If you’re like me when you read or write, you wonder what makes for really great literature. You know, those novels or stories [or poems, plays and essays] that have stood the test of time and are read one hundred years later. When I studied English Literature at university, I was really disappointed because such study seemed to have nothing to do with creativity and everything to do with criticism. Yet…those questions still come back to me as I read and write. It’s a pretty humbling experience, but you need to have a target–don’t you?
As a student many years ago, I wanted to study English Literature. But when I had the chance in university, a change of heart overcame me in a dramatic fashion.
It was on a dark and dreary November day in second year. I had been called into a professor’s study to discuss a term paper. The setting was everything you might expect from an old English movie—glassed in shelves of ancient books, lamps with tassels hanging from their shades and a beat up oak table next to a wooden filing cabinet.
It was not good news. She, the professor—a poet—steepled her fingers and phrased her question judiciously.
“Given this paper, I am curious, Miss Martin, why you are taking this course?”
Did I grovel and defend myself in the face such terrible rage? Did I promise a better paper about the Romantic Poets, if given just one more chance? No. I did not. I must have been mad, but I stood up, saying— “I thought by studying English Literature, I might become a writer. Now I’m not so sure. The best these courses can do is make me a critic. And, I’d hate that.”
Brave but stupid student, I marched across campus to the administration building where I enrolled in History full time which foretold my future in the law.
You see, I’ve always been rather sour about critics. What happened to their creative streak? But I admit, sometimes, when in a tolerant frame of mind, I think of those lectures with a touch of wistfulness if not full blown nostalgia. Truth be told–I sometimes still have nightmares of general unpreparedness for those English studies lectures! You can see I am rather ambivalent about that period of time.
So, here’s the confession. Although I’ve disparaged critics, I still find myself delving into books of literary criticism. Over the many years since then, I’ve practised law and written some novels. Why would I stick my toe back into the frigid waters of literary criticism?
Reading some literary criticism texts, such as Harold Bloom’s recent Anatomy of Influence, I’ve found a few answers. Bloom is an extraordinarily talented and highly regarded teacher and writer of literary criticism.
What does this devoted and perceptive critic say makes excellent literature? More importantly—what might a writer aim for in creating literature?
I’ve come across some extremely interesting insights. According to Bloom, it’s the strangeness and beauty of the sublime, which is the sign of a great writer. This sets a very high standard indeed!
What is sublime literature? I gather from Bloom it can mean that the writer and his work have entered the reader’s mind and expanded his consciousness. As if by magic, the writer has established a very intimate relationship with the reader.
Perhaps it’s the sense of something beyond the realm of the everyday. Something old, yet forgotten, but brought back to life, striking a chord deep within the reader. The greatness of the sublime is that it induces all at once, both delight and terror.
Just think of a place you’ve been—a vast desert at sunset, for example. You are awed by the vastness of the space and the light on the dunes and the rock. The landscape goes on forever and you feel very small, even insignificant
But wait. There’s more. Something beautiful, yet decidedly strange occurs right before your eyes. A man strides up from a dune out of nowhere. He wears an Edwardian suit of clothes, yet looks very comfortable—neither affected by the heat or the vast distances. You shout and wave to get his attention. Although he has drawn within fifty feet of you, he neither seems to see or hear you. Striding purposefully, he passes by you. You blink and he is gone.
Is that a sublime experience for literature? Perhaps so. The setting is vast—almost frightening. A man, seemingly in another dimension, appears and then disappears in an moment. It’s very odd, very ambiguous and strange. On the other hand, maybe it’s just “dumb.”
Now, the trick here is for the writer to build a story around this event. Then might we call it sublime literature? If the writer is great he or she will do so by creeping into your mind with artfully crafted words and mental images to enlarge your consciousness of possibilities and probabilities.
It might sound easy enough. Just think of weird stuff and write it down. Not really. What more is involved in creating of the sublime? I think Bloom would say that the story should have many potential meanings, all of which the reader is invited to explore. I think it’s not just about weird stuff, but about creating settings, characters and events which provoke the reader to think about the imponderables. It should activate the mind and spirit of the reader.
The question of what makes great literature still intrigues me—to this day. I wonder what would have happened had I stayed in English Literature. Just one of the imponderables of life!
In some more posts, I’d like to explore the answers given by other critics, writers and readers.
Mary E. Martin is the author of two trilogies: The Osgoode Trilogy, inspired by her many years of law practice; and The Trilogy of Remembrance, set in the glitter and shadows of the art world. Both Trilogies will elevate the reader from the rush and hectic world of today and spin them into realms of yet unimagined intrigue. Be inspired by the newly released and final installment of The Trilogy of Remembrance, Night Crossing.
Please take a look around the bookstore for The Osgoode Trilogy novels [Conduct in Question, Final Paradox and A Trial of One] and The Trilogy of Remembrance [The Drawing Lesson, The Fate of Pryde and Night Crossing] right here http://www.amazon.com/author/maryemartin