The Epic Battle: Literary Merit vs. Enjoyment

By: Rachel Stewart

We all have things we define as “guilty pleasures,” especially when it comes to books. Perhaps it’s a risqué romance novel or a childhood favorite that we can’t seem to let go of.  The term “guilty pleasure” in and of itself is almost contradictory.  If it’s enjoyable, and deemed a “pleasure,” then why must the adjective “guilty” be attached to it?  Why do we feel guilty for enjoying certain books?  I believe the answer may be connected to the debate surrounding literary merit and enjoyment: which one matters more when deciding if a book is “good”?

All I mean by enjoyment is you had a fun time reading it, while reading you didn’t want to stop, and you were really engaged with the story and its characters.  Literary merit, on the other hand, isn’t as easy to explain, especially because most of “literary merit” is very subjective.  Generally to me, a book has literary merit if it has “depth” to it conveyed in a well-crafted way. Certain aspects a book of literary merit may contain are realistic characters, emotional complexity, originality, and complex themes.

I have turned this question over and over in my mind, and I have to face it on a regular basis.  I read books, and then review them afterwards, so after every book I read I must put together some concrete thoughts on how I felt about a book, then somehow translate that into a “star rating.”  There have been times when I’ve enjoyed a book, but knew it wasn’t written well, and the plot just wasn’t constructed very well.  There have also been times when I’ve not had the most enjoyable reading experience, but I know the book is making me think about some interesting ideas.

So, what’s the answer? Which matters more, enjoyment or literary merit?  Honestly, it’s whatever you prefer.  There will never be a “right” answer.  Not all books are trying to have this magical thing called “literary merit”; some are written to be enjoyed by the general public, and that’s okay.  My personal answer to this is in general, I value literary merit more, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have my fair share of so-called “guilty pleasure” books too.  I appreciate those books that aren’t trying to say anything profound, and just provide entertainment, but I generally won’t give them as high of an overall rating compared to a book that I do think has “literary merit.”

These terms aren’t mutually exclusive either.  There is a relatively new category of books called “literary fiction.” It’s not its own genre yet, just a category that may contain many genres.  These are books that are said to hold literary merit, or, according to Wikipedia, “they are works that offer deliberate social commentary, political criticism, or focus on the individual to explore some part of the human condition.”  They’re generally more focused on themes than plot, and many times the plot is really just a character study.  This is an area of literature that is pretty controversial, as some don’t believe it to be its own category at all, because the act of giving something literary merit is subjective, so we’re sorting these books based on subjective opinions. These books are regarded as having literary merit, and I highly enjoy them, so in the words of Hannah Montana, “Mix it all together and you know that it’s the best of both worlds.”  Not going to lie, it also make me feel slightly pretentious when I read them, and if we’re being honest here, I’m okay with that.

I asked local Bellbrook students which they would value more.  Samantha Wick, senior, said, “Hmm, personally for me it’s enjoyment.” On the opposing side, Ted Autore, sophmore, said he values merit.  Then there’s Jackie Thompson, senior, who’s playing Switzerland and said, “I don’t value either more.  Sometimes I get enjoyment from literary merit, so I value both equally.”

So the battle rages on with no end in sight.  Fortunately, literary merit and enjoyment can sometimes join hands in peace, such as in literary fiction, and no matter what you prefer, as long as you’re reading, that’s the most important thing.

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