Great Books and Genre Books —Part Three

What is Literature?

In any art, there are two considerations: the subject matter and the execution. Subject matter we have already discussed. To be Great Art, the subject matter must meet Adler’s three criteria of timelessness, of rewarding infinite study, and of being relevant to the great conversation through history of the great ideas of the Western mind. But the execution must also be according to the highest standards of the art of which we speak.


A poem of awkward and trite phrasing, even if touching on some great subject matter, is not Great Art: we have all heard banal hymns or patriotic songs or paeans to Motherhood, that, even though in praise of high and fine things, themselves lack genius.

In written fiction, we can point to certain standards are remarkable execution, even if we cannot exactly define them (for who can define genius?).

  • GRACEFUL: Great prose delights the reader with the poetry of the language, which includes memorable passages and phrases. It is both easy to quote and worthy of being quoted. Even in translation, the metaphors and images impress. Shakespeare is the exemplar of this: his work consists not merely of ringing lines of glorious virtuosity, individual lines and phrases are so striking that they have passed into common use, indeed, form the backbone of the English language.
  • NATURAL: Great fiction draws from life, and from imaginations larger than life, characters whose vivacity and verisimilitude make them seem alive. There are many dimensions and aspects to such characters: they are not mere mechanisms for advancing the plot, mouthpieces for the author, or simple stereotypes. Once this character is alive in your mind, some real people in your life (perhaps even you) will be seen in a differing light. Homer and Milton are preeminent in this respect: Even the dullest student reading the ILLIAD remembers the wrath of Achilles, or PARADISE LOST, the hollow grandeur of Satan.
  • WISE: Great fiction is observant into the human condition. It is the opposite of a juvenile or jejune opinion. The woes and triumphs, the simple pleasures and deep passions of mankind, men the way men actually act, are depicted. The statement the story makes about the human condition, or the questions the story poses, will be a source either of satisfaction or haunting puzzlement for years, for a lifetime. I will list Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, Jonathon Swift, Victor Hugo and Mark Twain as masters of this particular aspect of the craft.