Two Ways to Judge Fiction
My cousin Nancy and I grew up in the same house (she upstairs and I down) and had parents with very similar values, but we have viewed fiction from quite different perspectives throughout our careers—she as a librarian and I as a professor of English. (We’ve both been retired for several years.) Her view is simplicity itself—a book is good if you like it and great if you love it. My view is equally straightforward—a book is good if it provides you with insights and great if those insights are profound.
I have to admit that my cousin’s view carries a lot more weight and reaches a much wider audience than mine. My almost-sister, as I think of her, is Nancy Pearl, the world’s most famous librarian, whose likeness is captured in the Librarian Action Figure. She is the highly regarded author of the Book Lust series of recommended reading (not to mention the librarian’s aid, Now Read This, Volume I and II), which has influenced tens of thousands, if not millions, of readers.
Over the years, Nancy has challenged me to explain why anyone, including college professors, should have the right to tell someone else what fiction to read. She believes that the value of a book can be determined only by the individual reader. In her opinion, no one—certainly not librarians, teachers, reviewers, critics, or even parents—should be dictating someone else’s literary taste. Consistent with that philosophy, her series helps readers find books they might enjoy (based on their previous reading experiences), rather them telling them what books they should enjoy.
On the other hand, when I taught American literature at Youngstown State University, I was one of those who, through assignments and lectures, was making implicit reading judgments for others. Students in college lit courses, including my own, might be forgiven for inferring that some fiction was “better” than others. That’s the message Nancy strenuously objects to.
I readily acknowledge that that is the message I intuited from my formal study of literature at the University of Wisconsin, where I got my Ph.D. in 1969. Everyone took for granted that there was a “canon,” a body of literature that was prized by the intelligentsia, especially the literati, i.e., the college professors in English and American literature departments across the country. If you didn’t promote the canon (Sophocles, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Pope, Chekhov, Tolstoy, Austen, Kafka, Shaw, Twain, Woolf, Faulkner, O’Neill, etc.), you were doing your students a disservice because you were not exposing them to the “best” works available. (Plus you were putting them at a disadvantage on entrance exams like the SAT and GRE.) Our job, as I understood it, was to pass on the literary part of American, British, and world culture, especially fiction, poetry, and drama.
Although vigorous challenges to the canon in the last half century (by feminists, postmodernists, multiculturalists, and many others) have introduced countless new texts into college courses (such as diaries and slave narratives), the notion that some works are “better” than others still pervades my profession: This work by a black female slave is more powerful (or plausible or precise or well organized) than that one. How could such judgments not be made? What would be the function of an English department if all works were equally valid and equally valued? Our job is to develop our students’ literary taste, to pass on the canon (whatever it may be) to the next generation. Isn’t it?
Well, perhaps, but the longer I taught the less I considered this my only, or even my primary, obligation. My function, I came to believe, was to explain to my students—from freshmen to graduates—why some works were canonized and others weren’t. Why is genre fiction (sci-fi, westerns, intrigue, mysteries, bodice rippers, gothic, chick lit, horror, etc.), no matter how readable and original, rarely considered part of the canon? What is it about “classic” works that makes them classic? In what way(s) are some books worthier of our attention than others?
These are some of the questions I tried to answer during my career.
After more than four decades of searching, here is my (still evolving) conclusion: the imaginative works that English professors and other taste-makers value highest are those which provide the most insightful view of life, the fiction, drama, and poetry which does the best job of helping us to understand and negotiate the complexities of day-to-day existence, including the difficulties caused by language itself.
In my view, the writer of “genre fiction” attempts to show us life as we want it to be (romantic, exciting, dramatic, heroic, sexy, fun) and to reinforce at least one of “the three big lies” of our culture (“good triumphs over evil”; “love conquers all”; “life is an adventure”). Commercial novels are supposed to be entertaining, and we rightfully judge them on that basis. In contrast, the writer of “literary fiction” attempts to show us the world as it is (difficult, awkward, complex, unpleasant, unfair, inconsistent, boring) and reminds us how misleading and dangerous the three big lies can be. The works we read in literature classes are meant to be accurate, and, in my opinion, we rightfully judge them on that basis.
