I am wondering how you all go about judging a work of literature as you're reading it and/or when you've finished. I don't mean analyzing it through a particular lens for meaning but just why exactly do you enjoy the books you do, and how do you know if it was good?


Before answering your question, a few things come to mind:

It's an interesting question to ask in a sub like this, namely because this is r/askliterarystudies as opposed to something like r/literature. But what is the difference between the two?

One way of thinking about the difference might be that literary studies challenges us to not think in terms of enjoyment, but in terms of understanding. This is not to say that we don't enjoy literature, but that we pursue a systematic or - at least - somewhat comprehensive study of literary styles, aesthetics, approaches, and periods. Enjoyment doesn't really enter the mix, unless you are doing a "reader response" approach.

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Many want literary studies to be akin to a science, which I am resistant to myself. It isn't scientific, but it does share a certain methodology of evidence-based analysis and argumentation. If literary studies is to be different than just reading literature, it might need to use particular lenses.

how do you know if it was good?

From a critical/academic perspective, you could argue, it is impossible to prove that a book is "good". The question implies that the book is or is not good objectively speaking and that a reader can either notice that goodness or miss it. I know this isn't what you were implying, but I think it does go to the core of why literary critics are resistant to the "good book" angle: we know we have varied reactions and can't really factor those into our analysis.

Okay. Enough of that.

Personally, I look for innovative style: literature that is willing to take risks in its form and play around with generic expectations. I also like novels that are more psychological in their approach and keep things understated rather than laying everything on thick. I find that I get impatient with literature that is heavy-handed or moralistic. My favourite literary moments are when a touch of beauty (say, an epiphanic moment) works its way to the surface of the text through a thick mist of confusion or chaos (if you want to ask me what qualifies as beautiful, however, that's for another day).

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From a personal standpoint. I find literature good when it makes me feel something intensely or teaches me something I didn't know. From a critical standpoint, I find literature good when it stakes out a purposeful position in relation to its contemporary field of production and is able to follow through on that project effectively or in a unique fashion. A good book makes me want to write about it.