In Defense of Great Books

This Thing We Call Literature, Arthur Krystal, Oxford University Press, 136 pages

Arthur Krystal’s This Thing We Call Literature is surprisingly single-focused for a collection of essays. All of the 10 pieces—except one on negative reviews—defends literature with a capital “L” in some way or another. His argument is simple: Some literary works are inherently more valuable than others. As entertaining and as expertly executed as Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express may be, it’s no Hamlet. To ignore such a distinction—as many do today—is a “huge mistake.” It replaces an aesthetic category (excellence) with a political one (inclusivity) and will stifle, if it hasn’t already, the development of great writers. Worse, it “is tantamount to an erasure of history.”

Is it really that dire? Maybe, maybe not, though it’s not too difficult to find evidence that we live in a particularly ignorant age gifted at lauding mediocre writers. Serious writers, Krystal notes, will continue to work, as they always do, “in the hope that time will forgive them for writing well.” But Krystal’s main concern is not to chop individual writers down to size and extol others—though he does do some cutting—as much as it is to defend the value of hierarchical thinking with respect to literature. “The prevailing mood,” he writes, “regards hierarchies with suspicion: Who’s to say who is worth reading and who isn’t?” While a willingness to include “formerly disenfranchised artists and writers” in the canon is a good thing, “the fact that writers are all entitled to a fair hearing doesn’t mean that they are equal.”

The opening two essays—the first originally published in Harper’s and the second in The Chronicle of Higher Education—lay the groundwork for the pieces on genre fiction and poetry that follow. We have always made distinctions between great and good writers, and literary and non-literary texts—Shakespeare was a “genius” and the highest form of writing was “poesy”—but the idea of a canon of literary, as opposed to religious, texts is relatively new. It took hold in the late 18th century, in part, as writers (and presses) tried to demonstrate that contemporary poets and playwrights were equal to ancient greats by publishing “Complete Works,” which, given their heft and often ornate covers and spines, were readily purchased by a burgeoning middle class intent on proving it was as refined as the aristocracy.

That the canon had sociological roots, however, doesn’t mean that the aesthetic judgments that established it were wrong. It would be “small-minded, as well as excessive,” Krystal writes, “to claim that commerce alone drove the literary enterprise. The fact that writers and publishers had gelt as well as gilt on their minds does not diminish the role of individual genius in the creation of canonical texts. … Canon formation continued to rely on a credible, if not monolithic, consensus among informed readers.”


Anyone who doesn’t already agree with Krystal might balk at that last line. A “credible … consensus among informed readers”? How about educated white men? Unfortunately, Krystal doesn’t help his case—which I think is almost entirely right, by the way—by often failing to demonstrate in detail how canonical writers are actually better than the minor writers who were forgotten. He does some of this latter in the collection by comparing—somewhat left-footedly—genre fiction to literary fiction (more on that shortly). But in these first two essays, he mostly lists writers and critics or turns to ex cathedra pronouncements—“War and Peace is objectively greater than The War of Words”—which are rarely very satisfying, however correct they may be.

When he does get more specific, things can get a little thorny. Is it true, for example, that great novels “rely more on accuracy of characterization than on the events that their characters react to”? I suppose it depends on what “rely more” and “accuracy” mean. Without further explanation, questions abound: Is Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment accurate? Does the novel rely more on characterization than events? How about in classical drama? The Iliad and The Odyssey? Pamela and Jane Eyre?

In “It’s Genre. Not That There’s Anything Wrong with It,” Krystal argues rightly that “it’s not plotting that distinguishes literary from genre fiction”—literary novels can be just as expertly plotted as genre ones—it’s “sensibility,” the novelist’s purpose in writing, and “excellence in writing.” The genre writer is happy with serviceable prose and “stock characters,” he writes. “Great writers,” however, by which Krystal means literary ones, “hit us over the head because they present characters whose imaginary lives have real consequences (at least while we’re reading about them), and because they see the world in much the way we do: complicated by surface and subterranean feelings, by ambiguity and misapprehension, and by the misalliance of consciousness and perception.” In “A Sad Road to Everything,” he writes that literature asks: “What is the meaning of existence? What are we or the universe doing here?”

Fair enough. The difference between great and good literature is one of truth, complexity, nuance, and style. Is this also the difference between literary and genre fiction? Perhaps, but only if we blindly recast genre fiction as pulp fiction and, in turn, ignore every piece of dry prose published by Northeastern trade presses that sells itself as “literary.” Krystal notes in passing that some fiction that goes by the name “literary” isn’t, but he doesn’t explain why, give examples, or offer even a brief analysis of the failures of literary fiction.

