RARA-AVIS: Literary Merit

From: Bludis Jack ( buildsnburns@yahoo.com)
Date: 03 Mar 2007

A friend recently asked me what I meant by, "Literary merit." I thought long and hard before I answered, because my ideas about that have changed over the years and they can often be changed by a single book reminding me of how good they are.

I think that literary merit means different things to different people.

For me: is it clear? does it tell a story? do I feel knocked dead by the writing? A recent example in my reading is Cormack McCarthy's "The Road." Others might snarl at the book's sentence fragments and weird punctuation, but it is perfectly clear, made me feel the presence and emotion of the characters and kept me turning pages. Even when nothing was happening, I had a great fear that something terrible was about to happen. When a book keeps me reading and I am in awe of the writing without being unduly distracted by it, "That's" Literary Merit.

I recently read my first James Lee Burke in years: Yep, he qualifies has having literary merit. (Still opinion of course.)
  I like James Joyce--other than "Finnegan's Wake."

It took me some time to get into Faulkner, but after I did: Wow! "This (author) sounds like an idiot," I kept thinking of Benji. A moment later, I realized that the opening pages of "The Sound and the Fury" were being narrated by a man who is severely retarded.

The best of the mystery "literary merit" guys, all time, is Chandler.

Some believe that flowery, convoluted, or ultra description
"is" literary merit. If you have to stop reading to admire it--Nah.

With me, a piece doesn't have literary merit unless it gives me a sense of people and place and a desire to continue the story, without constantly distracting me with the prose.

A mystery writer often praised here and elsewhere for literary merit is Ross Macdonald. For me, his figures of speech are so convoluted that I had to stop and think about them to the point where I started to ignore them. Then I decided after three books to pass on reading him again. I tried recently and hated the time I spent with the book.

There are many genre readers and writers who look down their noses at anything that get's tagged as having literary merit. The most sarcastic description, I suppose, is, "It's 50,000 beautiful words that say nothing." I don't remember who said that, but it's a paraphrase of someone else, not orginal with me.

As a reader, I prefer story. I read Robert B. Parker, Stuart Woods, and the late Sidney Shelton and prefer them over those who write supposed literary masterpieces like Jonathan Frazen; but certainly not over James Lee Burke or Lawrence Block.)

OK, I went on and on.

All of that is opinion. But I have an even stronger opinion: nothing is true literature (note the change from literary to literature) unless it's still being read 50 years after the author is dead. By that definition, Agatha Christie is literature, no matter what I think of her
"literary merit."

Jack Bludis

http://www.jackbludis.com Shamus nominee for *Shadow of the Dahlia* Try "Blondes, Blondes, Blondes" at http://www.ThrillingDetective.com

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