article on artistic literature
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Artistic Literature


What sets “artistic literature” or “classics of fiction” apart from “light fiction”? The former is a richer, deeper experience for the reader, and a more disciplined writing process.

I enjoy action movies and action books like Elmore Leonard’s or David Baldacci’s. They write great books that are a lot of fun to read. But classic literature is a different experience. The more deeply layered, more complex investigation into the human condition, written brilliantly in artistic language, in a rigorously disciplined organization, so that it appears effortless, will yield deeper pleasure and a more exhilarating experience for the reader. Those writers (aka literary artists such as Dickens, Shakespeare, Austin, Flaubert, Faulkner, Henry James, Solzhenitsyn, Cheever, Thomas Wolfe, Tom Wolfe, Angelou, Walker Percy, Hemingway, to name a very few among the hundreds) give you a permanent increase in your personal depth of experience for the rest of your life.

The mind is made more complex by reading these writers. You gain a greater capacity for understanding and appreciating deeper analyses into the human condition. This does not happen from reading light fiction works, as much as I enjoy those as well.

The richness of a classic work brings richness into the life of the reader. The profound impact on the heart and mind of classic literature makes it get passed on, makes it classic. So it’s not snobbery, it’s just calling something what it is. “Classic” = “remembered”; “Not Classic” = “not remembered.” People remember what moves them most deeply. They forget what does not.

Light fiction is popular in its own time, but not preserved and passed on to later generations. When I was in college it was trendy to call the literary “canon” a stuffy construct of elite academicians. But in fact, it was those trendy “rebels” who hadn’t read enough to know the difference.

The trendy “rebels” objected to the hundreds of thousands of people over centuries remembering certain works and forgetting others. The trendy “rebels” proved to be the arrogant ones—saying “I’m right and the hundreds of thousands throughout history are wrong.” You might as well rebel against the evolution of opposable thumbs—it's what nature required for survival. The trendy “rebels” didn’t realize it was the overwhelming force of human nature that caused certain works to be remembered, and left other works to be forgotten, and ultimately, left trendy “rebels” to be forgotten as well.

The profound impact of certain works compelled people to preserve and pass down the works that moved them the most, so future generations could share the experience. That’s why it’s called classic literature, because it had that effect on most people. That’s why lighter fiction isn’t remembered over the centuries as classic, because it didn’t have that effect on most people.

Failure to perceive multilayers of depth, multilevels of complexity, and universals of the human condition, leads to a failure to differentiate classic fiction from what is inevitably not classic fiction. Most readers appreciate the many levels of meaning and insight in a work and determine what is and isn’t classic literature simply by time passing, over generations of “aesthetic natural selection.” Lighter fiction falls by the evolutionary wayside of writing that did not have a profound impact on people.

The generations of aesthetic natural selection give us a very useful filter or guide that recommends a set of works. So if you want to read something compelling, insightful, fulfilling, meaningful, and exhilarating, if you want to be moved by a profound experience, check out the stuffy literary canon. You won’t find a better guide. (Plug, while we’re on the subject: I wrote a book that discusses literary appreciation among other things, called Abstract Objects, Ideal Forms, and Works of Art.)