Put another way, Krystal is absolutely right that there is a difference between great and good works and that this difference has something to do with “a deeper understanding of the world, of history, of human relationships” and “of literature itself.” But his distinction between “genre” and “literary” muddies the waters, and forces him to make a number of exceptions and invent more terms (like “hybrid”). The fact is that invented categories like “genre” and “literary” make it harder to see reality clearly. In this case, that reality is the merit of individual novels.

Krystal’s personal essay on poetry, though, is a delight. He complains of missing the sound poetry used to make. When he reads contemporary poetry, he writes, “I discern intelligence, shrewdness, irony, humor. I often admire the elliptical shorthand of their phrasing and the precision of their lines. … Yet, in the end, I remain unmoved by it. Because there is no music.”

In his essay on negative reviews, he coyly tells authors not to respond to negative reviews only to take it all back in the end: “My advice is: Get mad and stay mad. Don’t cry, don’t pout, don’t feel helpless. … What the hell, make noise!” He goes on to argue that good negative reviews shouldn’t have “attitude.” Instead, they should “sound just the right note of judicial appraisal and collegial appreciation.”

This is what any author planning to publish a book would say, of course, but Krystal’s right. Most reviews should be collegial. Still, there are times when a thrashing is called for, and reviewers should have the guts do it. Reviews aren’t just a service to readers and an author’s book sales; they are a service to literature and so should separate the wheat from the chaff—by a vigorous shaking if necessary. They should also entertain. Pettiness and spitefulness, of course, are never entertaining. But neither is feigned appreciation.

Krystal is a gifted essayist, and those who have read him over the years will find everything they’ve come to appreciate about his style in This Thing Called Literature—the bold pronouncements, the expertly timed hedge, the fluid prose, and the wide reading. (There’s even an essay on the sadly forgotten Erich Auerbach.) But it’s also a somewhat nostalgic book that pitches its arguments in terms of received categories that in some ways help, but also hurt, our understanding of this thing called literature.

Micah Mattix is assistant professor of literature at Houston Baptist University and edits the literary newsletter Prufrock.

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8 Responses to In Defense of Great Books

  1. TB says:

    “The literary canon is formed through serious criticism—not mere nostalgia.”

    That “serious criticism” arose in its own cultural milieu which was redolent with previously established assumptions of intrinsic worth. An a priori gold standard for greatness in art does not exist.
    There is, in fact, a great deal of confirmation bias present in this sort of canon formation which could be fairly called “nostalgia”.

  2. Kodiak1221 says:

    I like when TAC does literary stuff, so much of conservativism is about conserving our literary heritage

  3. Nathanael says:

    This puts me in mind of part of an interview with one of America’s greatest living authors, Gene Wolfe.

    Gene Wolfe: “It’s not so much a matter of’advantages’ as SF appealing to my natural cast of mind, to my literary imagination. The only way I know to write is to write the kind of thing I would like to read myself, and when I do that it usually winds up being classified as SF or ‘science fantasy,’ which is what I call most of my work. Incidentally, I’d argue that SF represents literature’s real mainstream. What we now normally consider the mainstream—so called realistic fiction—is a small literary genre, fairly recent in origin, which is likely to be relatively short lived. When I look back at the foundations of literature, I see literary figures who, if they were alive today, would probably be members of the Science Fiction Writers of America. Homer? He would certain belong to the SFWA. So would Dante, Milton, and Shakespeare. That tradition is literature’s mainstream, and it has been what has grown out of that tradition which has been labeled SF or whatever label you want to use.”

  4. Nathanael says:


    Wolfe: It’s a matter of whether you’re content to focus on everyday events or whether you want to try to encompass the entire universe. If you go back to the literature written in ancient Greece or Rome, or during the Middle Ages and much of the Renaissance, you’ll see writers trying to write not just about everything that exists but about everything that could exist. Now as soon as you open yourself to that possibility, you are going to find yourself talking about things like intelligent robots and monsters with Gorgon heads, because it’s becoming increasingly obvious that such things could indeed exist. But what fascinates me is that the ancient Greeks already realized these possibilities some 500 years before Christ, when they didn’t have the insights into the biological and physical sciences we have today, when there was no such thing as, say, cybernetics. Yet when you read the story of Jason and the Argonauts, you discover that the island of Crete was guarded by a robot. Somehow the Greeks were alert to these possibilities despite the very primitive technology they had—and they put these ideas into their stories. Today it’s the SF writers who are exploring these things in our stories.