Think of food as an analogy. Some things which we ingest, like candy or carbonated beverages, are delicious but give us nothing our body needs (and some things our body would be better off without). Other consumables, like spinach or prune juice, are nutritious but not particularly enjoyable to have in our mouths (until we develop our “taste”).
Genre fiction is like candy; literary fiction is like spinach. We judge candy and commercial fiction by how enjoyable they are to consume. We judge spinach and literary fiction by how valuable they are to our system.
Fortunately, some food and some fiction is delicious and nutritious, but, in most cases, only after we learn how to appreciate both qualities. Ideally, a literature course will help students discover the enjoyment (the delicious parts) in canonical works, without taking away the pleasure inherent in best sellers.
As a professor, I did not tell my students to read only “good” books (although I would have been gratified to find out that they tried some literary fiction outside of the class assignments). As a teacher, parent and grandparent, I am pleased if kids are reading anything. To me, commercial fiction, like candy and soda pop, is fine in small doses (and the pleasure it generates may even be good for us), but is unlikely to feed important parts of our minds and souls. My goal as a teacher was to model the process by which one can savor a sophisticated work’s flavor and simultaneously benefit from its new perspective on human existence.
Let me illustrate these principles with a comparison of two well-known novels by Mark Twain.
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), a staple of American literature courses and one of the most frequently banned books on the planet, has generated hundreds of scholarly articles and books by English professors and appears (in its entirety) in all major anthologies of American literature, whereas Twain’s earlier work, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876), a long-time favorite of adolescent boys, is rarely taught in college, does not appear in any American lit anthology, and gets little attention in literary journals. Huck Finn is universally considered to be a fixture of the literary canon, whereas Tom Sawyer is generally viewed as genre fiction (“a boy’s book” or “an adventure story”).
What accounts for this discrepancy? After all, both books tell their stories chronologically, use easy-to-understand prose (except for some of Jim’s speeches), take place 20-30 years before the Civil War, feature the “adventures” of a young man from the small town of St. Petersburg, Missouri (Samuel Clemens’s fictional version of his own home town of Hannibal), satirize various aspects of American society, borrow from traditional literary forms (like the bildungsroman, the picaresque novel, and tall tales), and even include characters named Huckleberry Finn, Tom Sawyer, and Jim.
Why is one book by Twain treasured by the vast majority of my colleagues, and the other isn’t?
If you’ve been following my argument, you can probably guess my answer. The crucial difference between these two novels is the level of insight they provide. Where Tom Sawyer presents life as a boy’s fantasy, with familiar predicaments and a happy ending, Huck Finn presents it as an adolescent’s nightmare, with far less predictable dangers and an uncertain ending. In contrast to Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn helps us see the difference between our ideals and our behavior, giving us a deeper understanding of personal relationships and social conventions.
For example, Huck’s story, though farfetched, comes a lot closer than Tom’s to capturing the difficulties a young person might actually face. As a result, what Huck discovers (and fails to discover) about human behavior can enlighten many readers, including grown-ups. Tom, on the other hand, has nothing to learn and, consequently, Tom Sawyer has little to teach us. As Walter Blair says, “Huckleberry Finn surpassed Tom Sawyer in commenting on what its author in time would call ‘the damned human race.’” John Seelye agrees that “Tom Sawyer may lack the powerful psychological drama of Huck Finn (we never do gain any real insight into Tom’s inner motivation).” According to Lionel Trilling, “The truth of Huckleberry Finn is of a different kind from that of Tom Sawyer. It is a more intense truth, fiercer and more complex.”
Whereas 13-year-old Tom is little more than a stereotypical dime-novel Hero, brave, bold, sure of himself, and cool under pressure, 14-year-old Huck, like most real-world adolescents, is uncertain, fearful, hesitant, inconsistent, insecure, untrustworthy, and self-deceptive. Where Tom continually fights the powers-that-be and risks his own safety to do what’s right, Huck is easily cowed by authority and never raises an objection against the people (including Tom Sawyer himself!) who mistreat Jim. Huck’s imperfections allow us to test our own values and character against his.
