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A large part of the problem with the American literary scene is that the notion of "good literature" has become not a marker of quality, but a particular genre and style. If you write in the designated style of the decade, then you are writing literature, regardless of whether or not it's any "good" - that is, whether anyone would enjoy reading it.
The proper literary style and genre of the decade is determined by a few academics and academic writers, and followed by everyone else who wants to be literary. The "quality" of the produced works is determined by how well it plays in that circle.
Great literature stands the test of time because people continue to pick up those books and read them and enjoy them and get something out of them. People young and old, experienced and neophyte, can, in the right circumstances and allowing for some measure of personal taste, understand and enjoy the greats, and judge their quality by that mysterious inner process that no one really understands.
Abstract stylistic rules and experimental formats have nothing to do with this reality, but they have everything to do with how "literary" one is considered.
The one constant in art history is changing taste. This century's renowned genius painters, composers and writers were last century's nobodies.
This makes obsessive scrabbling for posterity counterproductive. No one knows what the tastes of the next few centuries will be, or even if they'll have the same ideas about serious art that we do.
One of the greatest lessons I received as an undergraduate was from a young professor who opened his Shakespeare course by literally tearing into Othello as a horribly plotted drama with so many faults which would not pass today in any of the literate arts. (I can give details on what he said).
The net effect was to render Shakespeare's canonicity suspect, and then to reconstruct our understanding of the Bard. Some people did not take to kindly to the "tactic" since some authors are obviously sacrosanct within the canon.
In the USA, we read the earliest works of American Literature in much the same fashion, as though they are the very building blocks of our culture. But a close and wary eye on the literature makes you really wonder about the worth of, say, Edwards' "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God." Are we reading it because it was first? Well, yes.
I don't understand cricket, but I don't blast it because I'm a neophyte who can't enjoy it. Similarly, it does take a long time to enjoy certain more difficult works of literature. We improve as readers over our lives. Edgar Allen Poe, I remember his writing as being utterly fantastic to me when I first read it, not so much upon my return to it. I had changed. In any other human endeavor, except literature it seems, we allow for higher levels of skill to be appreciated.
And some great works of literature are practically beyond anyone's solitary comprehension, and they can only be enjoyed communally. Take Finnegans Wake, for instance. Read in a classroom, the book opened up to me. in fact, it opened up not even because of someone's erudition. It opened up because as we read it allowed in class, one student's mildly inebriated brogue enlivened all the puns.
Have they run through the whole thing and then returned to the same page again having forgotten it the first time through?
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