Lee Wochner: Writer. Director. Writing instructor. Thinker about things.


Great literature

TheTerrorI don’t spend a lot of time trying to discern the difference between great literature and everyday entertainment. I read all sorts of things, sliding on an average day between, say, the novel I’m reading, the non-fiction book I’m reading simultaneously, whatever’s in that week’s New Yorker, assorted comic books both old and new, and other magazines and newspapers.

I do hold onto one personal theory, though:  great literature sticks with you, while entertainment slides off more easily.

Case in point:  About 15 years ago, I read a novel by Brad Meltzer. I had met Mr. Meltzer, a best-selling novelist who also happened at that time to be writing comic books, at the San Diego Comic-Con. A very nice guy, he gave me one of his novels, a thriller about two brothers who happened to somehow come across a load of cash. I read the book, as they say, cover-to-cover, in about… I don’t know… a week or two. It was gripping, fast-paced, enormously enjoyable, and completely forgettable. The limited plot summary I just gave you is the extent of what I can remember about it. Beyond that? Nothing. I can’t even remember the title. Hang on, I’ll go check Wikipedia. … OK, I’m back. I still didn’t recognize any of the titles. I had to read the summaries online. The book I’m talking about is The Millionaires. Every chapter end was a cliffhanger, in the style of those great pulp novels of the 1930s and 1940s, and as with those novels, of which I read probably 50, I now can’t remember any of it.

Contrast that with:  The Road (Cormac McCarthy) or Tender is the Night (Fitzgerald) or The Canterbury Tales or Shakespeare or 1984 or any of hundreds or thousands of other things I’ve read. The difference is that the plot isn’t the point. It’s what lies beneath the plot; it’s the theme that makes up the entire point of the enterprise.

That’s what I’m getting at in my workshop, Words That Speak, when I ask the playwrights, “What’s this play about?” I’m not asking in terms of plot — I’m asking in terms of theme. Because it’s got to be about something, and not just about what happens.

What brings this to mind is the novel The Terror, which I finished reading at 3 this morning, all 771 pages of it. As I read this book about a true-life polar expedition that got trapped in arctic ice in 1845, which I had never intended to read, and which I had picked up thinking it was a thriller of sorts, the sensation started to grow in me that this was not only not a thriller, and not only not just literature, it was great literature. The list is short of contemporary novels that make up great literature;  you saw me put The Road on that list; I’d put The Sense of an Ending (Julian Barnes) on that list as well, and then I’d have to think about it. What makes The Terror great literature is that it is not purely restricted to the issue-at-hand of the men’s survival; no, it occurred to me somewhere after page 700 as I began to wonder just why this novel was so engrossing, so impossible to put down, urging me forward to read 20 or 30 or 50 pages every night, sometimes staying up hours later than I should have, that this is a novel about the natural order — about man’s place in the universe, and of each individual’s place in his own natural order, his own life. The novel takes beautiful turns and, as one reviewer noted, is oddly optimistic for such a bleak tale of men freezing and dying in horrible ways in an icebound climate with little hope of rescue.

But the particular reason I bring this up is that, after finishing the book and still caught in its afterglow sometime around 3 a.m., I decided to go online and read the New York Times’ review from the book’s publication date of 2007. It’s a bad review. Here’s the concluding bit:

When a novel goes north of, say, 600 pages, we naturally become impatient, demanding, potentially mutinous, and the questions we ask of the writer can turn testy: Where are we going and why, and will the whole grueling experience be worth it? Or are we just stuck in something we can’t seem to get out of?

Oh, I realized. The fault in this review lies with the reviewer, who never adjusted his expectation. And I wonder if he ever got past those 600 pages — because it’s past those 600 that the depth and extent of this work comes clearly into view. The reviewer expected it to be a thriller. But it isn’t. It’s great literature.

It’s important to know the difference.

Now, today, I’m back to reading Action Comics for a while. I don’t expect it to enter the literary canon.

6 Responses to “Great literature”

  1. Mike Folie Says:

    Excellent piece. I completely agree that great literature stays with you, while enjoyable, plot-driven work generally does not. I am also interested in work that straddles the border between popular, often genre writing, and literature. I’m thinking of writers like Le Carré, Tolkien, Dashiel Hammett, Agatha Christy, Stanislaw Lem, Ursula LeGuinn, Arthur Conan Doyle, Ray Bradbury, and W. Somerset Maugham, among others.

  2. Lee Wochner Says:

    Me too. The science fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson is, to me, clearly writing in a literary vein (the harrowing post-climate-disaster Earth depicted in “2312” is hard to forget — and his forecasts on gender fluidity and the intractability of humanity’s problems seem prescient), and Philip K. Dick, whatever one thinks of the prose, has made an enormous impact on our culture. It’s good to remember that, in his life time, Nathaniel Hawthorne was a popular writer. Now he’s in the canon. Your examples of Ursula K. LeGuin and Ray Bradbury are especially apt.

  3. Jim Markley Says:

    Our books reflect our society. We seem to want literary fast food, paperback novels that don’t require deep thought or soul-searching. Most are forgettable, as you said. On the other hand, do we romanticize literature of a bygone era, thinking it more profound or timeless simply because of its age? How many writers can you cite whose greatness was never recognized by their peers?
    By the way, “The Terror” was made into a pretty good miniseries. You should catch it sometime.

  4. Lee Wochner Says:

    I saw the miniseries when it first aired. I hadn’t intended to read the novel, but it was lying about the house since December — it was a Christmas gift for my wife; ironically, I bought it for her because I thought it was a thriller. I would say that the miniseries seems to me perfectly cast, and very enjoyable. In some ways, the changes from the novel that are made early in the story are better suited to television; the changes made later are because television audiences expect certain things (payoffs), and because the literary nature of the last part of the book would not have translated well to the television show. I highly recommend the novel for a deeper experience, and, again, I thoroughly enjoyed the TV show too. As regards your question re writers whose greatness was never recognized: We’ll never know, because their greatness was never recognized.

  5. Bruce Says:

    I watched the mini-series from this book and it was originally fascinating because the world was fascinating and the motive interesting and then there was the thriller aspect to it. But it really took a long time to get going and I lost interest at about episode 3.
    I imagine the book kept it going better than the series.

  6. Lee Wochner Says:

    I liked them both, in different ways. The ending of the miniseries was somewhat baffling to everyone I know who watched it; the ending of the book absolutely clarifies it.

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