Location: Vienna, Virginia, United States

A graduate of Dartmouth College (2005) and Washington and Lee University School of Law (2010). These are my personal blogs, and the musings expressed on them do not reflect the positions of my employer. They do reflect my readings, thoughts, and aspirations, which I figure is good enough.

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Better than Ezra

One of the worst parts of middle school and high school was summer reading.

Don't get me wrong - I loved reading (still do). I would probably read two books before the first week of summer break was over. But I hated answering those damn questions that came with summer reading, the worst one by far being:

"What is good literature? Does this book constitute good literature? If not, why not?"

It's the worst question ever, and I've only come to hate it more after 4 years as an English major. How do you give a book the blanket term "good literature"? How can you even ask a 16 year old to define literature as good or bad when the majority of 16 year olds have read at the most some Mark Twain, some Shakespeare, Catcher in the Rye, The Great Gatsby, Michael Crichton and some crap by John Irving?

But now, I've finally come up with a wonderfully sarcastic, tongue-in-cheek answer. After four years of college, and very little thought, I can finally (not really) answer "what is good literature" in a concise fashion. Actually, this is more of an anti-answer. You high schoolers, do not borrow this definition, as it will get you a failing grade.

Here's my answer:

What is Good Literature?

Good literature must be criminally-inspired. So in order to define good literature, I must first define criminally-inspired.

I like my term "criminally-inspired" because it is multi-faceted.

It can refer to a work inspired by or building around a criminal act (for example, Shakespeare builds the plot of Hamlet upon a fratricide, a very old story - Cain and Abel - but one that works very well as a plot device).

It can refer to a criminal that is the centerpiece of the work - for instance, The Silence of the Lambs wouldn't be anything interesting without the Hannibal Lecter character.

It can refer to the author's own criminal acts. For instance, Hunter S. Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is fuelled by an acid trip (or several of them). John Milton's Paradise Lost has been explained by many as an anti-monarchical tract with Milton in the place of the rebel Satan. I don't buy it completely, but it's one interpretation.

If the author was inspired by the Fiona Apple song "Criminal", then it would also be "criminally-inspired" (although I have not yet read anything inspired by Criminal that I might call good literature).

That being said, while all good literature is "criminally-inspired", not all "criminally-inspired" literature is good. If that were true, Dick Wolf, creator of "Law and Order", would be a God among men. The Harry Potter series, inspired by an act of plagirism, is not automatically good literature just because J.K. Rowling plagirized everything.

So I'd like to run through some criminally-inspired fiction and demonstrate my point.

Books/Poems build around acts of crime:

The Iliad by Homer - based on the kidnap of Helen - good literature? Yes

Anything by Shakespeare -
Hamlet - fratricide - Good literature? Yes
King Lear - patricide by driving the father insane, murder - Good lit? Yes
Romeo and Juliet - love wasn't illegal, but certainly a love against the desires of the two familial patriarchs - Good lit? Hell no
The Rape of Lucrece - Nuff said
Twelfth Night - comedy built around impersonation and suggestion of incest - Good lit? Yes

The Inferno by Dante - lots of criminals in here - Good lit? Yes

Anything by Dickens -
Great Expectations - Magwitch and Compeyson are central criminals to the story (no spoilers) - Good lit? Kind of
Oliver Twist - Fagin the Crime Lord? - Good lit? Not really
(It was also a crime that he was paid by the word, but we won't get into that)

Tess of the D'Urbervilles - incest, and I'm pretty sure there's rape in there too - Good lit? Yeah, I think so

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley - The good Dr. is trying to be God, for Heaven's sake - Good lit? Yes

The Strange Tale of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson - Dr. Jekyll doesn't kill people. Mr Hyde does. Mwa ha ha or something. - Good lit? Kind of

The Picture of Dorian Grey by Oscar Wilde - Lots and lots of beautiful lust, and a suicide. oh, and he was gay, which he got in legal trouble for - Good lit? Yes

Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky - Does this really need explaining? - Good lit? Yes

The Trial by Franz Kafka - not sure what the crime is, but there's definitely a trial - Good lit? Yes

The Crucible by Arthur Miller - alleged witchcraft - Good lit? I guess

Any modern Broadway musical? - There's always a gunshot at the end, isn't there? - Good lit? Probably not

So you see, there's plenty of literature out there based on criminal acts - some of it good, some not. But all the good stuff is criminally-inspired

Books/Poems in which the author is the criminal:

Paradise Lost by John Milton - Regicide - Good lit? Yes

"Kubla Khan" by Coleridge - Opium - Good lit? Oh yeah

Alice in Wonderland
by Lewis Carroll - Little Girls - Good lit? Yes

Peter Pan by J.M Barrie - Little Boys - Good lit? Yes

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald - Booze (Illegal) - Good lit? HELL NO

The Gulag Archipelago
by Alexander Solzhenitzyn - Crimes against Russia - Good lit? Yes (in this group is a whole lot of other Russian literature)

See? More works of literature, all criminally inspired.

I think I've proven my point well enough.

Oh, I haven't?

Did this exercise just show that no matter what we do, there's no way to classify literature as good or bad, and to attempt to give reasons for literature being good or bad is ultimately futile? Probably not, but it was damn fun. I mean, look what I managed to do. Generalize about literature, accuse authors of pedophilia, compare books across genres, etc. etc. All to call something good literature.

I mean, I can give several examples of non-criminally inspired work. William Thackeray's Vanity Fair, Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot, pretty much anything by Ernie Hemingway (alcohol was only illegal for part of his life, after all).

So kids, when asked to define good literature, just say no.


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