In rereading The Forest for the Trees–one of my favorite books on writing–I was struck by Betsy Lerner’s many references to Great Literature and the Great Authors which created it. Many of her examples are from… Well, many names that we all recognized and may even have read in high school or college. Some of the authors and works have even been read for fun by the literary elite–what I call people who take their literature seriously and sniff at anything less than A Tale of Two Cities, or anything by Dickenson. My father and siblings are among them, so I like to think I know what I’m talking about. They believe THOSE books are worth reading and the trudge through them with determination. Yet they devour Harry Potter and avidly await each sequel. But Harry Potter isn’t great literature and conversation about the series focuses on the entrancing tale, rather on what meaning the books hold for life and society.
My point is that, as I read The Forest for the Trees, I found myself wondering if Great Literature really had to be as oppressively bleak as so much of it has been. Or, instead, if Great Literature is something else… Something which maybe Harry Potter and, say, The Hunger Games, capture but is overlooked by the literary elite.
I might even argue that the Great Literature of the past isn’t all that great. See, in my opinion the greatest literature incorporates more than just a harsh unflinching perspective on life. It incorporates everything else as well: the banal, the trite, the meaningful. It doesn’t have to be, nor should it be, a scaring look at life as an whore in Iraq with all the incumbent tragedy (not referencing any specific book that I know of). Instead, even a book with that as it’s subject matter needs more to be truly great. Merely poring out the worst which resides inside we writers is not sufficient to craft Great Literature (or fiction or whatever). We must also tap our secret hopes, desires, dreams, and goals. Even the most horrific monsters in human history have a more dynamic inner life than we might credit them with. As writers we must put it all on the page. Hitler, while gassing millions of Jews, probably harboured hopes and dreams which popular history doesn’t expose.
As a writer, I don’t see myself writing what we typically call Great Literature. I don’t aspire to pour the venom in myself to the pages and from there into my readers minds. I aspire to tell meaningful stories which achieve greatness by encapsulating the entirety of the human experience. In fact, some of the most entertaining and engrossing books I’ve read have been “childrens” books which contain the full spectrum of human behavior. There are villains which are only villains because the reader sees the consequences of the villains actions from a different perspective than the villain himself. There are the good guys which are merely “good” because their guiding principles mirror the traditional mores of the society we live in. And both “good” and “bad” do good and bad things. As they say, the best villains do bad things with the best of intentions.
The weird thing is that you’ll rarely (well, perhaps never) hear any fantasy books called Great Literature. And why is that? Because fantasy deals with worlds and lives and technology or magic which isn’t real? But often the characters, their motivations, and the outcomes of their actions are all too real. Why do we discount them simply because they aren’t an expose on New York society–calling out the author’s family and friends and lambasting them in excruciating detail?
Back to my original point: we as readers and writers must broaden our definition of Great Literature to encompass all literature which illuminates the human experience. When we dig deep we need to summon not just our inner demons but also the angels as well. We must pour to the pages what horrified us, tempts us, disgusts us, AND also pour out our most deeply held convictions, mores, hopes, dreams, and desires. Great Literature can be written in any genre and any form, and that we makes it truly great is simply the degree to which it fully encapsulates the human experience.