What is it?

Without cheating and looking it up I would say it is safe to say that great literature is any written work that either has or is predestined to stand the test of time.

Kerouac was a a journeyman writer who got lucky with ‘On the Road’. I say lucky very tongue-in-cheek. He spent 9 long years writing and re-writing that book. He was only lucky inasmuch as he had his then very famous friend, Allen Ginsberg to champion the work to get it published.

Is ‘On the Road’ great literature? No. I have to agree with Ed, who commented to my previous post that ‘On the Road’ just happened to have been delivered to a public that was ready for such a tale. Is the book re-readable? I have to agree with Ed again here and say sadly, no.

Had he survived his alcoholism, would Kerouac ever made it as a writer beyond journeyman status? My opinion is probably not.

Does great literature matter? Obviously, yes but in the long haul, not as much as one would imagine.

I read all the 19th century Russian classics as a teenager, confined as I was most of the time to my bedroom; penalized as I was then for any one of a number of crimes that I had committed. And as a delusionally pretentious budding teenage intellectual I read a lot of the French classics too.

Are any of those great classics re-readable? Maybe for you. I tried to have another go at the likes of ‘War and Peace’ which I loved as a teen but as an adult I couldn’t manage to get through the first 100 pages. ‘Crime and Punishment’ made me want to gouge my eyes out with the closest available mechanical pencil. It is one thing to suffer, but is it necessary to suffer on every damn page?

These days I stick with what I am going to call likable literature. For instance, I love John D. MacDonald’s ‘Travis McGee’ series. I’ve read all 23 novels (or so) three times. And if I am lucky, I’ll probably read them one last time before I die.

I’m in the process of re-reading Bernard Corwell’s ‘Sharpe’ series for the second time. I’ve read everything that Jim Harrison has ever written three times. Same for Thomas McGuane. Same for William Gibson. I have a very long list of re-reads including Octavio Paz’s immortal work ‘The Labyrinth of Solitude’.

Why? Because they’re my go to comfort books. I find something about each and every one of them compelling for different reasons. Likable literature has got to have one or all of four necessary components: great writing, great characters, great setting, or a great story.

What carries the story the best? For me, it typically is about a great character. And in the case of the Western genre, as someone once wisely noted, the setting (itself) is the [chief] character. But give me a likeable rogue and I am a very happy reader.

‘The Sheltering Sky’ by Paul Bowles was an important post WWII novel (1949) because of its story; American expats wandering through N. Africa. But was it great writing? Probably not. I’d probably have to say the same for John O’Hara’s much earlier published ‘Appointment in Samarra’ (1934). A brilliant idea for a story – through one tiny thoughtless act, a man’s life comes totally undone in a week  – but great literature? Probably not.

Whereby Steinbeck’s tiny classic ‘Tortilla Flat (1935) is a complete home run combining impeccable writing (brevity), great characters, and a great story to produce one of the finest pieces of 20th century literature. It so takes me to that warm cuddly fictional place that each time I had to go out and buy a cheap jug of Californian burgundy before I could even begin to imagine re-reading it.