Monday, January 19, 2009

Literary Merit

Today was a fun day for me. I took 3 of my book club students to Lawrence (home of KU Jayhawks) to browse two 2nd hand bookstores. We all took books in to trade and came out with some new bargains. My best find was a copy of Helene Hanff's The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street (the same author wrote the more well-known 84 Charing Cross Road, but I much prefer this book as she actually visits London and regales us with her traveling adventures). I also found a few other treasures, as did my students. We spent a total of 6 hours together and I think they truly could have stayed longer if I didn't have to get back to lesson plans.

This book club class is a very informal, one-credit hour class that involves the reading and discussion of literature. There are no tests or papers in the class (you would think that it would be better attended than just 6 students), but every single one of these students LOVES to read. We began the school year developing a list of books to read first semester: some were tried and true classics (Of Mice and Men and Great Expectations) and others were more contemporary (Screwtape Letters and Phantom of the Opera). This has led to several discussions of what constitutes literary merit - and what makes a novel worth close academic study vs an enjoyable read. We have devised - albeit very unscientifically - a formula for literary merit which we continue to hone each class period. So far, here is a list of possible criteria:
  1. timeless - as in, it is pertinent in the year it was written as well as years (centuries) afterwards
  2. timeless - as in, it can be read and enjoyed by a variety of age groups (teens through 80s)
  3. begs to be re-read - as in, each time the story is re-read the reader gains a deeper appreciation or learns more about human nature or gains a different perspective than the first time (I would not put the Twilight series in this category as I think these books are re-read because the characters are like close friends that one may wish to revisit, but not necessarily present a new academic focus)
  4. unique - as in, the author has experimented with a new genre or writing technique that is then adopted by others (for example, Poe's horror or Capote's True Crime)
  5. layers of meaning - as in, there is so much symbolism and/or themes and/or textures in the novel that it simply cannot be absorbed all at one time
  6. writing style - as in, the language is so rich in diction and/or syntax that the reader is drawn into the story as much through the words as through the plot, characters or setting
So far, that is what our small group has discussed. I would love to hear your views on what you think constitutes "literary merit". I am not looking for the definitive meaning of the term - but rather a brainstorm of what could it entail in the hopes that this might spark some great class discussions as well as individual critical thinking.


  1. Ah, wish I would of know you were going to be in Lawrence today and I would of met you guys! I live just west of Lawrence and I love to shop for books!
    Glad to hear you had a good time, you sure had a beautiful day!!
    darbyscloset at yahoo dot com

  2. I wish there was a class like your book club class when I was in high school. It reminds me of my favorite class in college, Freshman Seminar. Over the course of a semester we read about 6 books and watched about 6 films and documentaries. After reading or viewing we wrote short essays on the selected assignment. The entire point of the class was to understand the different perspectives that people bring to the table and how their personal experiences might have helped them arrive at such different conclusions. It was actually the class that made me excited to read and triggered the interest for me. I think it's such a great service that you're providing your students with!

  3. If I beg and I plead, will you host this class on-line weekly with whomever is interested? I'd join in a HEARTBEAT! I'm going to read Of Mice & Men SOON!

    You are so awesome!

    I love your definitions.

    The only other definition would be a book that moves the spirit/moves the soul. As I write that, I'm trying to give better words or an example. Because your definition of the one with "layers" and "meanings" almost says what I mean. I'll have to think on it more.

  4. What a great class - I wish I could be in it. I'm sure those 6 kids are a joy to be with.

  5. I would have loved to have had an English teacher like you when I was at highschool. Mine was good, but not that good ;)

    English was always my favourite subject at school, and I always got excellent results. Wish I could have said the same for Maths though, lol.

  6. Funny, but that's my essay topic in my English class. How do you define literary merit, using a modern novel as an example. Mine own is Twilight, arguing that it shouldn't have any merit whatsoever.

    Some things I would add (or perhaps expand upon?) are:

    1. Effort (Whether the author went through effort with their writing - did they work extensively on it until satisified or just slap it out onto the market?)

    2. Plausibility (Whether or not the work is set in a fictional world, is it logically set up? Are there any plot holes, in other words? Moreso, can we believe the characters are realistic? Do their actions or diction contradict themselves?)

    The only point I find myself half-way disagreeing on is "timeless" as a factor. Some works seem even more enjoyable when there's so much to uncover with the world it was set in. Could you expand on that point?

    Sorry for such a long comment, but thank you for this entry. It's helping out a lot :D

    My email is, by the way, if you happen to want to respond XD

  7. I'm writing the same type of essay for my Freshman English class as the anon from November.

    My own book is Harry Potter and I do believe it qualifies for literary merit.

    It's not just a children's book. It has many adult themes, lots of symbology and it also speaks to people in all age groups. (Which is a difficult thing for a book to do)

    But on another subject: I'm glad you have this book club! I would love to have a class like this! Keep up the good work! :)


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