How to tell if a piece of fiction has literary merit

Literary merit can be a dangerous term. If you stand up in an English department meeting, declaring that Hemingway is an alcoholic sexist who couldn’t write for the JCPenny catalogue, you might start a civil war. If you’re even bolder, you might call Charles Dickens and Shakespeare big old frauds. Then you accuse everyone of being ethnocentric before storming out in a hissy fit. This is tame stuff compared to what can happen on Amazon book reviews and Goodreads. People get testy about this stuff.

As any teenager who has read the SparkNotes summary of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness can tell you, “literary merit’ can seem like code for “really old, very moldy, and exceedingly boring pieces of crap.” The teen will also tell you that they’re all written by dead white dudes who know nothing about modern life, being dead and all. It sure can seem like a racket run by wrinkled old men wearing tweed jackets bent on boring everyone else to death.

As fun as it is to imagine a literary mafia full of doddering old professors plotting world domination through boredom, it’s not true. There is a method to the madness. Literary merit isn’t completely subjective. There are things like “storytelling,” “style” and “historical significance” — all of which carries a certain degree of objectivity — are instrumental in the elevation of certain pieces of literature into the literary canon.

Let’s start with the easiest one:

Storytelling: “Gosh durn it, dat’s a good story!”

Most people think that a good story is like porn: you know it when you see it. There is an element of truth to that, but there is a way to analyze a story’s strength. The fundamental aspects of a story can be broken down into four pieces and analyzed:

  • Characters: all stories have characters, albeit not always human or even living. They can be well-drawn, with nuanced conflicts and portrayed with bracing honesty. Or they can be carbon copies of someone in that thriller you picked up the other day. Know the difference between a fictional character that lives, breathes, and behaves as a real person, and a drone that appears human but has only machinery underneath.
  • Plot: this is just a fancy word for “stuff that happens.” Some events in a story are interesting, exciting, and true to life. Others are tedious, outlandish, or … downright impossible. Guess which ones are the good stuff.
  • World-building: the “world” in which a story takes place doesn’t need swords and wizards to be a fantasy. All fiction are fantasies, although some of them look awfully like our world. How well does the author’s words create a world in your mind that is just as, if not more, vivid and alive as the one you live in?
  • Themes: from the lofty to the puerile, every story is about something. (Yes, even Twilight, which is about love and stuff.) Authors treat such “somethings” with varying levels of maturity and subtlety. Some are insightful, deft, and original. Others are just trite and boring.

Like they say, art imitates life. The problem is that life — even the fictional, kind — is messy and confusing. We can’t say that every story can be distilled to just those four factors. This framework serves more as a tool for you to figure out why a certain story really floats your boat (or sinks it). Instead of saying, “I liked the story because .. er … it was good?” you can say “I loved the characters, they felt so authentic.” It also makes you aware that a good book can be strong in only one of two areas, but still be a good book. (Let’s just say Pride and Prejudice has a plot that can drag, but has great characters and incisive themes.)

A fair warning, though. Literature professors and scholars emphasize themes in their analysis. This shouldn’t be the be-all and end-all of storytelling. Characters, plot, and world also have oodles of literary merit if you care to look. Just because a story is about “important things” doesn’t necessarily make it a good story (more on that later).

Writing Style: “That writer sure dots their i’s real good!”

Sometimes, the form is more than the function (or even the function itself). The way that a writer arranges their words can transcend the language and turn it into something of beauty. A writer’s style can also be confusing, prosaic, or just plain full of errors. Style matters. Here’s how:

  • Prose: words and sentences are the building block of any literary work. There are some master bricklayers at work here. Some writers’s words are so transcendental that the quality of their stories almost doesn’t matter. Their words are so pretty! Consider: Vladimir Nabokov, Virginia Woolf, and William Faulkner.
  • Dialogue: this one doesn’t get mentioned often, but it’s an important stylistic element. A dialogue virtuoso knows how to convey a nuanced picture of a character’s personality, background, deceptions, and thoughts, through their words alone. Consider: Jane Austen, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and George R. R. Martin.
  • Narrative: sometimes the structure of the story is the story itself. Well crafted narratives, such as Offred’s unreliable tapes in The Handmaid’s Tale and Nick Carraway’s bitter retrospective in The Great Gatsby, can color the meaning of everything in a story. Also consider: Slaughterhouse-FiveHow to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, and Ulysses.

