In a New York Times article last week, author Dominique Browning writes that while on a recent flight, she lost herself in a good book. So rapt was her attention, she stopped worrying about whether she would make her connection—in fact, she didn’t realize they had taken off until she pried her eyes from the page and looked out the window. The book, she writes, was the perfect kind of book to distract one’s mind from the many discomforts of air travel:
My heart and mind were plunged into an epic battle between good and evil, the struggle to establish a new world order, the heartbreak of love fractured by political imperative, the tragedy of families torn apart.
Was I reading War and Peace? Hardly. I have given up flying with Great Literature.
The book was George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones. When traveling, Browning tells us, her literary tastes veer towards Martin, Patricia Cornwell, P.D. James, and other scribes who write what many would call “genre fiction.” She loves the “narrative drive” of such authors and their ability to draw you into a story. No argument there. Martin, Cornwell, and James have all written fabulous books—and Browning openly discusses the joys of reading popular genres. What bothers me about the article is that she states several times that such books aren’t “Great Literature.” At one point, she writes:
I no longer take Great Literature on the road. It belongs nestled in my arms, deep in a comfortable chair by a crackling fire, where I can tend lovingly to every detail it whispers, where I can pay close attention to the dexterous play of intelligence and the lilting nuance of verbal agility.
There are those like Harold Bloom who believe only Shakespeare or Cormac McCarthy can write great literature (McCarthy’s refusal to use quotation marks drives me nuts, by the way), but that’s an idiotic stance. I’m not saying Browning is elitist, as Bloom would never admit to liking a fantasy novel, but I would argue a book that consumed her attention the way Game of Thrones did on that flight qualifies as great literature. When you get right down to it, a book’s main purpose is to entertain. A good book is a good book. It doesn’t matter who wrote it or when. Yes, we can be impressed with a writer’s vocabulary and the “nuance” of their “verbal agility”—but if the book ultimately bores us, is it still great? The definition, of course, is purely subjective. I love Steinbeck and John O’Hara’s Appointment in Samarra, but I also think Stephen King’s The Shining and Bag of Bones are examples of great literature.
Great literature draws you in, makes you forget your everyday worries and renders you oblivious to the passing of time. Going by this definition, I’d qualify the works of the late James Crumley—one of the most underrated crime novelists out there—as meeting such criteria. Consider the beauty of this passage from his book The Wrong Case:
A car full of drunks hissed over the Ripley Avenue bridge and down the ramp above us, fleeing through the night down black and wet streets, heading home or to another gaily lighted bar rife with music and dancing and sweaty women with bright eyes and lips like faded rose petals. As the driver down-shifted, the exhaust belched, the tires snickered across the slick pavement, a girl’s shrill laughter flew out, abandoned like an empty beer can in the skid. The colored lights from the discreet Riverfront sign reflected off the dark asphalt, wavering as the wind sifted the rain, glowing distantly like the lights of a city beneath a black sea.
It’s a wonderful piece of descriptive writing, typical of Crumley—a passage you’d want to enjoy in a comfortable chair by a glowing hearth, relishing the skill of an amazing writer. There is no shame in admitting that a popular author has created something of superior quality. Any writing that is able to remove us from the realities of everyday life is great literature.
Let the English majors shudder.