One of the characteristics of mediocre books is that they are a product of their time, and of great books is that they speak to all times. How does this happen? What is it that makes a book great rather than mediocre, and how is it that the great authors can be distinguished from those who merely speak to their own times?
One of the notable aspects of literature is that it takes a bit of time for the truly great books to distinguish themselves. While a particular age is going on, certain authors may be hyped as being groundbreaking voices, only for those books to be justly forgotten as time passes because they only spoke to their own particular time and culture and once that age’s crises were resolved and society had moved on to other concerns, those provincial concerns were no longer worthwhile and the particular author did not show larger insights into humanity that others could relate to or build upon.
I was struck by this subject as I was looking through my annotated copy of Pride & Prejudice today, a rewarding task that often does not trigger a personal essay like this one. What struck me is that in looking at the behavior of George Wickham, a case could be made against him from the point of view of the concerns of the #MeToo movement, in looking at the way that Jane Austen portrays his predatory behavior towards young and vulnerable women who are around fifteen years of age or so. While I decided not to write at length about this, thus preserving at least one Ph.D topic for some present or future scholar in English literature, the fact that this could be done so easily suggests that Jane Austen’s literature speaks to a variety of concerns, and while it is exceedingly unlikely that Jane Austen specifically had in mind the concerns of the early 20th century when she wrote more than 200 years ago, her book deals with characters in such depth that such a case can be made that part of her purpose in writing Pride & Prejudice was the illustration of characters whose evil is multifaceted and complex enough to be relevant in any age. That this was done by a Regency spinster who deliberately avoided portraying any social occasion where only men were present makes it all the more remarkable.
What is it that makes great literature layered? Jane Austen was certainly a product of her time, in that she generally assumed the validity of her social system and was reticent about writing about subjects of great controversy. She demonstrates a familiarity with the literary tropes of her time and lovingly mocks them, especially in her earlier juvenile literature. She also comments on the picturesque and debates that were going on about the troubled relationship between manners and morals and the difficulty of determining the character of someone from their public face. Despite the fact that she was writing within a given context, as everyone does, the fact that she was able to delineate the nature of the character of people despite the miniature world in which she portrayed of gentry households with upwardly mobile daughters ought to remind us that while we all write within a given context, the extent that we are able to demonstrate insight into humanity allows us to be appreciated outside of that context, while simply demonstrating a familiarity with our own context will make us timebound and passe when that context changes.
How is it that we acquire a firm knowledge of the human condition that allows our writings to be of worth to future generations who must deal with their own problems and concerns? There are several ways that this can occur. Some writers are great because of their intrapersonal knowledge, because they explore themselves so honestly that their searching self-examination lives on after they perish. One can think of the essays of Montaigne or the autobiography of Augustine as exemplars of this sort of writing that survives because of the insight it provides into the self. In stark contrast to this, the writings of Austen, Twain, Conrad, and others of their kind are notable because of the skills of observation that they put into watching the societies around them and their pious hypocrisies. Since human beings, apart from painful reflection and repentance are hypocrites, the exposure of hypocrites in one’s own generation is eternally relevant because there are always powerful double standards and hypocrites in high places to be exposed and taken down a few notches. Some of those are even those hypocrites we look at in the mirror.
What makes the great authors great is that they are able to get to the bedrock of reality, to present us with a mirror that allows to see ourselves better and also a window to see our fellow human beings better. It takes time to separate those artists who merely present convention to the reader, which becomes irrelevant once those conventions change with the passing of one age to another. Those writings which represent the zeitgeist may be notable in their time as being reflective of contemporary social and political concerns, but their extreme relevance to the time is often demonstrative of their lack of insight about the essential and unchanging aspects of human nature. Some writings may seem modest in their aims and execution at the time, but seem timeless and universal when that modesty is better understood later on. What is great lies beneath the surface, and to tell the difference between the timebound and the timeless requires a sense of perspective that is difficult to have in the press of contemporary events. There is no shame in postponing a verdict as to what is great and that which is merely timely to the future, when those who are better qualified to judge can weigh in on the matter. Not everything needs to be decided quickly, after all.