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From:John L. Leland <countsirjehan@...>
Date:Wednesday, June 4, 2003, 0:07
On what makes writing great literature, with particular reference to
SF/fantasy, I had
this debate with my mother (a much pleasanter person to talk to than your
scientist, I gather).  She was a professor of  English too, but revered the
classics (particularly Chaucer) and did not understand why I felt sf was worth
teaching (as I was doing at the time).  I was able to give her an answer which
might satisfy your friend's demand for
an objective test, because my personal definition of great literature is
purely pragmatic:
if people still enjoy reading it after 100 years, it is great literature. The
case in point
was ERB's  A Princess of Mars, which has many flaws from an abstract literary
standpoint, but is still read (not quite 100 years, but close). Haggard's She
and King Solomon's Mines are similar examples. A few years ago there were two
competing lists of "great books of the century"  or the like; one compiled by
alleged experts which included things like Finnegan's Wake, which I doubt
anyone but a handful of people have read through voluntarily or ever will;
another list from sheer popularity headed by LOTR, which millions have read
enthusiastically despite its length. I personally have no hesitation in saying that
LOTR is the greater book. Personally, I divide books into 5 categories: a) books
very large numbers of people have read for a very long time, e.g. the Bible
or Homer or the Tale of Genji  or the Confucian Classics: these are the
unchallengable great books. b) books a few people have continued to read over a long
time (Lindsay's "one reader a year to the end of time"): these I consider a
valid group but of lesser stature than the first--and they can include all sorts
of coterie fiction, whether it is James Joyce or Clark Ashton Smith c) books
which are very popular right now but have not yet stood the test of time (e.g.
Harry Potter) these I consider the likely contenders for future greatness in
the (a) category--I might offer students recommendations of ones I like, but
would not insist I "knew" they were great d) books that were very popular for
one generation,but have never revived (e.g. Ossian or Southey's epics) --these
I consider of minor stature as literature, though of interest for the light
they shed on the culture of their times--they belong to the history of
mentalities, not the history of literature e) books which were unpopular in their own
day and ever since--these are the only category I would definitely reject as
potentially literature, and even there I would say it might be worth rereading
every so often just in case tastes have changed in away that makes something
previously ignored worthwhile. All this, it will be observed, has absolutely
nothing to do with whether the writer (say) knows the distinction between lie and
lay.  I think that such distinctions are useful, and I insist on them when
teaching writing, but in my opinion such struggles belong in writing classes,
not in the evaluation of literature. The objective value of mastering such rules
lies in two areas: 1) by writing in a standard format, we increase the chance
of mutual comprehension, which is what language is fundamentally for 2) by
preserving a working knowledge of old forms, we increase the ability to read
older literature with understanding --and the basic advantage of written over
oral texts (until the discovery of sound recording) has been timebinding--the
ability to read the thoughts of those now centuries gone.
Apologies for such length on a tangential topic, but this is a matter I care
deeply about.
John Leland


John Cowan <cowan@...>
Garth Wallace <gwalla@...>