What is the difference between good and bad literature?

At first, a clarification. I do not use the term ‘good literature’ as a synonym for ‘captivating’, ‘stylistically elaborate’, or ‘well-structured’ writings, although all of these attributes may contribute to a piece of literature being good.

Thus, a book may be very thrilling and yet fail to be good literature in my sense.

By the same token, by ‘bad literature’ I do not mean literature whose only flaws are that it fails to be captivating, stylistically elaborate or well-structured. What I do mean by each one will hopefully become clearer as I unfold my suggestions.

It is important to note that the following list is just a first approximation, and that the criteria are perhaps sufficient conditions, but certainly not necessary ones; that is, good or bad literature need not fulfill all of them to count as good or bad literature, but perhaps one of the criteria suffices to make it such. One last preliminary: Whatever will be said about literature can, mutatis mutandis, also be applied to other arts.

  • Bad literature is concerned with vulgar desires and themes; with basic or even base pursuits, not looking beyond and beneath them. Examples include sex (as a merely physical pleasure), wealth, or reputation. Good literature, by contrast, is concerned with the ‘transcendentals’: the true, the good and the beautiful. It seeks to identify them in particulars like persons, places and things; and present them to the reader in a way such as only a narrative can do, halfway between ‘looking at’ and ‘looking along’.
  • Good literature transcends the author’s own, petty, idiosyncratic perspective; it seeks to see the good, true and beautiful in the other (generally, people, but also things). Bad literature does not do that; it is either partisan or egocentric. Good literature judges, sometimes harshly and bluntly; bad literature slanders and demonizes.
  • Good literature describes persons realistically but never cynically or even maliciously; it seeks to better bad people rather than to wallow in their badness.
  • Good literature may proceed by creating a fantasy world, where the transcendentals get an ever sharper contrast, because familiar particulars (places, persons etc.) are either absent or present more like a shadowy background scenery and can thus do not divert the mind’s receptiveness for the transcendentals. (Here, a general phenomenon may come to surface: namely that the deep structure of reality, the transcendentals, are not easily perceived in the particulars around us. Perhaps the World – in the sense in which the New Testament uses the term (see, e.g., 1 John 2:15-17) is a system one of whose purposes it is to conceal the transcendentals; to keep people busy with the surface appearances of particular things. Thus, considering another world which resembles ours mainly in terms of the transcendentals and other fundamental elements of nature (like seasons, eating and drinking etc.) but is different as regards the sort of protagonists and lacks many cultural particulars of our world may enable us to see the commonalities better. In such an unfamiliar setting they impinge on our minds like a deep, rhythmic thud does even when we do not know where it comes from, even though we see all kinds of things around us that cannot be its origin; and a sudden change of scenery makes the thud, provided it persists, even more conspicuous.

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