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  •  'Lord of the Rings' made most of the lists. (6+ / 0-)

    Actually, the lists ranged from those that were voted for by thousands of BBC listeners, or other large groups of readers (and LOTR made all those lists), to lists that were compiled by professional literary groups or individuals (and LOTR made half of those).

    But there are, as you imply, two criteria where books measure their greatness in centuries. First, as you say, people will be reading LOTR 300 years from now. Second, as important to me as readership is influence: in 300 years, people will be reading 300 other books that walk in Tolkein's footsteps.

    I admire the Joyce book (though I love Dubliners & Ulysses), but found it far drier than LOTR. I thought Dangerous Liaisons was a pretty gripping story. But I wouldn't reread it the way you can reread LOTR multiple times.

    "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

    by Brecht on Fri Apr 05, 2013 at 06:47:05 PM PDT

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    •  You touch here on what I find problematic about (10+ / 0-)

      this whole business of compiling lists of the "greatest". Can we even agree on the metrics for measuring greatness? I don't think either popularity or influence will do.

      Gone with the Wind is by far more popular and consequently more influential in terms of raw numbers than say, Things Fall Apart but I'd never consider the former as holding a candle to the latter in terms of "greatness."

      LOTR is another case in point. I'm quite fond of it and have no problem styling it as a great Novel. However, does the fact that its success has spawned a plethora of inferior imitations enlarge its achievement? I think not. Neither am I convinced that its influence will ultimately outdistance that of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

      Nevertheless, I wouldn't rate either of these as being in the same class as The Brothers Karamazov, The Master and Margarita, Moby Dick, Frankenstein or even Huckleberry Finn.

      Nothing human is alien to me.

      by WB Reeves on Fri Apr 05, 2013 at 07:46:17 PM PDT

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      •  I disagree in part (7+ / 0-)

        Whether or not its sucess has or not spawned a host of inferior imitations is quite besides the point. I think LOTR a profound, surprisingly deep work and that is what makes it a mandatory inclusion on the list for me. I would in fact place it on the list including Brothers K, Moby Dick, Frankenstein, etc, all of which I have in fact read.

        I think the real issue is that it is not at all clear what constitutes greatness even if we discount popularity or 'influence'. It seems much easier to identify novels in what they lack, rather than the quality of greatness which would include them on any list.

        Herein I will thus share what I get from these list making exercises: some works of art that I might otherwise miss, precisely because they are not popular or widely read anymore

        An empty head is not really empty; it is stuffed with rubbish. Hence the difficulty of forcing anything into an empty head. -- Eric Hoffer

        by MichiganChet on Fri Apr 05, 2013 at 07:58:54 PM PDT

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        •  You're entitled to your view, (7+ / 0-)

          variety being the spice of life.

          I hope you understand that I've read these books as well, otherwise I wouldn't have felt myself qualified to have the opinion expressed. We simply disagree.

          As wonderful as I consider LOTR to be, I do not find that it possesses the breadth, depth or subtlety in characterization of the other books referenced. Again, just my opinion.  

          Nothing human is alien to me.

          by WB Reeves on Fri Apr 05, 2013 at 08:17:16 PM PDT

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          •  Very interesting points, from both of you, thanks. (4+ / 0-)

            I'll read them more carefully and weigh in again, when I've finished dinner.

            What does it say for The Da Vinci Code, that it's sold 80,000,000 copies around the world? Books just don't do that. It must have several strengths, to achieve such legs.

            My definition of greatness is much closer to yours, WB Reeves. But I do think it's useful, in exploring a complex subject, to hold your own beliefs and opinions, but also be willing to step outside them, to question and consider other possible perspectives.

            So, actually, my feeling for greatness in a novel is akin to yours. Intellectually, I just try on different spectacles, to see what I can see through them.

            "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

            by Brecht on Fri Apr 05, 2013 at 08:42:58 PM PDT

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            •  Haven't read The Da Vinci Code (5+ / 0-)

              so I can't opine on its literary merits. However, I can observe that there has long been a market for "revelatory secret histories", particularly when they come wrapped in a compelling suspense/intrigue narrative. Particularly so at present when there is a large popular appetite for conspiracy fiction.

              I concur with you on the value of alternate viewpoints. Sometimes I even change my opinion :)

              Nothing human is alien to me.

              by WB Reeves on Fri Apr 05, 2013 at 08:56:54 PM PDT

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            •  I had the misfortune of reading the da Vinci code (4+ / 0-)

              It is hack work.  Pure and simple junk.  The equivalent (at best) to prints of dogs playing poker.  