There is a certain snob appeal to literature with high style. Many of them are considered literary fiction and is therefore “better” than an ordinary story. Don’t let pretension fool you into thinking a story is good just because it has an edgy narrative that makes no sense. The other extreme is equally bad. Don’t turn up your nose at a book simply because it has challenging prose or narrative. It could very well be worth the effort. Great style enhances a good story; bad style detracts from it.

Historical Significance: “Wow, that book was real important and stuff”

Sometimes, a piece of literature just happens to be at the right place at the right time. In other words, they get lucky. Regardless of the quality of the story or its style, certain literary works have risen to prominence because they mark the passage of a momentous time in history. Now we’re stuck with them.

  • Time Period/Region: these zeitgeist works define our understanding of a particular time period or place. It doesn’t even really matter if it’s an accurate portrayal, as long as it is deemed as important. Consider: Grapes of WrathThe Great Gatsby, and Bonfire of Vanities.
  • Underrepresented Perspective: some works introduce a much-needed fresh perspective to the literary canon, which is full of stories told from a white dude’s perspective. Those books give a voice to the men and women who have been written out of history books and popular media. Of course, this isn’t limited to race or ethnicity. It can include political affiliation, creed,and sexual orientation. Consider: Toni Morrison’s Sula, Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, and Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies.
  • Revolutionary Style: some boo shake up the literary “Establishment” with their revolutionary style. Their writing can be shocking, sparse, or even bewildering, but gosh darn it, it’s fresh. Consider: Jorge Luis Borges, Franz Kafka, Ernest Hemingway.

As you’ve probably guessed already, historical significance has become the predominant factor for elevating certain books to the sacred “classics” status. Much of what we deem historically significant today is colored by our modern perspectives. If feminism hadn’t gained as much ground today, I doubt Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, with its willful and plain heroine, would’ve passed muster. In some ways, what we consider classics have more to do with our modern sensibilities than anything else. That doesn’t mean that no classic has any redeeming value beyond their historical significance. Many are good stories in their own right. The Count of Monte Cristo is truly exciting — if you find a well-edited version — and well-plotted. Anna Karenina is a masterful character study of love gone wrong (although Tolstoy could’ve used some help on the whole brevity thing).

Literary merits might seem to be some magical concoction of the aforementioned factors. A cup of good characters rounded out with some plotting and world-building. Then you add a dash of nice prose and a sprinkling of underrepresented perspectives. Presto! You have a “good book.” Well, that’s not how it really happens, but it seems close. Books that have some literary merit should have some substance to them. Whether that substance takes the form of wonderful storytelling, transcends style, or dazzling historical significance (or some combination of the above), you know you’re onto something.

The Role of Taste: “But .. I like it!”

Amazon and Goodreads are filled with reviews extolling a particular book as the “best book EVER” or “an instant classic!” Their main rationale seems to be that they really, really liked it. Therefore, five stars! Anyone who has picked up a book based on their 4.3-star rating can tell you that this is hit and miss. Someone’s “instant classic” is another’s “piece of crap.’

Taste and literary merit aren’t the same thing. One’s taste in fiction comes from one’s personal preferences, usually revolving around characterization, plotting, prose, or whatnot. Some people prefer zippy little books with exciting — albeit a bit unbelievable — plots that helps them forget that their dishwasher just broke and now they need to shell out some serious bucks for a new one. That’s cool. Others prefer slow-moving, cerebral works of fiction that have no discernible plot or … sense. Whatever you like, that’s your taste. Sometimes we get lucky and our tastes overlap with literary merit. Most of the time, not so much.

I had to admit it when my taste diverged from merit with one of the “greats” of literature. After spending five years(!) reading Anna Karenina on and off, I had to acknowledge Tolstoy’s brilliance at characterization while saying “Too friggin’ long for me, Leo.” I prefer snappier books that aren’t so heavy on character’s internal thoughts and protracted political debates. That doesn’t mean Anna Karenina sucks, though. It just means that I’m an impatient and fussy reader.

Literary merit is far less subjective than taste. It’s just that we don’t always care about the stuff that makes a book particularly meritious.

If you like my writing on books and literature, check out my other literature-related posts