Literary merit  

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"Reassured upon the value of the book, encouraged, furthermore, by the most eminent men of the press, M. Flaubert thought only of printing it and giving it to the public. I repeat: everyone was unanimous in rendering homage to its literary merit, to its style, and at the same time to the excellent thought that pervaded it, from the first line to the last." --"The Public vs. M. Gustave Flaubert" by Antoine Sénard

"The frank yet graceful use of "I" distinguishes a good writer from a bad; the latter carries it with the manner of a thief trying to cloak his loot." --The Devil's Dictionary

"There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all." --Oscar Wilde, preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890) by Oscar Wilde

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Literary merit is a quality of written work, generally applied to the genre of literary fiction. A work is said to have literary merit (to be a work of art) if it is a work of quality, that is if it has some aesthetic value. The concept is important in law because it is used to decide, for example, if a text is pornographic in nature (if a text has literary merit then it is usually held to be non-pornographic).

In 1957, at the obscenity trial for Howl, author Walter Van Tilburg Clark was prodded into defining literary merit. His response outlines several of the popular criteria:

"The only final test, it seems to me, of literary merit, is the power to endure. Obviously such a test cannot be applied to a new or recent work, and one cannot, I think, offer soundly an opinion on the probability of endurance save on a much wider acquaintance with the work or works of a writer than I have of Mr. Ginsberg's or perhaps even with a greater mass of production than Mr. Ginsberg's. ... Aside from this test of durability, I think the test of literary merit must be, to my mind, first, the sincerity of the writer. I would be willing, I think, even to add the seriousness of purpose of the writer, if we do not by that leave out the fact that a writer can have a fundamental serious purpose and make a humorous approach to it. I would add also there are certain specific ways in which craftsmanship at least of a piece of work, if not in any sense the art, which to my mind involves more, may be tested."


It has long been noted that the concept of "literary merit" is practically impossible to define, and it is hard to see how such an idea can be used with any precision or consistency by policy makers, magistrates or judges. A common response to this criticism is that, while the process of establishing literary merit is difficult, fraught with dangers, and often subjective, it is the only method currently available to separate work that has significant cultural value from work that is ephemeral and essentially worthless.

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Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Literary merit" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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