Notions of Great Literature

The Great Novel

The criteria for what and what does not constitute great art has been the subject of criticism for centuries. To make ease of the topic, the controversy could be summed up by simply suggesting, one man’s trash is another’s treasure. Or consider the fabled saying, “Beauty is in the Eye of the Beholder.” But with these highly subjective approaches aside, and with respect for the novel in particular, critics have examined the nature of literary art only to conclude that it does require certain characteristics to be considered great literature.

Edmund Wilson tells us that we must be able to tell good literature from bad, found in the artist’s “attempt to give a meaning to our experience” (81, 83). The degree to which an artist succeeds is characterized in therapeutic terms, that an artist alleviates the discomfort of life in the production of art, a sense of alleviation that can be transferred to the reader. In relation to the time span of world literature, the novel is a new form; thus when it is mastered (as the classics have been), the feeling translates into a sensation of success. With this success, in turn, there comes a “sense of power, and with the sense of power, joy, [that] is the positive emotion that tells us that we have encountered a first-rate piece of literature” (84).


In comparing the works of H.G. Wells with James Joyce, Mark Schorer defines great literature by considering the failure of certain novelists to fully explore their literary capabilities. Great novels are that which, echoing Wilson, its authors hold “an attitude towards technique and the technical scrutiny of the subject matter,” enabling them to order “the greatest amount of our experience” (114). Schorer’s ideas reflect on the nature of commercial publication vs. literary artistry, that in which content has been crafted in a hurried manner for quick easy reading vs. a craft taken to its greatest degree.


Lionel Trilling believes the novel is a “perpetual quest for reality, the field of its research being always the social world,” that as its content offers the “indication of a man’s soul” (122), one can measure the greatness of a novel in the degree to which it invites readers to put their “own motives under examination” (130). Trilling not only sees great novels as works of art which consider the aspect of reality, but charges them with the duty of moral purpose.

Lionel Trilling

R.S. Crane sees greatness in the crafting of plot, “the positive excellence of which depends upon the power of its peculiar synthesis of character, action, and thought.” The endeavor to engage skillful plotting is that which “most sharply distinguishes works of imitation from all other kinds of literary productions” (137). Crane’s ideas follow on Schorer’s, where quality of formal technique is key in determining the difference between what could be considered good vs. bad literature.


Whereas these critics all appear to be in conversation on the topic of what constitutes a well-written novel, the topic takes a turn when we consider the perspective of Roland Barthes. Leaning in the tradition of Marxist thought, Barthes sees the novel as having come to its greatest fruition during the nineteenth century, a time when the Industrial Revolution produced a class of people known as the bourgeois. In Barthes eyes, great literature is not necessarily great; rather, it is a product of bourgeois culture. This is considered negative for the bourgeois phenomenon of the era, renowned for the mistreatment of workers and citizens.

In this manner, nineteenth-century author and culture combine to produce literature whose underlying themes and values come off as universal, yet the plausibility of misrepresentation is inherent. In the Marxist tradition, modernist writers are thus tasked with the duty of combating the bourgeois literary conventions of past-tense and third-person, forms that tend to create a cementing effect, that history is written and set in stone according a limited few.


“Less ambiguous, the ‘I’ is thereby less typical of the novel: it is therefore at the same time the most obvious solution, when the narration remains on this side of convention…when the ‘I’ takes its place beyond convention and attempts to destroy it, by conferring on the narrative the spurious naturalness of taking the reader into its confidence” (148).

The emphasis on “solution” is meant to underscore that which Barthes finds to be a problem, that of the bourgeois narrative. Barthes’ approach in this particular critique of the novel foregoes consideration for the aesthetic in favor of the political, viewing the role of novel literature as that which should defy bourgeois tendencies to suppress, found in the bourgeois novel’s effect of universality. History can be documented by the historian, and represented by the novelist, yet the innate subjectivity involved with these, they tend toward measures of falsity in the representation of reality as it pertains to the whole of a social structure.

All quoted materials are taken from the pages of:

Essentials of the Theory of Fiction. First Edition. Eds.  Hoffman, Michael J., and Patrick D. Murphy. Duke University Press (Tx), 1988. Print.