Equally important, the “sivilization” that Huck tries to escape is a terrible place, whereas Tom’s is idyllic, even though the setting for both novels is ostensibly the same. Huck’s world (like the one we’re familiar with) includes hypocrisy, drunkenness, intolerance, bigotry, racism, deception, betrayal, greed, ignorance, gullibility, and sloth. Tom’s has a single Villain (“Injun Joe”) and one dangerous cave.
Ordinary citizens in Huck’s society blindly condone slavery, child abuse, duels, cold-blooded murder, lynch mobs, tar and feathering, and bloody feuds between Bible-totin’ neighbors. No one questions tradition, prejudice, or authority. Even the best people in Huck’s world (the widow, Miss Watson, Mary Jane Wilks, the Phelpses) own other human beings and think of blacks as children who need to be taken care of. As should be obvious, Huck’s experiences come much closer to actual human existence than Tom’s. As a result, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn offers us many more opportunities than The Adventures of Tom Sawyer to understand what makes people tick, individually and collectively.
Huck’s relationship with Jim, for example, is as deliciously complex as any in real life and allows us to observe how repressive social demands and expectations corrupt human interaction. Although Jim, a wise and loving parent, counsels and encourages Huck, often tending to his deepest emotional needs, Huck cannot let himself treat (or even think of) Jim as a father figure because the slave’s skin color makes him “inferior” to any white person, even a child. Jim’s bottom-of-the-barrel social status allows Huck, especially under Tom’s sway, to play cruel tricks on Jim, treating him as less than human. As a result, Huck and Jim can’t be friends the way Huck and Tom are, yet on some level Huck loves and respects his raftmate.
There is nothing approaching this level of complexity or insight in Tom Sawyer. The closest we can find, perhaps, is the famous scene in which Tom tricks several of his schoolmates into whitewashing the fence for him. By pretending it’s great fun, Tom has them begging for a chance to help him out. But is this scene plausible? Wouldn’t most people—even 12-year-olds—recognize that they’re being played?
And how did Tom ever come up with such a strategy? There’s nothing in his behavior before or after this incident that suggests he is such a brilliant manipulator of his peers (although he does show some of these qualities in Huckleberry Finn!). Instead of offering a glimpse into the human psyche, this scene has little of value to tell us about influencing others.
Worse, Twain does not even let the scene speak for itself. Instead, he spells out in great detail the meaning of Tom’s ploy, as if he doesn’t trust his own ability to make the point through action and dialogue. Tom, he tells us,
had discovered a great law of human action, without knowing it, namely, that, in order to make a man or a boy covet a thing, it is only necessary to make the thing difficult to attain. If he had been a great and wise philosopher, like the writer of this book, he would now have comprehended that work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do, and that play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do.
And so on for another 80-some words.
Ironically, the more Twain tries to explain these “discoveries” which Tom has made about human nature, the less sensible they seem. It’s not hard to name things (like a 100-pound weight gain or two weeks of insomnia) that are “difficult to attain” and which very few people “covet.” Similarly, it’s easy to imagine someone finding her work as enjoyable as play, even if she is obliged to do it. We’ve all heard professional athletes insist that they love playing their sport so much they would do it for free. When I used to read Huck Finn each semester in order to teach it, I often found the experience immensely enjoyable.
But even if Twain had offered plausible claims about human behavior in his explication of this scene, pop psychology and explicit social commentary from the author are not the kind of “insights” my colleagues and I look for in a literary work. Nor are we looking for dissertations from characters who are little more than stand-ins for the author, as is the case with Colonel Sherburn (in Chapter XXII of Huck Finn), a character who voices some of Twain’s feelings about cowardly lynch mobs. (Many critics agree that this is one of the least effective passages in the novel.) Instead, we enjoy and appreciate dramatized passages that defy easy explanation, yet force us to reconsider how we view reality. The insights we’re looking for are embedded in the narrative itself and cannot be separated from it.
Consequently, not all readers will see the same meaning in a particular passage, which is precisely why many college professors lead class discussions about the novels and short stories they assign. Understanding what a narrative implies about human relations takes careful thought, plenty of life experience, a reasonable amount of practice, and often some guidance from a trained professional (which is why book clubs are rarely adequate substitutes for a good lit class). In many cases, it also takes healthy disagreement and debate, which is why we can find so many interpretations of a single work.
