by Douglas Grudzina
In a few short weeks, Thursday, May 6, to be exact—you do realize that we’re already at the end of January, don’t you?—many of your students will sit in a locked and quiet room and take a three-hour exam (for which they will have paid $86). First they’ll read several selections—poems, short stories, passages from novels and plays they may or may not have ever heard of—and choose the “best” answers to approximately ten multiple-choice questions per selection.
Then, they’ll have to write three essays. At least one of those essays will introduce a topic of literary significance—Many characters in novels and plays are normal schlubs who find themselves facing extraordinary circumstances. The essay will invite the student to think about and write about that topic—Choose a novel or play in which a nebbish or a schmendrick must save the world and write an essay in which you …
Finally, the student will be offered a list of such novels and plays with a notification not unlike the following:
You may choose a work from the list below or another novel or play of comparable literary merit.
This raises the question of what, exactly, is “literary merit”? Of course we—I happily confess to being a retired AP Lit and Comp teacher—assume (hope?) that our students will be able to expound brilliantly on one of the plethora of novels and plays we studied in class. Certainly they should be able to find something to write about from everything they studied in high school!
But what if the topic is that obscure? What if—as has happened—the student’s mind goes blank and the entire year’s reading, writing, and discussing are gone? What if our students really are pressed with selecting their own title to write about? How will they know whether The Life and Adventures of Such and Such has “literary merit” or not?
And how will they know to dismiss those works that—sorry, but—simply don’t?
I think we can (must …) ask ourselves the same questions when we decide which titles to include in our school and district curricula, which to include on summer reading lists, and which to approve for student independent-reading activities. In short, what is worth precious instructional and homework time, and what is not—and how do we tell?
One of the most basic elements of “literary merit,” is character. “Good literature,” they say, “is character driven.” Think about Charles Dickens. All of his books have plots—intricate, suspenseful, and exciting plots—but, beyond the plots what we love about Dickens are his characters. Young Pip isn’t invited to play at any rich, old lady’s house, it’s Miss Havisham. David Copperfield doesn’t seek refuge with merely a relative, he runs to Betsy Trotwood. And people know the character of the hapless orphan, Oliver Twist, who haven’t a clue about the plot.
That’s what we mean by character-driven. A novel or play must have a plot, a sequence of events that begins with some conflict, gets more exciting as the protagonist fights an increasingly difficult series of challenges, and then finds closure as the challenges are met and the conflict ended (for better or for worse). We’ve all read, however, those awful books (and we see them in movies a lot) in which the storyline is entertaining enough, but the characters are bland, or clichéd, or superficial, or just plain dumb. And we sort of know instinctively that those books and movies lack that something that may as well be called “literary merit.”
Think about it. What are the books you love to teach? What are the books that lend themselves to real discussion?
Why does Jane Eyre appear in so many reading lists and Shirley (written by Bronte two years later) does not? It’s character! I have a colleague who absolutely hated Jane Eyre when she listened to it on audiobook. Her reason? She could not stand Edward Rochester! (How cool is that? To hate a book because you have such a strong reaction to one of its characters?)
Why Pride and Prejudice and not Emma? (Hint: it’s character!)
As we expand the canon, why do we find Their Eyes Were Watching God more frequently than Invisible Man? My guess is that Janie is a better-developed and more fascinating character than the unnamed narrator of Ellison’s novel. A lot happens in the Ellison book, but do we really care about the man to whom they happen?
Why The Kite Runner and not any one of a number of similar books with similar themes and almost-equally-shocking plots? I would submit the secret lies in the characters of Amir and Hassan and their powerful friendship.
Plot is plot, and plot is fun; many novels, plays, movies, and television shows are completely plot-driven and are very entertaining. Many plot-driven stories are commercially very successful.
What lingers with us, however, what haunts us for years afterward and actually changes the way we view our lives, the world, and other people is not the fact that some haughty girl turned down a proposal and regretted it, but that Elizabeth Bennett learned how unjustly she had misjudged Mr. Darcy. We don’t necessarily care that some kid halfway around the world was molested by a bully while chasing a kite, but it breaks our heart that the perennially happy Hassan is utterly betrayed by his closer-than-brother, who allows the rape to occur.
The plots of literature are unlikely to mirror our lives—when was the last time an escaped convict made a fortune and sent it to you so you could join the ranks of the independently wealthy? But the unrequited loves, the nagging doubts, the haunting shames, and all the other emotions our favorite characters experience while they lead their nothing-like-ours lives is what makes the story transcend mere entertainment.
The plots exist to reveal the characters. The characters control the plots. And I submit that it is this element of character that finally determines the “literary quality” of a work, and whether or not it’s worth your students’ spending their twenty minutes essay time on.