How can you tell if a piece of fiction has literary merit?

Be careful here. Literary merit is a highly contentious topic that might get you shanked at an English department meeting for suggesting that Hemingway is a big bag of alcoholic crap.

As any teenager who read the SparkNotes version of Heart of Darkness will tell you, literary merit can seem to be a fatuous award. Some of those things are downright incomprehensible with convoluted metaphors that could mean 400 different things, characters that make you lose faith in humanity, and so on.

The problem is that literary merit is far more than just an enjoyable read. There are many things that can send a little story into the literary canon, and few of them have to do with being a good story. There's stuff like "style" and "significance."

Let's start with the easiest one:

Storytelling: "Gosh Durn it, dat's a good story!"

Most people think that a good story is like porn, you know it when you see it." There is an element of truth to that, but there is method to the madness.

The fundamental aspects of a story can be broken down into four pieces:
Characters: all stories have characters, albeit not always human or even living. They can be well-drawn, with nuanced conflicts and original combination of personality traits. Or they can be carbon copies of the hero or villain you read about in that thriller you picked up at the airport. Know the difference between a fictional character that lives, breathes, and believes as a real person, and a drone that appears human but has only machinery under its skin. Plot: this is just a fancy word for "stuff that happens." Some events in a piece of literature are interesting, exciting, and true to life. Others are tedious, outlandish, or … downright impossible. Guess which ones are the good stuff. World-building: the "world" that a work of literature takes place in doesn't necessarily have swords and sorcery, but it is always a fantasy. How well does the author's words create a world in your mind that is just as, if not more, vivid and alive as the one you live in?Themes: from lofty to puerile, every story is about something. (Yes, even Twilight, which is about love and stuff.) Authors treat such "somethings" with different levels of maturity. Some are insightful, deft, and original. Others are just meh. Since life–even the fictional kind–is messy and chaotic things, we can't really demarcate stories so neatly. Characters can drive plot, as well as plot shaping characters, and so on. Think of the four elements more as a framework for literary analysis rather than pegs that we must shove things into.

A fair warning, though. English profess and scholars typically focus on themes to cull the good from the mediocre. Thematics are important, but they're not the be all and end all. Feel free to look beyond the usual suspects of an English discussion (race, class, gender, and so on) to the actual story itself.

Writing Style: "That writer sure dots their i's real good!"

Sometimes, the form is more than the function (or even the function itself).

The way that a writer arranges their words can transcend the words themselves (or completely destroy their meaning). Prose, dialogue, and narrative can make or break an otherwise mediocre story.

Here's three ways how:
Prose: words and sentences are the building block of any literary work, and there are some master bricklayers at work here. Some authors's words are simply so transcendental that the quality of their stories almost doesn't even matter. Consider: Vladimir Nabokov, Virginia Woolf, William Faulkner.Dialogue: this one doesn't get mentioned often, but it's as hard to write sharp dialogue as transcendental prose. The author must match the voices and style to each character perfectly. Consider: Jane Austen, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and even George R. R. Martin.Narrative: sometimes the structure of the story is the story itself. Well crafted narratives, such as Offered's unreliable tapes in The Handmaid's Tale and Nick Carraway's bitter retrospective in The Great Gatsby, can color the meaning of everything in a story. Also consider: Slaughterhouse-Five, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, and Ulysses.
There is a certain snob appeal to literature that has high style. Many of them are considered literary fiction and is hence "better" than an ordinary story.

I disagree that good style can make up for a crappy story, but there is something to be said for masterful prose and clever structuring. A workout for the brain never hurt anyone (mostly).

Historical Significance: "Wow, that book was real important and stuff"

Sometimes, a piece of literature just happens to be at the right place at the right time. Regardless of the quality of the story or its style, certain literary works have  risen to prominence because they mark the passage of a momentous time in history.
Time Period/Region: these zeitgeist works define our conception of a particular time period. It doesn't even really matter if it's an accurate portrayal, as long as it is deemed as important. Consider: Grapes of Wrath, The Great Gatsby, and Bonfire of VanitiesUnderrepresented Perspective: some works introduce a much-needed fresh perspective to the literary canon, which is full of stories told from a white dude's perspective. Those books give a voice to the men and women who have been written out of history books and popular media. Of course, this isn't limited to race or creed, it can include political affiliation and sexual orientation. Consider: Toni Morrison's Sula, Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre, and Jhumpa Lahiri's Interpreter of Maladies.Revolutionary Style: some boo shatter old literary conventions with their stylistic originality. These works usher in an entire new age of writing. James Joyce and Henry Miller were two such authors who spearheaded the stream-of-consciousness style. Some authors even put an entire continent on the literary map, such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez with his gorgeously Latin American take on magical realism in One Hundred Years of Solitude. Consider: Jorge Luis Borges, Franz Kafka, Ernest Hemingway.
The "historically significant" books fill the reading lists of high school and college classrooms. Not all of them are particularly enjoyable to read (I'm looking at you, Finnegan's Wake) and some of them are actually quite good stories. Regardless of their readability, all of them are significant in a grander scale, which makes them more than the brush-off, "good story, bro." They're  important and stuff.

Every factor I've discussed here–storytelling, style, and historical merit–can make a piece of fiction worthy of acclaim.  None of them guarantee you'll enjoy it, since that's a matter of personal taste.