In contrast, the “meaning” of formula fiction is built into the genre and rarely needs explication from professional readers. The “theme” (it can hardly be called an insight) of a mystery is that “murder will out,” a variation of “good will triumph over evil”. We don’t read mysteries to be enlightened about humanity, but to be reassured that, even when the murderer is enormously clever, “justice will prevail.” (Of course, we also enjoy trying to solve the case before the detective does.) Similarly, we read adventure stories like Tom Sawyer for the same reason we read Superman comic books or watch Spider-Man movies, to be reassured not only that life can be exciting, but that Villains will be punished and Heroes rewarded.
Of course, not all genre fiction is equally satisfying. Some plots, though formulaic, are more inventive, more exciting, more suspenseful, more surprising, or more plausible than others. Some protagonists are more memorable than others, some prose more polished, some settings more detailed. But none of these impressive characteristics will move a work into the canon unless it helps us understand human behavior.
Occasionally, however, a work associated with a particular genre will transcend the formula by including insights worthy of a canonical work. Crime and Punishment, for example, offers some of the features of a standard detective novel but provides a deep understanding of a murderer’s psyche and is therefore considered to be a major part of the literary canon. Similarly, William Faulkner’s short story, “A Rose for Emily,” has many of the characteristics of gothic fiction, including a large, dark house, rumors of nefarious acts, and an eccentric old woman with a skeleton in her bedroom, but the story has generated dozens of journal articles because it transcends the clichés of the genre and presents a subtle and intriguing look at the power of culture in a small Southern town in the late 19th century. By the same token, Melville forces his characters in Moby-Dick and Billy Budd to confront moral and ethical issues that raise his masterpiece to a higher level than formulaic adventure-filled novels of the sea, including his own earlier novels, Typee and Omoo.
Another example of fiction transcending a genre is Adventures of Huckleberry Finn itself. Advertised as a sequel (which in some ways it is, of course) to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, it was assumed to be a boy’s adventure novel when it was first published and is still treated as one by many readers. As a result, Huck Finn still gets taught in middle schools and high schools, where it inevitably causes some parents and administrators to get upset about this very disturbing portrait of American life in the 19th century. Evidently, many adults object to letting children see society as it really was—or is.
Despite a few counterexamples, the vast majority of genre fiction is not part of the canon because there is not much to say about individual examples of the formula, except how they adhere to or deviate from the norm. Occasionally, some prof will teach a course in, say, spy novels, but the unspoken assumption is that the books for the course are merely the best (or the most representative) examples of this particular formula, not part of the canon.
The one exception, perhaps, is Young Adult literature, which is now taught as a separate course in many colleges. Are YA novels part of a genre, or is there a separate “canon” emerging in this field? If the latter is the case, my prediction is that professors will use the same criterion (insightfulness) to judge books marketed to adolescents that they currently use to judge those marketed to adults.
Which raises the question—are “literary novels” just another genre? My answer, as you might guess, is no. By definition, genre fiction follows a formula. That’s what readers want, and that’s what writers and publishers deliver. But a work of “literary fiction,” by definition, does not match any discernible pattern. It is neither predictable nor derivative. In other words, each work in the canon is unique, unlike any other narrative ever told.
Such a work might be (and often is) innovative in its structure, use of language, character development, point of view, symbolism, and/or plot, but to be considered “literary” rather than “genre,” as I have been arguing throughout this essay, it has to be unique in what it demonstrates about the human condition, and the depth and accuracy of its insights determine its value to our culture.
Of course, I respect every reader’s right to read any book in the world, and I’m thrilled that Nancy and other librarians help readers find fiction they love, but I also think that it is legitimate and perhaps even necessary for a culture to establish a basis for judging literature. In my opinion, those who teach in English departments and publish in literary journals can be trusted with that task. In addition, I believe that insightfulness is not only the primary criterion that most professors use (consciously or not) to judge literature, but perhaps the single most useful and meaningful standard we’re going to find.