinguish mere entertainment from the great works?

Harold Bloom wrote an article a few years ago to express his astonishment (and sadness) over the fact that Stephen King got The National Book Foundations annual award for distinguished contribution. Bloom was appalled by this and saddened that his friends had to share the prize with a writer like Stephen King.

In contrary to Harry Potter I happen to like Stephen King. I love the Dark Tower series and I’ve read most of the books he has written today, even the pseudo name ones. Do I think he’s second only to James Joyce? No. I think he tells a great story. I think the quality of his works varies greatly and while I think some of his works are entertaining and sometimes good I would never call him a Shakespeare.

So what is required so a book can be classic? What is great literature?
Ask the people around you and they will each give you a different answer. The most asked question is “What’s you’re favorite writer?” and it’s a legitimate question because the answer matters. Many today will either say Stephanie Meyer or J. K. Rowling. I would say Haruki Murakami.  But the question is very different because quality doesn’t always mean that you like it.

I remember trying to read Halldór Laxness for the first time. I had read the Icelandic Sagas by then and it was time for modern Icelandic literature. How difficult it was to get through Independant People. I thought it would never end. I hated reading it. But afterwards I soon realized that I loved having read it. It’s a great book and I thought so even back then.

Today it’s one of my favorite books. Why? Because the writing is excellent and the story great.

The best books are hard to read. That’s my experience. It takes effort to read great literature. But having said that I don’t think great literature has to be boring and it certainly doesn’t have to be 100 years old.

The Road by Cormac McCarthy is a great example of a recently published books that I think holds great literary quality. And it’s not even especially difficult to read.

There is a certain quality in great literature that you recognize even when you hate the writing and the story. Proust is one of these example. I dislike him (even more than Dickens!) but I still recognize good quality in his writing. You don’t have to like the book to recognize the quality.

Which also means that only because the book was easy to read and you enjoyed it immensely it doesn’t have to be great literature.

There is always the question of a good book. It’s something, I think, every author strives after. To write a good book. To tell a good story. It’s what the two ends of the spectrum have in common. A good book tells a worthwhile story and it tells it reasonably well. Stephen Kin certainly tops the entertainment part of that scale. His books are hugely popular and no one can really tell you why.

So why do I like to read him?
A teacher of mine (one I greatly admire) said that Stephen King likes to open doors. He is the horror writer that lets you stare the monster in the face. He opens all the closed doors that previous horror writers have kept closed. In Poe you sometimes get to peak in but King will open the door for you, he will show you the horror, he will reveal the ugliness of it. And that’s what I like about him (that’s why my teacher disliked him, I believe). I like Lovecraft for similar reasons. The monsters have faces (and they aren’t always human ones!).

Bloom thought it distasteful that writers he considered great had to share a prize with someone like Stephen King (I still can’t get over the fact that he uses Harry Potter as an example of bad writing and not King himself!). And I think Bloom is wrong in thinking so.

There is a certain je ne sais quoi in reading Halldór Laxness, Hemingway (*shrug*), Pär Lagerkvist, Virginia Woolf or Cormac McCarthy. You will recognize this quality when you see it (and it doesn’t have to be boring at all) but while the name of their works go into history as classics there are other things to consider than this obscure literary quality that we (at least people like me) seek after, admire and demand.

What I’m trying to say is that I tend to classify literature two ways. It’s the classics and will be classics (there is always room to disagree on what author actually qualifies) and then there is the entertainment literature. And the biggest mistake one makes is to think that one is worth more than the other.

Why? Because while literary quality is all well and good, ‘to be or not be’-yourself to death if you like but what I am after as a reader is a good story. And if the story is good then the book has quality. That’s the end of the story. If it gives you great reading experience then the book has quality and should be praised. We all have different taste and while I still think that there is something you can’t really describe in the works of certain authors, something every writer should strive after but many will never manage to conjure up, I do think that a good book is a good book no matter the reason behind it.

You will never get me to read more of Harry Potter’s adventures but I would fight for your right to claim that it’s a good book. We will agree to disagree.

But learn to recognize literary quality when you see it. Because it is something magical and something extraordinary and even though you dislike the story and the writing you can still see something special in it. Don’t dismiss the classics as boring, because there is a reason that people are still reading them. Don’t be angry that you have to push yourself through them. Be angry for all the books that history lost on the way. All the works that should be on that top classic lists but history has lost in it’s infinite madness. Learn to recognize literary quality when you see it, because it’s not a popularity contest (in other ways than authors try to sell you their books and the entertainment end of the scale wins by landslide). It isn’t about being snobbish or better than others – it’s about experience and while a book with great entertainment value gives good experience there is different experience to be had in great literature. It should not be ignored.

So am I a good writer? I don’t know. Very few people have read anything I’ve written. I haven’t been published (yet! I will try). Do I call myself a writer? I do. Sometimes I feel a little embarrassed about it and the voice of the same person who told me to quit writing when I was little repeats the words in my head telling me it’s a waste of time, but I still do it and I think I always will.

And remember Murakami’s words, “There’s no such thing as perfect writing, just like there’s no such thing as perfect despair.”

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