A recent post themed to work by Richard Adin, who writes at An American Editor, prompted an exchange about the future of great literature.

Adin continues to develop his arguments on the potentially negative impact of e-books on great literature.  This post isn’t responding to the newer work; it’s a follow-up to Adin’s concern (expressed in a comment):

“Can you name a single work of fiction that was published in 2009 that has a broad consensus that it will be read 100 years from now? I can’t think of one. Yet we had no problem coming to that agreement with Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye almost immediately after its publication.”

I don’t have an answer to everything (thankfully), and I promised Adin I’d think about it.  And so I have.

I’ll start by drawing a distinction between making great literature – something writers do – and making literature great – an activity that I think of as contextual, personal and shared.

A proliferation of media, formats and devices will not deter writers frommaking great literature.  If anything, democratizing the tools of productionhas made creation of great literature easier.  Moreover, writers who create great works are motivated personally as well as financially.

The alchemy of making literature great has always been evolving. Even ifCatcher in the Rye was deemed an instant classic in 1951, it didn’t crack the top 10 fiction books in that year or any year that followed.

I’d also argue that it was a “classic” in a context of male-dominated and overwhelmingly white publishing professionals.  The book meant something to the people who made publishing and buying decisions in 1951, and as one of a small set of books made available that year, it caught on.

This is a publishing example of what Stephen Jay Gould and others have described as confirmation bias: we believed in this book; we promoted it; it caught on; our judgment is confirmed.

This isn’t to say that Catcher in the Rye isn’t great, or important, but the book is made great by the people who read it, connect with it and communicate about it. Longevity may be a sign of great literature, but it is not proof.  To the extent that Catcher remains a touchstone for a generation of new readers , it does so by establishing connections with readers in the context of a much different world.

Lots of books can establish those connections, reaching a variety of different audiences.

A personal example: While I was in high school, an English teacher, likely distressed by my overly structured prose, recommended what would become my favorite book, Look Homeward, Angel.

Many have argued that Look Homeward, Angel is far from great; some have even argued that Maxwell Perkins is as much the author as Thomas Wolfe.

But the book is great for me, at least in part because I read it at a time when my world seemed as small as Eugene Gant’s home town.  In the book, I found possibility, potential and inspiration.  In reading Wolfe (or Perkins), my outlook changed, and so too did my writing.

Undoubtedly, a proliferation of media, formats and devices alters the alchemy of making literature great.  With millions of options, the importance of established filters diminishes.  What will replace those filters has yet to be determined, and so the new order can and sometimes does feel chaotic.

That doesn’t make me pine for the old order, in which a learned few decided what we should be able to read.  As it happens, standing on the shoulders of giants leaves me cold.  I’m looking forward to the conversations that occur among the learned many, some of whom will be fueled only by the passion that a connection with literature can create.

Via Brian O’Leary’s Magellan Media blog


  1. Adin’s arguments are predicated on the fallacy that we can judge which books in contemporary literature are “great literature.” Only time and distance will make that distinction possible.

    Books and authors praised a hundred years ago have disappeared except as footnotes in esoteric articles.

    Books which were damned as junk are taught in college. Read the scathing reviews of Melville’s MOBY DICK if you want to see the perfect example of this. Melville’s praised travel books are forgotten, but MOBY DICK is immortal.

    Contemporary authors and books I studied in graduate school in the late 1970s have disappeared from the bookstores and graduate school studies.

    Greatness will be determined by two groups — literary critics and the readers who will pass along their favorite books to the next generation of readers who will pass them along to the next. Often, this is done from parent to child.

    I have no guess whom the literary critics will anoint as great. Literary critics are a fickle lot who seem to prefer the obtuse over the accessible because they can “explain” the work to their heart’s content and the padding of their resumes with articles.

    Right now, a few of the most popular books passed to generations include Scott Card’s ENDER novels, the Harry Potter novels, and Tolkien.

    As to ebooks being the death of literature, I heartily disagree. Literature rarely becomes bestsellers or even financially successful so the conglomerates are much less likely to publish it. The cheapness and ease of publishing as an ebook and a POD paper book allows the smaller publishers and self-publishing to take up the slack.

    A bigger danger to literature is the massive loss of major reviewers who anoint the chosen few for a public who doesn’t trust its own judgement.

  2. The creation of great literature has absolutely nothing to do with technology or democratization. We’re still reading plays and philosophy that were committed to scrolls of handmade paper. Authors don’t usually set out to write with the idea that they’ll be remembered hundreds of years in the future, and what *is* remembered may have been written out of inspired creativity or the need to make a living. Great literature is rare, the product of many centuries of work by many writers. It’s not only ridiculous to expect a great work to appear in any particular year, we don’t have the ability to judge what will be considered great in the future. I suspect that Catcher in the Rye will have been forgotten in another hundred years.

  3. Great literature isn’t so much about filters, reviewers, or distribution models. Its about authors tapping into universal thoughts that permeate a vast majority of people, and writings that look at, ultimately, big philosophical issues once they are unpacked. The “democracy of production” hurts this not because there are a million books coming out a year, but because authors can now hit the “print” button before ideas are developed to their fullest potential.

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