Answer by Cristina Hartmann:

Be careful here. Literary merit is a highly contentious topic that might get you shanked at an English department meeting for suggesting that Hemingway is a big bag of alcoholic crap.

As any teenager who read the SparkNotes version of Heart of Darkness will tell you, literary merit can seem to be a fatuous award. Some of those things are downright incomprehensible with convoluted metaphors that could mean 400 different things, characters that make you lose faith in humanity, and so on.

The problem is that literary merit is far more than just an enjoyable read. There are many things that can send a little story into the literary canon, and few of them have to do with being a good story. There's stuff like "style" and "significance."

Let's start with the easiest one:

Storytelling: "Gosh Durn it, dat's a good story!"

Most people think that a good story is like porn, you know it when you see it." There is an element of truth to that, but there is method to the madness.

The fundamental aspects of a story can be broken down into four pieces:

  • Characters: all stories have characters, albeit not always human or even living. They can be well-drawn, with nuanced conflicts and original combination of personality traits. Or they can be carbon copies of the hero or villain you read about in that thriller you picked up at the airport. Know the difference between a fictional character that lives, breathes, and believes as a real person, and a drone that appears human but has only machinery under its skin.
  • Plot: this is just a fancy word for "stuff that happens." Some events in a piece of literature are interesting, exciting, and true to life. Others are tedious, outlandish, or … downright impossible. Guess which ones are the good stuff.
  • World-building: the "world" that a work of literature takes place in doesn't necessarily have swords and sorcery, but it is always a fantasy. How well does the author's words create a world in your mind that is just as, if not more, vivid and alive as the one you live in?
  • Themes: from lofty to puerile, every story is about something. (Yes, even Twilight, which is about love and stuff.) Authors treat such "somethings" with different levels of maturity. Some are insightful, deft, and original. Others are just meh.

Since life–even the fictional kind–is messy and chaotic things, we can't really demarcate stories so neatly. Characters can drive plot, as well as plot shaping characters, and so on. Think of the four elements more as a framework for literary analysis rather than pegs that we must shove things into.

A fair warning, though. English profess and scholars typically focus on themes to cull the good from the mediocre. Thematics are important, but they're not the be all and end all. Feel free to look beyond the usual suspects of an English discussion (race, class, gender, and so on) to the actual story itself.

Writing Style: "That writer sure dots their i's real good!"

Sometimes, the form is more than the function (or even the function itself).

The way that a writer arranges their words can transcend the words themselves (or completely destroy their meaning). Prose, dialogue, and narrative can make or break an otherwise mediocre story.

Here's three ways how:

  • Prose: words and sentences are the building block of any literary work, and there are some master bricklayers at work here. Some authors's words are simply so transcendental that the quality of their stories almost doesn't even matter. Consider: Vladimir Nabokov, Virginia Woolf, William Faulkner.
  • Dialogue: this one doesn't get mentioned often, but it's as hard to write sharp dialogue as transcendental prose. The author must match the voices and style to each character perfectly. Consider: Jane Austen, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and even George R. R. Martin.
  • Narrative: sometimes the structure of the story is the story itself. Well crafted narratives, such as Offered's unreliable tapes in The Handmaid's Tale and Nick Carraway's bitter retrospective in The Great Gatsby, can color the meaning of everything in a story. Also consider: Slaughterhouse-Five, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, and Ulysses.

There is a certain snob appeal to literature that has high style. Many of them are considered literary fiction and is hence "better" than an ordinary story.

I disagree that good style can make up for a crappy story, but there is something to be said for masterful prose and clever structuring. A workout for the brain never hurt anyone (mostly).

Historical Significance: "Wow, that book was real important and stuff"

Sometimes, a piece of literature just happens to be at the right place at the right time. Regardless of the quality of the story or its style, certain literary works have  risen to prominence because they mark the passage of a momentous time in history.

  • Time Period/Region: these zeitgeist works define our conception of a particular time period. It doesn't even really matter if it's an accurate portrayal, as long as it is deemed as important. Consider: Grapes of Wrath, The Great Gatsby, and Bonfire of Vanities
  • Underrepresented Perspective: some works introduce a much-needed fresh perspective to the literary canon, which is full of stories told from a white dude's perspective. Those books give a voice to the men and women who have been written out of history books and popular media. Of course, this isn't limited to race or creed, it can include political affiliation and sexual orientation. Consider: Toni Morrison's Sula, Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre, and Jhumpa Lahiri's Interpreter of Maladies.
  • Revolutionary Style: some boo shatter old literary conventions with their stylistic originality. These works usher in an entire new age of writing. James Joyce and Henry Miller were two such authors who spearheaded the stream-of-consciousness style. Some authors even put an entire continent on the literary map, such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez with his gorgeously Latin American take on magical realism in One Hundred Years of Solitude. Consider: Jorge Luis Borges, Franz Kafka, Ernest Hemingway.

The "historically significant" books fill the reading lists of high school and college classrooms. Not all of them are particularly enjoyable to read (I'm looking at you, Finnegan's Wake) and some of them are actually quite good stories. Regardless of their readability, all of them are significant in a grander scale, which makes them more than the brush-off, "good story, bro." They're  important and stuff.

Every factor I've discussed here–storytelling, style, and historical merit–can make a piece of fiction worthy of acclaim.  None of them guarantee you'll enjoy it, since that's a matter of personal taste.

How can you tell if a piece of fiction has literary merit?

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