Define “Good” Literature

The other day I was sitting in the kitchen reading on my Kindle Fire. Yes, like the rest of the world I was frantically reading The Hunger Games, in an attempt to see what the craze was about (more about my thoughts on that in a later post this week). As I was sitting there with my eyes glued to the pages, my mom walked in and asked me, “What are you reading? And please, don’t tell me it’s that hunger junk.”

I looked up from my screen and said, “Do you mean The Hunger Games?”


“Well then, yes, I am reading that junk.”

I immediately felt defensive; having received a Master’s in English Literature with a thesis based on children’s literature, I felt personally affronted that my mom would accuse me of reading “junk.”

Now I am not saying that I have not read my fair share of trashy books; I mean yes, I did read Twilight. But I did it as a study of mass culture…OK, and it really appealed to the 14 year old angst within, but that is beside the point.

What ended up ensuing was a 20 minute conversation between my mother and I about what was a good book. I asked her why pop culture books have to automatically be defined as trash (again, I am neither agreeing or disagreeing to the “trashiness” of The Hunger Games just defending a point). My mom went so far as to say, how can I read such junk when she brought me up with the classics?

Yes, it’s true. At age 12 I took it upon myself to read To Kill A Mockingbird. At 14 I attempted Jane Eyre, and when I was 6 or 7 I read Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Needless to say, I have had my fill of the classics. And one cannot escape a formal education in literature without reading books of “enlightened thinking” or books generalized as “good.’

But this whole argument is what the pedagogy of literature is centered around. What exactly defines something as being a good book? To the Harold Blooms of the world, a good book is hard to come by. And even the word choice of good does not do this argument justice. What my mom was trying to ask was were is the substance behind the story?

And this question for me is something I think everyone needs to ask themselves. I am not just talking the philosophers or academics either. For those of you who are avid readers, how do you decide if a book has substance for you?

For me, my defining point was how a book made me feel. When I read the story did I not only get transported to another place, but did it emotionally play me? Did I cry when Lizzy realized Mr. Darcy wouldn’t marry her because Lydia ran off with Wickham? Did I jump for joy when Harry defeated Voldemort? Did I feel the injustice done to Sister Carrie? I need to emotionally connect with the characters within the text, for me that is a story worth my time to read. Every other element of the book is icing on my cake.

When confronted with books that are purely plot driven with no character development, I feel cheated. I guess reading helps explore the human experience. I can pretend to feel the emotions of the moment without enduring it myself. And just like plot can’t drive a book, sophisticated language only goes so far. I don’t need to read about 10 pages of the foliage in the forest (Book 1 The Lord of the Rings when Frodo embarks on his journey, anyone?) that to me is boring. I am more concerned with how the character develops and matures. When do they come to the moment where they awake into rebirth? These are the things that truly matter to me.

I have sat and thought about this conversation for the last few days, and just like in grad school, there is no simple answer. There is no one way to define what good literature is defined by. If I went by my mother’s definition, than any book written after 1945 is not to be tolerated. But I sincerely think that anyone who really loves books and reading needs to define for themselves what constitutes good literature?

Think about it and let me know, because I am still figuring it out myself.

**M for Pocket Owl Press**

4 thoughts on “Define “Good” Literature

  1. theotherwatson says:

    I think you’re on the right track with character development – I have read books with stunning language and writing, but dull, flat characters that cause the story to lag and ultimately lead me to not enjoy the book. Sure, Hunger Games might not have the most flashy language in the world, but aside from the fact it is aimed at a young adult audience, it also doesn’t need flashy language to be a good book – it actually needs to be simple in this respect in order to keep the pace up for the story, as the characters go through so much so quickly.
    I think part of the problem is that we let people tell us what good literature is. We seem to be told from academics, from other writers, from history, from critics, from award-winners, what good literature is, and yet in my experience only about half of the books I have read due to one of these reasons turned out to be any good. Somewhat ironically, the novel isn’t very novel anymore, but seems to be all about tradition and convention, which isn’t going to keep it relevant.
    Ultimately though (I’m rambling on too long), I think books are just like music – we each respond to it differently, because we respond to it with our own experiences and perceptions, and because of this, defining good literature is nearly impossible, much the same as defining good music.

    • Pocket Owl Press says:

      Yes! I think everything you said is true! Those people who love literature, are often times caught up in the conventional ideas that define what a book should be. I have turned my nose up on several occasions to certain novels, only to be proven wrong later when I allow myself to stop judging and just read it.

      Your statement about how we respond to books and music is right on! That is why reading is an amazing experience! A book has the capacity to reach us in so many ways, with each reading there is a different experience depending on where you are in life. A first reading will never be like a second or third reading, because each time you are in a different point in your life. THAT IS A GOOD BOOK-one that is continually able to connect with you as you develop in each stage (at least for me).

      • theotherwatson says:

        Oooh, I think you just nailed it with that last sentence – A good book is a book with which you are continually able to connect as you develop in each stage of your life. I really like that! 🙂

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