Great Literature

I watched the film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s much renowned novel The Road last weekend.  It was OK.  I admit that I have yet to read the book, which could possibly be a very different experience.

The film did a fine job of portraying a post-apocalyptic hellscape, and the characters, such as they are, were portrayed well by Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee.  I had problems with story itself.  First and foremost, in what was depicted as an utterly hopeless, slowly dying environment, what motivated the characters to do anything but die?  Viggo’s character, the father, also seemed to be all-too-aware of his ultimate fate, and by extension, that of his son.  It’s tough for me to buy into a narrative where the chief protagonists have absolutely no reason whatsoever for hope.  At the same time, this is a film with a 75% score on Rotten Tomatoes, from a book that easily makes the top five of any list compiled citing the best works of the 21st Century.

Sometimes I feel guilty for not enjoying “the classics.”  Sure, a background of study in English guarantees that I’ve studied some of the most “important” works in history, but where is the line between important and good?  These are two subjective assessments.  “Important” tends to follow behind “good” on a time line, but since they ARE subjective, couldn’t any work with ample scholarship behind it become important?
By: ChrisCC BY-NC-SA 2.0

It must be true that exposure some Great Literature (i.e., “important” works) is needed in order to become a successful critical reader.  A person must be cognizant of the themes found in fiction, the character tropes, the places and settings where important stories happen, etc.  But on the other hand, doesn’t relatively “bad” fiction (or, what literature scholars might call “contemporary pop fiction”) have the same features as Great Literature?  Don’t we fashion stories across the board in roughly the same way?  Comparing the Modern Library 100 Best Novels lists as compiled by the board, versus the one voted on by readers does a fantastic job of exposing the line between important and good.

In the end, what’s the purpose of fiction?  To entertain the reader, or to be great?  Seems to me you can have wildly entertaining works of fiction that probably won’t be called “great,” and some of the most studied works in human history are not that fantastic, particularly to a contemporary audience.  Still, “greatness” often is defined by some combination of cultural penetration and time.  I don’t think anyone who read Nicholas Nickleby in 1838 would have immediately recognized it as Great Literature.  But on the other hand, it was wildly popular and well-received as a work of modern fiction.  I guess my bottom line is this: any work of fiction that you enjoy and wish to study is important enough to you.

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