What is your definition of "important" when it comes to literature?
The books that are important to me, are those that struck a cord at a particular time in my life. A biography of Davy Crockett for some reason made an impression when I was twelve and that led me to The Last of the Mohicans and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. At 24, I read James Bliss's science fiction book A Case of Conscience that led me to books like A Canticle for Liebowitz and the works of Alfred Bester, Harlen Ellison, and Phillip K. Dick.
Then I got caught up in movies like the Maltese Falcon, Out of the Past, They Live by Night,and the rest o the noir canon. Where I could, I went back and read Hammett and Chandler
Later on, I read Patricia Highsmith, James Ellroy, Jim Thompson, and George V. Higgins. Most recently I'm consumed with the Scandinavian mysteries, Henning Mankill, Jo Nesbo and others.
So what's important: the way my life and a particular book crosses and changes my outlook.
A book that makes me think of somersetting I hadn't thought of before, or to look at something I had thought of, but in a different way. It doesn't have to change my mind, but it should get me to thinking about another layer of detail I may have been missing, or a different perspective I had ignored.
Not sure how to take this, Jude. I guess I'll talk about the sorts of books I love. I like a book that draws me in completely and makes me think and remember it for a long time. A like books set in foreign countries with characters I identify with. Books that I look forward to after putting them down, or between novels. I like British police procedurals like the Frost and Morse series. I liked Hillerman because he dealt with a different world within the U.S. I love Camilleri, and like most of the Scandinavians. I miss some of old series that were character-driven, where you got to know the protagonist like a close friend. I like cynical humor, but dislike agendas, political or otherwise.
In general, I really like books that do things better than I do them. :)
There are very few historical mysteries I like (fewer that 5 authors), but those I like a lot.
These are great, you guys, but I was thinking more along the lines of importance in the artistic sense. "An important work of literature would be one that..." (fill in the blank).
Originality is IMO what makes a piece of literature important. Raymond Chandler said of Dashiell Hammett "he did over and over again what only the best writers can ever do at all. He wrote scenes that seemed never to have been written before." (Hammett was highly original in other ways too.)
Originality of character is required. There has to be at least one unforgettable character. Treasure Island is a classic even though there is only Long John Silver who is not forgettable (with the exception of Ben Gunn perhaps). I don't even recall the main protagonist's name, the kid, Something Hawkins.
A profound theme is also required. Treasure Island is supposedly a children's book and yet its theme, the ambiguity of morality, is profound even for adults, interesting, and treated in depth.
More generally I think that all important works of literature do three things: entertain, educate and enlighten.
A profound theme is also required.
That would imply that an author should start out with a theme in mind, something Stephen King says is a recipe for bad fiction. So I'm not so sure about that one. I think you can find themes in most good literature, but I'm not convinced they're always developed on a conscious level.
I'm not implying that, Jude. John Gardner in The Art of Fiction goes into some depth as to how he thinks theme(s) ought to emerge in novel writing, and he doesn't advocate starting with a theme, but having them emerge organically. What he does recommend is identifying themes, usually by the end of the first draft, developing them, burnishing them, and bringing them into relief.
IMO anything goes as far as what can provide the seed for a story, theme included, but I'm sure it's not too common. (And in genre fiction theme probably stays on the subconscious level for a lot of authors.)
I like Stephen King and I've noticed as he's gotten older themes have started to become a more impoartant part of his books - Lisey's Story, for example, and even 11/22/63 are a lot more about their themes than a book like Carrie or Christine. King is pretty open about the fact that he grew up reading comic books and horror stories but not all writers started out that way and aspired to that kind of writing the way he did.
But Stephen King has always had great insight into people and the ability to get that into a story.
Well, there's the survival test. A book should survive in print for at least 50 years, though 100 is better. One reason for this litmus test is that each gnerations overvalues and undervalues contemporary writing. It takes 100 years to get the distance for judgment.
Naturally, I as a genre writer don't care beans about this. I'd like to see some rewards now. Fame after I'm dead means nothing.
I do like Eric's "entertain, educate, and enlighten." Not many books qualify these days. And readers demand entertainment, education, and enlightenment to varying degrees.
King is only useful if you are looking for bestsellerdom.
Theme usually happens (at least in my case) as the story develops. But I don't work from a preconceived plan. I've noticed that lately a number of my novels have focused on the unfair treatment of women in old Japan. I'm not into women's lib, but the subject is inescapable when you work with the background of the story.
"King is only useful if you are looking for bestsellerdom"
I think that's an unfair rap. There's a lot of good craft advice to be gained from ON WRITING; I'm a much better writer for having read it, and have it on the list to be read again soon. His comments on theme are particularly interesting to me, as he describes what I foud to be true and thought I was doing it wrong--that, whatever you thought the theme of your book was, you don't really know what it is util after the first draft. That happened to me a few times before i read that comment. Now I don't worry about it so much. The first draft is more about telling a good story. Once i see where that wants to go, I can work on why anyone else should care.
I'm reading a 1953 interview with Graham Greene--purely coincidental--and he makes this comment about the theme of his next book:
I think that I know what the next novel is about, but one never really knows, of course, until it's finished.
But I'm not sure that ON WRITING has a great deal to do with his books, at least the early ones that established his name. I also believe that writers get better with each book. As for theme: I expect it can evolve as in your case, and mine and King's. But it can also be the reason for the novel in the first place. Not everything always follows a rule. In fact, creativity implies that inspiration may strike at any point. Or not.