Literary quality is a concept I’m conflicted about. When I played the oboe in high school, I struggled to manipulate tempo, dynamics, and vibrato in a way that was expressive but convincing. I came to the conclusion that there were an infinity of right ways to play a phrase but a much larger infinity of wrong ways–just as it feels like there are an infinity of multiples of twenty but, in some sense, a larger infinity of integers. My instinct is that writing (and most forms of art and probably of social interaction in general) are like this too. (Now, I would add that an even smaller, but still infinite, subset of the ways that are right manage to be interesting or original. Actually, I would complicate the model significantly in many ways that are not relevant right now, but….)
Since then, I’ve realized that these strong intuitions about what’s right and what’s not are based at least as much in social conditioning–in listening to many, many pieces of music that strive toward similar ideals–and idiosyncratic personal preference–when I was a kid, the jaunty rhythms and slidey sounds in jazz, rock, and country western could make me physically nauseous, for instance, so I preferred classical music intensely, but not out of any kind of appreciation for its often greater complexity.
I still can’t shake the feeling that literary quality exists independent from observers, however, even though almost all the evidence I can think of rationally weighs against this proposition.
If literary quality does exist, I’m pretty sure my taste is terrible, or, rather, all right within limited areas but far too ready to succumb to melodrama, bathos, and posturing. If literary quality exists, I also think that there really is a huge–indeed, infinite–number of forms it can take and artistic ideals that can be represented within it. I am very hesitant to make any concrete statements about what makes art good. I think trying to define that is a lot like trying to make a bot that can pass a Turing test–probably a goal worth striving for, but still a long way off. If I were to venture into definitions, I think I would suggest some combination of complexity, originality, truthfulness, and beauty (which are not particularly easy to define either, note) but even that seems questionable….
At any rate, in the interest of digging deeper into this problem, I would like to introduce a guest blogger, Ima Sirius-Kriddek of Unseen University, who may–depending on her busy schedule–occasionally contribute some literary analysis of her favorite books. Dr. Sirius-Kriddek, you see, believes in the literary canon no less deeply than Harold Bloom, but she has–let us say it delicately–rather different notions of what that canon includes. Her posts here will be one part of her impassioned campaign to demonstrate what she proposes is the superiority of her chosen pantheon of Great Books. While, of course, she will not have the space to explore most of these works in depth, she will attempt to showcase one or two aspects of each that show its excellence.
(Translation: Ima Sirius-Kriddek, aka Meg Moseman with a really terrible pseudonym, wants to write a bunch of really earnest, admiring, thoughtful, closely read criticism about books and poems that are, in both my opinion and many other people’s, mediocre, downright terrible, or completely and utterly not literature, like a phone book–some of each for variety. I want to see if I can convince myself, provisionally and temporarily, that these books really are deserving of the highest regard. I may also attack some well-thought-of books that I like and attempt to show how dimly they shine next to Sirius-Kriddek’s New Canon.
This project, if I get the energy to follow through with it, will exist in the liminal space between satire and thought experiment.)