              Dogs playing poker captures the imagination because so many people have dogs and identify dogs.  Da Vinci is popular worldwide because so many people are Catholics or are interested in dirt on Catholics wrapped up as a third rate Ludlum novel.

              Deserves it! I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends. - Gandalf the Grey

              by No Exit on Sat Apr 06, 2013 at 05:27:11 AM PDT

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        •  I think influence ripples out in different ways. (7+ / 0-)

          As you say, the nature or the separate components of greatness are hard to discern, but I find them very interesting to explore.

          It seems much easier to identify novels in what they lack, rather than the quality of greatness which would include them on any list.

          Herein I will thus share what I get from these list making exercises: some works of art that I might otherwise miss, precisely because they are not popular or widely read anymore

          These sentences run parallel, in my view. The value you find in lists is, I think, the highest function of the critic: to expose their audience to favorite art which they haven't found yet. And to find, and communicate, what special qualities attract them to different works.

          I'm not sure it's easier to spot flaws than strengths in Novels, but it may be more common among critics who want to appear smart. They feel superior when they're looking down their nose at things, and they feel foolish when they're gushing like a teenager.

          In a work which stands as an unusual, original artistic wholeness, the flaws and the strengths may be two sides of the same story.

          I'd agree with WB Reeves, a couple of comments above this one. I think LOTR has all the elements you need in a Great Novel. It has enough depth of story and richness of humanity to fully engage the reader's mind, heart and imagination.

          Nonetheless, it doesn't quite match the other classics WB Reeves mentioned for "breadth, depth or subtlety in characterization". How could it? Where would Tolkein put that? He's achieving other things, which those classics don't aim for. By an interesting coincidence, The Brothers Karamazov, The Master and Margarita, Moby Dick, Frankenstein & Huckleberry Finn each does resonate a little on Tolkein's deepest frequencies, they each have some shards of folklore, myth and epic to them. But that's like saying they each rock a little, while LOTR is the Led Zeppelin of them all. Tolkein finds the chords of myth and strums them all, he layers them like Kashmir. He writes myth informed with all the bells and whistles that popular fiction invented after myth died.

          But it takes him hundreds of pages to fill so large a canvas and, though he brings his characters to life and makes them real, he doesn't try to map out all the subtleties and permutations of human nature in one individual's heart and mind. Even Frodo and Sam spend a great deal of time inhabiting only parts of the human condition. In the end, Tolkein does visit a wide palette of humanity - but he spreads it throughout an immense cast of characters. In the end, the characters are not there to be touched in every part of their humanity: they live to tell Tolkein's larger story, and he only needs to show us one side of most of them.

          "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

          by Brecht on Sat Apr 06, 2013 at 12:47:38 AM PDT

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          •  I do so love these engagements (3+ / 0-)
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            Brecht, RiveroftheWest, translatorpro

            Even though I still disagree. I think there is much breadth, depth and perhaps less subtlety in LOTR that makes it fully worthwhile to list on any top 100. In fact I wrote a diary about it, so as one may imagine I have thought about this much.

            I mean LOTR caused me to re-think my hitherto strong approval of capital punishment, and if you know me, and the intellectual arrogance i used to assume, well, how much deeper can you get? I strongly doubt 'Da Vinci Code' made anyone re-think anything except maybe where to sightsee on their next European vacation.

            I would also underline what seems to me to be the main point of the learned critic: To explain, to catalyze understanding, to explain just what it is that makes a novel, or a movie or a song meaningful and why and in what way

            An empty head is not really empty; it is stuffed with rubbish. Hence the difficulty of forcing anything into an empty head. -- Eric Hoffer

            by MichiganChet on Sat Apr 06, 2013 at 07:04:37 PM PDT

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            •  I love them too. Lively and thoughtful debate. (2+ / 0-)
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              RiveroftheWest, translatorpro

              I won't continue on LOTR, because I think we each see clearly the other's view, now.

              That's a good definition of the main thing critics offer. Some of them get us to reassess which works are classics, get us to reconsider books or albums whose essence and brilliance we'd failed to grasp before. And a very few transcend that, and teach us to see the whole artform more clearly and deeply. But more fail in the attempt.

              "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

              by Brecht on Sat Apr 06, 2013 at 10:21:35 PM PDT

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      •  "Can we even agree on the metrics for measuring (7+ / 0-)

        greatness?" Well, would you be okay with discussing it for a couple more years before coming to that decision?

        Some of the metrics I've borrowed or discovered include: Readability, Plot, Characterization, Originality.

