Talons debate the "Good" Books
As the TALONS Novel Study has progressed, I have waited for the discussion of six diverse novels – listed here – to begin to overlap into a meaningful discourse of the nature and the value of literature. Yesterday in class I asked a question posed by Clare and, to some extent, Kiko, on their blogs recently, hoping that across generations of literature there might be a common thread or reasoning behind our study of the Great Books. Clare asks:
So if Catcher in the Rye is no longer making us re-think society as it did in the 1950s, does that make it less important?
Similarly, Kiko wonders about the nature of treading the trampled ground of books like Catcher or Lord of the Flies:
How many people had done that before me?
Is the size of that number a good thing, or a bad thing?
Why does this matter to me at all? I have a slightly different perspective on everything than everyone else in the world.
Being that each of these questions meets an answer in a subjective truth (excellently supported and given context in a comment by Michael Kaisaris), I reposed them to the entire class the following afternoon, creating a stir that boiled over into a debate that not only continued in the classroom long after the 3 o’clock bell, but in a Facebook thread that appears to have consumed many members of the class throughout the evening.
Here are the highlights of what was discussed:
The question I want to put out there is “What makes art great?”
Great art is something that makes a person feel.
If a person is making connections, predictions, having intuitions, thinking, or especially feeling emotion, the art is important.
If a reader feels stronger about Twilight than Romeo & Juliet, I think that may also be the greater art. At least, to that select individual.
I agree that fan fiction has significant relevance to our society and that, in a hundred years, it could be very useful to understand the values and what not of society today. However, I do not offer it the same “importance” (although maybe we should find a less subjective word) than, say, a Douglas Coupland book.
While I suppose one could argue that each would provide an equal understanding of today’s culture to future generations, one can’t argue that they would be of equal value to a person’s philosophical concept of the world and their position within it. By reading fan fiction, I doubt anyone would learn more (that isn’t to say that there is nothing one would learn) about themselves or gain much insight into our fundamental raison d’être than by reading a Douglas Coupland book or other piece of “good literature.” There is a reason it is called that and fan fiction is not. “Good literature” challenges our ideas and society’s rules more so than fan fiction ever could. It is because of this that it is more important.
Were both forms of writing made equal though? Both were created by a person who wanted to express themselves and they way they saw something. Shallow or not, both fan fiction and literature were written by a person who was passionate enough about something to write it down and take the risk or putting it out where the world can access it.
Importance, in my opinion, is related to how much a work influences society, not how much it reflects the society of the moment. Take Catcher in the Rye, for example. It was revolutionary at the time it was written and changed the way people thought about teenagers. Even today teenagers who read the book can identify with Holden Caulfield. He certainly influenced my perspective on my own teenage angst. Has Twilight influenced society other than to increase the sale of vampire t-shirts and create great fodder for jokes? I don’t think so. Katie brings up the point about people who love Twilight getting more out of it than literature. Maybe they get more enjoyment out of reading Stephanie Meyer, but they aren’t getting more understanding of the world or getting any new opinions to consider.
I think almost all literature is about their philosophical concept of the world and their position within it. When people write, their morals, beliefs, ideals, ideas, opinions, personality and themselves are written in. You can’t write anything without that, whether it is shallow or not. Even jobro fanfic represents that. What the writer thinks about the world and their place in it as a jobro fan.
There are certain ways you can look at things like fan fiction and see what it says about society, but on the other hand, there are works of art that I believe are more important to society and literature as a whole, things that will ‘stand the test of time’.
I think it all boils down to one thing: If we were to keep, say, ten pieces of art, from any time period, which would they be?
The ones that changed society the most, the ones that made people stop and think and realize what is really happening, either in their time, or in the past. I think what really makes art great is that it can say something that people will look at and feel something about, whether it’s a personal connection or a greater understanding of people and/or society.
It would all come down to who was picking. Everyone would chose 10 different pieces and then this argument would go world wide. We would no longer be the only ones debating over “fluff” versus “literature.”
Yes, you would pick the ones that have contributed to society the most but even if you instantly ruled out fan fiction, Twilight, etc. How would you finalize your top ten picks of art? Why is one classic book more important than another?
“…we can rate it’s importance in terms of the impact on society. ”
Won’t each individual have their own thoughts and feelings on how each piece of art has impacted society? It still boils down to perspective. You could argue this until the end of time. Everyone sees things differently gets something different out of everything they read.
In the end, it is the affect a book has on all of society or the majority of society that determines where it stands and whether it will be remembered as a book of great importance. Reiterating some of what Kiko wrote, it the ones that made society as a whole stop and think, the ones that changed society’s perspectives (in the present or the past) that will last. Fan fiction or other fluff, though it may somehow be very important to an individual, does not make the cut.
I don’t think anyone writes a book thinking that it’s going to change society. I agree with Louise that they write it to say something for themselves and if it ends up being important enough to change a reader, then that’s great. And if it resonates with a lot of people, then I guess it might change society a little, but I don’t think many books have changed society; people don’t read books and instantaneously change.
