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Thursday, October 27, 2005

What is literary excellence?

I have been challenged by recent comments to my last post to think more about how I define literary excellence. I have blogged on this and related topics in the past:
The Courage of Clarity
Domesticating vs. foreignizing Bible translation
Translation elegance
What is good quality English?
Linguistics and Translation
Proper English
Literary Non-excellence?
Literary style -- Part 2
Literary style -- Part 3
Literary Style -- Part 4
Literary style -- Part 6
Latinization of the English Bible
Good literary English, spoken English, and contemporary English
Literary style -- Part 7
ESV: Literary excellence examples
Literary excellence poll
Literary un-excellence poll
Literary excellence Bible version contest
Bertrand on Literature, Language and the KJV
But it would be good to try to define more clearly what I understand literary excellence to be, especially since it is a topic that I have blogged about so often with reference to English Bible versions.

I believe that literary excellence is a complex matter. It is to a large extent subjective, but there are also many pieces of literature which a large percentage of people would consider to be of "excellent" quality.

Some factors that can contribute to literature excellence are:
1. The test of time: Do people still consider it a great work several generations later?
2. Effective use of figurative language, turns of phrase, etc.--in other words, creative writing
3. Rhythm (this can be rhythm in poetry or even in prose; it can involve literary flow)
4. Aesthetic appeal (yes, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but, still, many people consider the Mona Lisa to be a great painting; many consider the Tale of Two Cities to have a powerful and excellent opening paragraph; Dylan Thomas' poem, "Do Not Go Gently...," is powerful and evokes common feelings about death; Shakespeare has some wonderful lines and timeless plots that deal with common human issues--no one can better his "Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow, creeps on this petty pace from day to day until the last recorded syllable of time"--if I recall it correctly--not the beauty of the metaphor of "syllable of time" where a word from one semantic domain (speech) is used within another (time))
5. Coherence: Words simply thrown onto a page like paint from different cans seldom produce anything of sense or literary excellence. Such abstract writing may evoke some interest in some people but few, I think, would consider such gobbledygook writing to have literary excellence.
6. Conformity to most norms of the syntax and lexicon of a language. I sincerely don't think a piece of literature can be considered to have literary excellence if it has a large number of strange wordings which no fluent speaker or writer of that language would ever say or write, but, rather, which most would consider odd, or nonsensical, or convoluted. Good authors know how to write well using the appropriate syntax and lexical combinations of their own language. There is great room for literary creativity, including much use of figurative language, within the general boundaries of the syntax and lexicon of a language. This point #6 is where some English Bible versions, including the ESV, have the most literary difficulties.

I have not really wrestled with trying to define literary excellence before, but I need to. I don't think I could actually "define" it even now, having given it more thought. But I can, as I have done in this post, state factors which often constitute literary excellence. I am grateful to each of you who have challenged me on this topic. It is directly relevant to the question of whether or not a particular Bible version has literary excellence.

As I was trying to find thoughts from others on literary excellence (and in the search finding out that it is also difficult for others to define what it is), I came upon a webpage on the subject. At a minimum it is interesting, but I think it also has value in that it brings up important issues involved in determining literary excellence. I may be naive but I want to believe that literary excellence can exist apart from the market value of a literary piece, unlike the author of that webpage, however.

Well, gotta run. My wife wants me to help her shop for groceries. And that is an excellent thing to do (helping the wife, anyway, although I don't mind shopping for groceries either)!

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At Fri Oct 28, 05:29:00 AM, Blogger J. Mark Bertrand said...

Thanks for the links. They provide a valuable index to what you've written already on the subject, which is one of the things I wanted to request in my last comment -- but it was approaching book length as it was!


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