I’ve been thinking, recently, about the idea of literary fiction and its merit. I think most writers come up against the idea of their work having merit at some point in their careers/lives. It has been, for the most part, one of the most divisive aspects of modern literature, and for many is what sets the more popular types of ‘classic’ literature apart from the modern dross – yeah, I’m talking about teenage wizards and sparkling vampires and things with Sheikhs and sassy-female lawyers in.

What Is Literary Merit, And How Do We Define It?

When most people think of literary merit, it ends up being characterized as little more than a piece of writing which has some kind of subjective importance; a lot of people, nowadays, will publicly view this kind of importance as little more than a term used by high-brow readers, who mostly consider themselves scholars of literature.Literary Merit - Howl Obscenity Trial Quote

In 1957, at the obscenity trial for Allen Ginsberg’s Howl (which is, I think, one of the best poems ever written), the author Walter Van Tilburg Clark, said that “the only final test, it seems to me, of literary merit, is the power to endure”. Now, a large part of me agrees with this practical, working definition, but then it seems to me that creating a work of literary merit, or with the intention of the piece receiving literary merit, is impossible.

How then, do we explain those many thousands of writers looking to create the next Great American Novel? Surely every creator is striving for literary merit? Who, then, decides if a novel, a play or a poem receives this merit? I thought this might lead me down some interesting trail of thought – until I found out that Tilburg Clark had expanded on his point and I’d just never heard the rest of his testimony. He went on to say that “I think the test of literary merit must be, to my mind, first, the sincerity of the writer. I would be willing, I think, even to add the seriousness of purpose of the writer.”

So, yeah, there we are; the three test of literary merit are, potentially:

  • The Durability of a Text – Obviously, this relies on the text being read by people long after its publication.
  • The Sincerity of a Text – How honest is the text in question, and honest in what ways?
  • The Seriousness of the Purpose – Even if the text has humour within it, how serious or important is the writer’s intention, or topic of their writing.

The Problems With These Definitions Of Worth In Writing

(I know, that H2 could have been worded a lot better, right?) Here’s the thing; if a piece of writing is to have literary worth, then it must pass all three of these tests and, whilst I kind of agree, there are still a few problems that I have with this idea.


This test relies on the text being widely accessible to a range of people, easily read to ensure that it can survive generations of different people and address issues which are likely to remain prevalent in the future. That means that most pieces of writing, in the history of the world, have absolutely no literary merit – someone could pour their heart out into a piece of prose that will only ever be read by half a dozen people, whilst the autobiography of Katie Price or the personal letters of Bukowski might be read by a million, million people over the years. The potential for most literature to actually survive the years is extremely small, and in this world of oversaturation, even the very best writing could be passed on by.


Of course, I am of the opinion that writing must be sincere; it must come from somewhere inside the writer and represent something – it must be honest to emotion, in my opinions, above pretty much everything else. Of course, this can be easy in poetry, but impossible to represent in a play or stage production, when the emotion is reliant on actors, directors, costume and makeup artists, et cetera.


Again, I approve of the seriousness of the purpose, but what of those things which are written with, apparently, no purpose? The major part of these texts would all be political/religious/societal texts, from 1984 to Cwmardy; but are we possibly saying that these texts are worth more simply because they are created to represent a point of view? Of course, they are great pieces of literature, but are they truly great pieces of writing?

What If These Three Tests Clash?

And, of course, there is always the possibility that these tests will be forced out in favour of another. If a text is incredibly well written, sincerely and seriously, are we to say that it has no worth, simply because it is not picked up by a large audience? Or what if it is popular, and addresses a serious issue, without the writer themselves having any real first-hand experience of the issue it addresses?

The idea of testing a piece of writing for literary merit does, in a way, repulse me. But then again, I always tease people I know for reading books which are just terrible – Mills&Boon, Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey, for example.

The Question Of Literary Fiction And Form

Form is one thing that is often associated with literary worth, particularly in regards to poetry. In fact, one of the major criticisms levelled at Howl was that it did not necessarily follow any rhyming pattern; instead it was a mad, hurried scramble of expression – literally, a howl. How well a text adheres to a certain form, such as the graphic-based calligrams, is also another symbol that many people use as an indicator of worth.

The issue with this is, simply, that there is really no definitive value with regards to literary worth and/or merit; just because something approaches a serious topic doesn’t make it necessarily worthwhile; just because something is popular doesn’t make it good; just because something is beautifully written doesn’t make it mean something; just because something is written from the soul doesn’t make it important to a culture.

What Do I Think Literary Merit Means?

Personally, I don’t really care about the idea of literary merit. To a lot of people in my life, it might seem like I do. My bookshelves are littered with things which, ostensibly, have literary worth, but they are also scattered with fantasy writers and graphic novels which may, or may not, have worth applied to them on a critical level.

For me, literary merit shouldn’t matter; it’s all about personal experience. I am a firm believer that some literature is (if you’ll excuse the phrase) “worth” more than other writing, but not as a result of its popularity or its age. I lean more towards the emotions behind it; I loved the bleak view behind Sketch Of A Last Day; I liked the fact that Brave New World made me feel physically sick in parts; the last line of 1984 is one I repeat on an almost weekly basis at some new advance in creepy, meta-human technology and I often recite as much T.S. Elliot or Ginsberg or Hughes as I can remember, just because I can’t get them out of my head.

What Do You Think?

I’d love to hear your opinions on worth and merit, especially if you think you have a working definition! Do you think it relies on the work being original, adhering to a specific formula, obtaining a wide readership or anything else?

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