“There are two books that I’ve read in my life that disturbed me in such a way that I felt they literally shook my faith in humanity. ‘Blindness’ was the first and ‘Oryx and Crake’ by Margaret Atwood was the second.”
Dave Truss left this comment on my blog post about Blindness, and I definitely agree with him. Books do change people. They change how one views society, how one perceives life, how people think… the list goes on. Maybe all books don’t, maybe no book you’ve ever read has changed you, but some people are heavily influences by books.
These books didn’t change society by themselves. However, they definately contributed to that change in a big way. Look at Kiko’s post above.
Let’s take banned books for example. Why have books been banned throughout history? Because they deal with issues that governments or schools don’t want people to consider. If books had no profound impact on the opinions of the nation, there would be no point in outlawing them. I don’t think anybody would ever consider banning Twilight because it doesn’t challenge anybody’s faith or bring up any revolutionary ideas (not to say that all books need to be banned to be considered “great”).
As for Twilight…
How this would fundamentally change someone…
- putting others before ourselves
- love is unconditional (however cheesy it might be)
- being perfect isn’t as great as it might sound
- people are not always what they seem
- perfection on the outside does not always mean perfection on the inside
- with great power comes great responsibility
- It’s okay to lean on people for support
- stereotypes/ don’t believe everything you read (about vampires for instance)
- changed way some people saw themselves. Before, they might have considered themselves “average” but now they are more confident in their right to talk to someone they’ve previously admired or even been intimidated by.
- effected how people viewed their problems (angst), ability to speak to others about them
- made people realize they could be accepted even if they deviate from the norm.
If you look deep enough you can find themes, even meaningful themes, in any novel from fan fiction to Twilight. And maybe these themes have an affect on people. However, I disagree with the word fundamental. While the great works (such as those mentioned earlier) take on new ideas or new perspectives that shifted the way people saw things, the themes you listed in Twilight are not new. They appear over and over in almost every novel you read. There is no fundamentally different or thought-altering idea in Twilight and that is one of the many things that separates it from other literature.
But ideas are used over and over again and maybe the 500th time it is used it makes a difference. Yes the ideas in Twilight aren’t new but they were also read by many many people who have in some way been affected by those ideas.
A classic work should say something of value and draw attention to fundamental human problems. It should support or condemn a point of view. That means saying something more significant than: “Vanilla ice cream is indescribably amazing,” even if that statement is true and will maybe cause ten people who have never tried vanilla ice cream to visit the grocery store. The message doesn’t have to be new, but it should at least take a new angle or provide new evidence.
It’s about whether some books are greater, or more important to society, than others. Also, I think we need to get away from some random person in some obscure place. For a book to be considered “great,” it needs to effect a substantial portion of the population. One person doesn’t make it or break it.
It’s not about a book being great? Then what is great literature? I don’t think that anything has to impact society. It’s the importance we’re talking about, not the impact.
We’re all random people in random obscure places.
Louise, that blew my mind. I am sitting here at my computer, feeling like such a random person in a random obscure place.
For many people Twilight was one of the first books that they actually enjoyed reading; that was the case with many people I knew in middle school and for them Twilight was a good book because they hated reading as then they found a book they could actually enjoy so they probably got a lot more out of the book than you or I did.
As Andrea mentioned with Twilight and I can say with Harry Potter, those books are the reason that a lot of people came to enjoy reading – I would consider that a huge impact and thus, “important.”
Stalin once said that “The death of one man is a tragedy; the death of a million is a statistic.” Well, I say “If a book is bought and read by a million people, it’s a best seller, whoop-dee-do. If I read a book and enjoy it, it’s a divine miracle.”
The ability of a book to affect many people (society) doesn’t make it a good book in an individual’s opinion. Millions of people bought The Da Vinci Code but I recommend reading Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World. Why? Because my in MY opinion it’s better. This may be different for different people, and they may say my book which ain’t a best seller sucks because it wasn’t economically successful.
This brings me back to the fan fiction/fluff vs. classics/non-fluff. If people can connect with the writing, then the literature has done it’s job. If teenage girls can connect with Jonas bros, then that’s them, and the fan fiction didn’t fail in communicating a message and representing that segment of society.
It seems to me that these days (modern times) with the internet, TV, face book, and all that what could have been great pieces of art are melted and conformed to something that would sell well, and thus receive marketing and cast a wide net for audience. Small things and exquisite literature that probably won’t sell well are discarded for conformists. This is quite disturbing in that the conformist stuff are what our era will be remembered for.
Depending on who you are you will get different things out of different literature. Overall, society might deem some books as having more to offer, but it is still up to the individual to decide and/or discover what they value the most. In school, it is beneficial to study some of the same novels that humans have labeled as ‘important.’ However, every person is unique therefore no one has the right to judge what importance they find in the art they see.