Definition: Literary Merit is the classification of literature which falls into the canon of works that are universally praised and discussed by critical circles, and that have established themselves as possessing a substantial amount of aesthetic and artistic value. Most works of literary merit have their literary elements borrowed by the works that follow them and are considered to have promoted the evolution of literature as an art form.
The Criteria for Literary Merit
-Does the work present a multi-faceted thematic tone which mirrors the human condition?
-Does the work require an abundant amount of mental application for an individual to identify the themes expressed in the piece, and can individuals with differing ideologies form their own subjective interpretation of the thematic concepts within the text?
-Does the reader benefit on an intellectual, emotional, or spiritual level by reading or returning to the selected work, the reader having had their ideology changed by the text?
-Does the work capture a perfect balance of literary techniques, in which the prose, setting, plot, and literary devices chosen by the author perfectly complement each other and enhance the quality of the work as a whole?
-Does the piece of literature build upon the previously established canon and spark an evolution of form, or contrary to this does it establish a new and significant technique that will further be built upon by later artists?
Now when one assesses the previously mentioned criteria of what constitutes literary merit, one must take into account that these standards must be approached as being of equal importance, and although a form of literature such as poetry may not fit all of such criteria, for the purpose of this analysis I am constituting that for a fictional work to fit into the canon it must demonstrate all of the principles previously established.
The example I have chosen as a notably established work with literary merit, which perfectly fits my criteria, is Nabokov’s Pale Fire. The novel wonderfully demonstrates how a novel can push forward the evolution of literature while building upon the previously established canon. The novel establishes a prose form which features the narrator of the story writing directly to the reader, unveiling the plot through a series of lengthy critiques and anecdotes related to the author of the poem for which the book is named, whom is another character in the story. Despite the obvious borrowing of passages and metaphors from Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens and Hamlet, Nabokov’s true genius in the novel comes from how he takes the experimental prose established by authors such as James Joyce (Ulysses) and Marcel Proust (In Search of Lost Time) and adapts it to his own needs, mutating their prose into his own identifiable voice and translating the structure onto the page in a way that has never been seen before. From Nabokov’s literary techniques used in Pale Fire in regard to prose, one can witness the further evolution and “borrowing” of his technique by author’s such as Samuel Delany (Dhalgren) and Mark Danielewski (House of Leaves).
Moving away from the discussion of how Pale Fire modernized and adapted technique, when one reads Nabokov’s novel they will experience a literary achievement that perfectly blends all literary elements and builds complex themes that will reveal themselves to the reader through repeated analysis. Nabokov alludes to a great number of other literary works as a means of expressing his themes, and as I have expanded my knowledge of literature I have further discovered much more concealed within the piece (for example, as I read The Brothers Karamazov I have realized that many lines within Pale Fire reference that work, which has opened up more analysis as to the nature of man’s belief in Providence, which was established in both works, and is only now revealed to me that I have expanded my understanding of literature).
In regards to my principle that an author must find a literary balance, Nabokov perfectly illustrates this by incorporating the setting, prose, plot, and themes into the writings of the character himself within the novel, which establishes equilibrium between the literary devices and the character’s ego; this providing a connection that the reader shares with the protagonist and further exemplifies the reader’s ability to comprehend the ideas explored within the novel.
I’ve personally read the novel three times, each time coming away with newly discovered themes that reflect my state of mind at the time. The first time I read Pale Fire I wasn’t prepared for what the novel held, and came away with a deep sense of sympathy towards the experience of the protagonist, but on my most recent reading I went in knowing the plot twists and came away feeling the novel to be not a study of human suffering and bitterness, but a celebration of how art will live on for eternity despite the death of the author; which is a theme which perfectly constitutes why Pale Fire possesses literary merit.
To juxtapose my exploration of literary merit established by Pale Fire with an ephemeral work which does not fall into the established canon, I present the novel, The Long Walk, by Stephen King. Before beginning my remarks as to why I selected this novel, I first want to open by saying that I personally love this novel and believe that it constitutes the best achievement in King’s career, but in contrast to my beliefs about the novel I believe that it is best to demonstrate my criteria of literary merit against a book that I find to be very enjoyable.
Beginning my cavalcade of scrutiny, I find that King’s novel struggles to find a clear footing in its usage of prose. The novel offers nothing that hasn’t been seen before and follows the same formulaic writing structure which is witnessed in most of King’s literature. The book displays itself in a very simple form that immediately shoots itself into the action, which can be done well by an author, such as Hemingway, whom possessed an unfamiliar prose style that stripped language of all its pulp. King feels the need to constantly push the plot forward without offering the reader time to focus on the characters or the language he uses, which is often straightforward and containing none of the solace associated with challenging literature.
Further, King only feels the need to express a singular theme of man’s capacity to suffer degradation and torment in order to fulfill his temptation of seeking a great truth, which is the original sin of human existence as expressed within the Bible with the story of Adam and Eve, however as King uses this theme he fails to capture his own voice in the matter and comes to the same conclusions that all previous explorations of this theme have concluded upon. I find the book to be enjoyable every time I read it, but I have not been able to penetrate King’s thematic surface within the text and have failed to find further thematic examinations below the novel’s shallow surface.
Being an observer of The Long Walk from the audience that wishes to enjoy a thrilling and enjoyable story, I would express that King’s novel is a good book and I find a personal advantage for having read such a novel. In contrast to whom I am as a fan of horror literature however, and presenting myself with the veneer of an AP English student, I can passionately deduce that the literary merit of King’s work is nonexistent and thus does not constitute for this novel to be included in the literary canon.