Literary Longevity

Andrew Sullivan —  Nov 16 2012 @ 8:29am

Amit Majmudar attempts to define great literature, arguing that it "retains power over time and transcends its origins." In particular, he posits that a key to a work's staying power is its "excessiveness":

We tend to think of a great work as a well-made work, perfectly proportioned, not a word out of place. This is the novel as Flaubert conceived it. And yet Flaubert, too, is guilty of his own kind of excess: An excessive attention to every last word. Other lasting writers have indulged in other kinds of stylistic excesses—Shakespeare’s were rhetorical figures and metaphors, Tolstoy’s were digressive mini-essays, Goethe’s were poetic styles—but you will not find any permanent literary beauty without excess somewhere. The guarded, the cautious, the small-scale, the modest, the well-crafted—such books may be rewarded (in our own time, at the national level), but they are rarely preserved. They are not preserved because guardedness, caution, smallness, modesty, and craft can be replaced in any given generation. What is irreplaceable is excess: Of verbal kinesis, religious intensity, intellectual voracity. The 19th century Russian novel, though admittedly not chock-full of poetic firecrackers, is a drawn-out, episodic, digressive, multi-character affair, compared to the kinds of writing that went before it.