In the book Twelve Trademarks of Great Literature, J. F. Baldwin lists the things that make a work of literature great. The ones that I have noticed the most are:
- The work moves at an appropriate pace - not too fast, not too slow. (It's the fast pace of so many modern fiction works that keep them from lasting.)
- The work shows rather than tells. --I used to get weary of books for children that told a cute little story and then threw in a moral at the end. That is a poor style of writing.
- Re-reading is rewarded. There are many layers to a good work. I'm reading Great Expectations with the seniors this year, for the fifteenth time, and still find things I haven't discovered before.
- At least one character is sympathetic.
- Moral tension drives the plot. To quote Baldwin: "The form of a book will suffer if the author forgets to rely on God's moral laws to create the tension in the story."
Herman Melville said "To produce a mighty work, you must start with a mighty theme." Baldwin says "If the author seriously elevated the trivial or denigrated the profound, readers would find themselves disagreeing with the author's entire framework. For example, a serious novel based on the theme that a preference for chocolate ice cream over vanilla is an abomination would be ignored or ridiculed by the general public."
I would love to be a thinker on the level of the above writers, and on the level of the writers of great works, but am merely a mediocre absorber of some of the truths that they state. But there is much to learn. I do not have time right now, but either later today, or tomorrow, or the first of next week, will get the list of ten classics written out.