  5. Ken T says:

    “Some literary works are inherently more valuable than others. As entertaining and as expertly executed as Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express may be, it’s no Hamlet.”

    But absolutely no one in Shakepeare’s day knew that. The Bard was writing popular entertainment, no more and no less than Ms Christie or any genre writer (or TV script writer) of today. He himself probably would have been the first to scoff at the idea that his plays would outlive himself. It is only with the hindsight of centuries that we can see how his use of language transcended the standards of his time and became timeless.

    So what is the great literature of today? To find the answer to that question, you’ll have to check back in a few hundred years to see what has survived. And I suspect that, if you could do that, you would be greatly surprised at what you find.

  6. Daniel R. Baker says:

    Krystal’s right that putting books in a hierarchy is useful. You can only read an onionth of a percent of all the books ever written in your lifetime; putting them in a hierarchy helps you choose those tragically few books. Even more important, you can only stuff a dozen or so books into an undergrad literature class; ideally, they should be books at the top of the hierarchy.

    But should the hierarchy really be based on how much the books tell us about “what is the meaning of existence?” or “what are we or the universe doing here?” Do we really know that Shakespeare and Milton had a better grasp of what the universe means than Agatha Christie did? Can we quantify how much of that grasp made it into their literature? Maybe. And how many people who read Hamlet or Paradise Lost actually better understand the meaning of the universe afterward? Probably no more than random chance. Oh, I loved MacBeth and Paradise Lost, all right. But they didn’t turn me into Buddha. And as for the thousands of other undergrads who’ve read them, you could say the same, except most of them didn’t even love the reading.

    Surely, at least one other criterion you could consider for the hierarchy is cultural literacy. Some books will give you a deeper insight than others into what everybody else is talking about. You may not understand the Mechanism of Being after reading the Bible or Hamlet, but at least you’ll understand when someone talks about selling their birthright for pottage, or “The lady doth protest too much.” And if this means that any piece of trash that becomes embedded in the culture goes up in the hierarchy, well, so be it. Although I almost never hear even fans of Fifty Shades of Grey actually quote from the book – nobody has ever told me, “You know, thus-and-such is my favorite line from E L James,” – if the book actually proves enduring enough that reading it helps you understand several decades’ worth of national conversation, it would *objectively* deserve to go near the top of the cultural literacy hierarchy.

    It’s interesting that hardly anybody ever proposes choosing a literary canon based on what brings people the most pleasure to read. It’s almost an unwritten rule that literature is Much Too Serious to be enjoyed. Yes, pleasure is subjective, but you can count objectively how many people enjoyed a particular book, and the results will not be random; a lot more people do enjoy Romeo and Juliet than Mein Kampf. And if Murder on the Orient Express ends up on the canon that way, I will not call it trash. Joy is intrinsically valuable. It requires no justification. And if, perchance, someone does catch a glimpse of eternal truth in Hamlet, it will probably be someone who was reading it for fun.

  7. David Nash says:

    Reminds me that, in college, I got a nice little old PhD apoplectic when I stated “Shakespeare was the Ian Fleming of his day.” Seems the literary academics object to having it pointed out “Great Literature” is what they invented to teach.
    That there ARE “Great Books” is one thing. But they are NOT for academics to decide.

  8. Kosmozoan says:

    This article reminds me of a essay by Arthur Koestler I recently read, in which, commenting on sometimes blurred or confused distinction between literature and science fiction, he writes:
    “…[A]rt means seeing the familiar in a new light, seeing tragedy in the trivial event; it means in the last resort broadening and deepening our understanding of ourselves. Swift’s Gulliver, Huxley’s Brave New World, Orwell’s Nineteen-Eighty-Four, are great works of literature because in them the gadgets of the future and the oddities of alien worlds serve merely as a background or pretext for a social message. In other words, they are literature precisely to the extent to which they are not science-fiction, to which they are works of disciplined imagination and not of unlimited fantasy. A similar rule holds for the detective story. Georges Simenon is probably the greatest master in that field, yet his novels becomes works of art precisely at the point where character and atmosphere become more important than the plot, where imagination triumphs over invention.”

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