        Influence, I think, is larger than you imply. Consider Bob Dylan, who I'd rate the most influential person in Rock, especially in the transition from rock'n'roll and pop to the deeper, wider, much more intricate and well-developed music we hear today. So, yes, he spawned hundreds of Dylan imitators.

        But he also shifted and expanded the whole field he was playing on. If you read through hundreds of interviews with musicians, you'll find that everyone raised their game after hearing Dylan: Beatles, Stones, Who, Led Zep, David Bowie, Byrds, Grateful Dead, Neil Young, Marvin Gaye, Sam Cooke - there must be very few major rock musicians who were't influenced, in their own songwriting, by Dylan. And that spills over into country, soul, reggae, indeed into any field that borrows from rock songwriting - so, by now, jazz, blues, techno and death metal.

        I'd say that LOTR was a Highway 61 Revisited among novels, a game-changer which everyone absorbed, so that it influenced even those authors who went on to write books that don't appear to be anything like it. Just as budding authors read 100 Years of Solitude, and learned how to weave magic into their everyday realism. Just as authors read Ulysses and found dozens of new ways to break down and represent all the flow and flickering of human consciousness. LOTR had an edge on those two tomes, because so many authors read it in their teens, or even earlier: so it helped to form the literary awareness, to map out the story-telling imagination, of a few generations of authors.

        "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

        by Brecht on Sat Apr 06, 2013 at 01:17:29 AM PDT

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        •  Influence is a powerful demarcator (3+ / 0-)
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          Brecht, RiveroftheWest, translatorpro

          I've heard it described similarly: A great work of literature forces you to learn to read in a new way.  That's a helpful yardstick, although it skews to a modernist viewpoint, where the shock of the new gets bonus points.  It emphasizes style and voice, as well as innovative uses of perspective and irony.

          A 47% return on investment--that's pretty doggoned good!

          by deminva on Sat Apr 06, 2013 at 06:48:23 AM PDT

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          •  You open an interesting point of debate here. (2+ / 0-)
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            RiveroftheWest, translatorpro

            My brother says newness and originality have been over-rated ever since Romanticism swept away the Classic ideals of perfecting forms and subordinating yourself to the universal rules of the craft.

            Now we have all these undergraduates slaving to create third-rate, but original, theses. They should just be learning to produce good work, as artists trained through imitating the masters, for centuries before the Romantic revolution.

            You say my yardstick gives the shock of the new bonus points, and that's true. Two questions:

            Are we measuring just Influence, or all of Greatness, in art?

            What parts of this am I neglecting, by focussing on originality?

            "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

            by Brecht on Sat Apr 06, 2013 at 06:43:26 PM PDT

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            •  I didn't mean (3+ / 0-)
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              to criticize your yardstick, especially since I was putting some english on your use of influence.  Some of my favorite books are less shock of the new than they are perfection of the form.  Tom Jones, for one.  Brownie points for being one of the first novels, but hardly novel in the manner of Don Quixote or Tristram Shandy.  Those sexy mf's were postmodern a few hundred years before their time.  

              Or Pride and Prejudice, which merely perfects the literary love story.

              I do love the sort of experimentation on display in the best Faulkner, or in Invisible Man, and any best of list that leaves off Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian can kiss my ass.  But I tend to agree with your brother.  

              Do you know T. S. Eliot's essay on influence?  It speaks to the angst of the modernist striving to surpass tradition.  But on the flip side, William Carlos Williams called The Waste Land an atomic bomb that blew up poetry, with in his mind disastrous consequences.  Generations of poets, he thought, felt bound to follow Eliot's lead, and poetry became less about seeking fresh and vital language and more a heavy, academic exercise.

              To address (if not answer) your second question, I think originality often lies in the eye of the beholder.  Faulkner criticized Hemingway for playing it safe: He found a way of writing that worked, and then he worked it over and over.  True enough.  But it's such a powerful voice.  And if our alternatives are books like Absalom, Absalom! (glorious writing, but for me nearly unreadable) or Finnegans Wake (flat out unreadable for almost everybody, including some modernist professors I admired), I think I'll take the safe Hemingway.

              How "original" is The Great Gatsby?  Not so much, I'd say, especially given its birth in the High Modern period.  But it's a perfect book.  Its use of American mythology, its imagery, its narration and pacing.  Wow!

              A 47% return on investment--that's pretty doggoned good!

              by deminva on Sat Apr 06, 2013 at 07:41:08 PM PDT

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              •  Brilliant comment. But there is so much here. (1+ / 0-)
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                RiveroftheWest

                I hope I can get to a reply this morning. If I can't, I'll write one this evening, when I have time to digest and consider all you're saying.

                I've enjoyed that Eliot essay. It was a major influence on my brother's view of literature, and he's the person I most frequently discuss literature with.

