“Once you allow yourself to identify with the people in a story, then you might begin to see yourself in that story even if on the surface it's far removed from your situation. This is what I try to tell my students: this is one great thing that literature can do – it can make us identify with situations and people far away.” (Chinua Achebe)
“What really knocks me out is a book that, when you're all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it. That doesn't happen much, though.” (J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye)
And let me say something about those coveted prizes. How many of us have ever heard of the laureates of the Nobel Prize for Literature? And when we do learn of them, how many of us have looked for their books, and actually appreciated them? Most of us tend to look puzzled when the winner is announced and say “who?” but never bother to delve into any of their supposed illustrious works.
I have read several of the Mann Booker prize winners and many of the books short- and long-listed for it. Some of them were impressive (Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies; Richard Flanagan’s Narrow Road to the Deep North); some original (Yan Mertel’s Life of Pi); others good but not brilliant (Anne Enright’s The Gathering and Kiran Desai’s Inheritance of Loss); a few worthy but hard-going (Salman Rushdie’s various works); and a handful were unreadable (most notably, Alan Hollinghurst’s Line of Beauty). And I was not alone in my rejection of this last book.
Who are these judges that tell us what is “good” and what is not? Surely, we are the best judges of what we like and what we don’t? Why do I feel guilty when I admit I was enthralled by Jojo Moyes’ Ship of Brides? It is not that she isn’t an award winning novelist; she is, in fact, twice winner of the Romantic Novelist’s Award. But this branding, as a romantic novelist, more or less disqualifies her for other, more prestigious prizes. Yet her books are filled with all the ingredients that make for a good novel. Ship of Brides, for instance, is based on historical fact (Moyes’ own grandmother was actually one of thousands of Australian brides who had married British or American servicemen during World War II and were shipped to England or America at war’s end). While in-depth research is important in historical fiction, it is the storyline, or plot, that clinches it. Ship of Brides is about four of these war brides, out of a contingent of some 650, who find themselves thrown together, not on a passenger liner as they had originally imagined, but on a battered British aircraft carrier, HMS Victorious, with a crew of some one thousand men. So it is largely about the women (and also a little about some of the men), their stories, their relations, where they come from and where and how they end up. I found myself unable to put it down and was actually haunted by the book days after I’d finished it. Moreover, although I had vaguely heard of the term “war brides,” its full significance had escaped me. So I also learned some history along the way. And I have read, throughout my life and even recently, many books like this which have left me with a great sense of satisfaction, but also with regret that I have completed them. Were they merely good stories? Does “good literature” have to comprise even more?
Perhaps many of the books I – and you – have enjoyed may not be considered “literary,” in the high sense of the word, but they can still be “good literature,” since their authors have succeeded in identifying an attractive theme, developing it a way that absorbs us, and leave us at the end sighing and thinking “Wow!” And there is no shame in that.