                "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

                by Brecht on Sun Apr 07, 2013 at 09:59:21 AM PDT

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              •  I agree with both your larger ideas and . . . (1+ / 0-)
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                RiveroftheWest

                . . specific examples. But all of your answers are just opening up more questions for me.

                I find T.S. Eliot a bit like Christopher Hitchens: very capable of brilliant and original thought, but inclined to get caught up in contrarianism for the sake of it. So when he saw critical consensus pointing in one direction, he'd usually swim against it.

                Harold Bloom says we sometimes miss the shocking newness a great writer brought into literature, because the field absorbs them and reorients, so that later generations read what was once startling as the now-established standard. Bloom mentions Shakespeare. I think it's also true of Austen who, as much as anyone, invented the modern Romance (as love story, not movement). All Novels absorbed her tropes, so that SF, mysteries, realists, naturalists, meta-fiction, etc. are all riffing on Austen, when it comes to the love stories within their plots.

                Austen had read the Romances written before her, and drew much from them - but, like Freud, she took all these threads and wove them into something larger, which contained her own new and superior vision of the material. She perfected a form which didn't fully exist before her.

                This is merely my intuition. I have not studied pre-Austen Romances, in order to test how soundly they support my theory.

                Just as we could unpack this idea, Influence, and find a handful of aspects within it, we could do the same with Perfection of the Form. If that Form is the novel, I'd say it contains 88 different sub-perfections, starting with the ones I mention above: Plot, Character, Originality (or you could say imagination, and see it in use of language, style, storytelling, ways of looking at the world, which details you prioritize - I'm spinning here, but I could spin for a long time), and Readability. I have a list of a dozen more axes of excellence, but I'll spare you. One day, they'll be a diary.

                Hemingway, next to Faulkner, did play it safe. Faulkner experimented in many directions. Hemingway found one direction, and just drilled down. It was a very powerful direction, and his approach has something universal about it (don't we all often want to be clear, succinct, resonant?), so that it proved widely influential on 20th Century writing. He also had stronger quality control than Faulkner, a tighter focus and discipline.

                If I thought I had definitive answers to the issues we're discussing, I wouldn't tell you them. I would put them at the bottom of my drawer, and pull out a blank sheet of paper, to start designing another set of answers on. Greatness in Novels is one of my very favorite mental gems, and I intend to inspect every facet of it.

                "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

                by Brecht on Mon Apr 08, 2013 at 12:07:49 AM PDT

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            •  That's pretty sweeping since (3+ / 0-)
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              English romantics such as Byron, Keats and Shelly weren't shy about using classical materials. Seems to me they signified a shift in emphasis from the  Apollonian to the Dionysian rather than a revolution against classical forms but perhaps that's what he's talking about.

              Did he specify what brand of Romanticism he meant?

              I think it's hard to reconcile "the shock of the new" with English Romanticism. They were prone to looking backward to an idyllic, pre-industrial past.

              Nothing human is alien to me.

              by WB Reeves on Sat Apr 06, 2013 at 09:59:59 PM PDT

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              •  Lord, I hardly know where to begin. I feel like (3+ / 0-)

                we're having several conversations at once. Partly my own fault, as I do enjoy making sweeping generalizations.

                My brother studied in this area at Cambridge, in modern languages, and his PhD thesis was on Madame de Stael. So he's certainly paying a lot of attention to French and German Romanticism the most, but is aware of all Europe, and of arts beyond literature.

                Apollonian/Dionysian is a very good reference point.

                I'd say that Romanticism included the shock of the new, because it moved from the long-established rules of Aristotle et al. to prioritizing the unique vision of the individual artist, living in the moment and making original discoveries.

                The Romantics had all sorts of subjects and approaches that they enjoyed exploring. On that Apollonian/Dionysian axis they moved from the calm view of an orderly intellect towards the dramatic view of a turbulent heart. In their explorations of feeling, and even more in the places and stories they chose to write about, I think they were looking frequently for the shock of the unusual & exotic.

                "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

                by Brecht on Sun Apr 07, 2013 at 09:55:13 AM PDT

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      •  I'll push back on Frankenstein (3+ / 0-)
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        Brecht, RiveroftheWest, translatorpro

        Purely as a story, it rocks.  But to get the story, you actually have to read it, and man that's some turgid prose!

        I think of Frankenstein as a classic adventure story, like Tom Sawyer, Treasure Island, or The Time Machine.

        A 47% return on investment--that's pretty doggoned good!

        by deminva on Sat Apr 06, 2013 at 06:40:24 AM PDT

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