We are living in an age of printed books, but all printed books do not come under the category of literature. Even apart from those `books that are no books'—as Lamb called them,—there are innumerable others—histories, geographies, sciences, etc.,—which are not literature unless they fulfill certain primary conditions. They must conform to certain standards and reach a degree of stability. The difficulty is that these conditions are somewhat intangible, and a proper assessment demand experience and training. But approach to a book is guided by certain broad canons, one may be in a position to judge and pronounce on its literary status.
Judgment of literature may be either tentative or definitive.,A judgment is bound to be tentative when its basis is something unstable, like one's personal mood or bias. We may like or dislike a took when it is based on purely personal facts as for example, a romantic novel may appeal to us when we are in a relaxed or pleasant mood, and see something that does not exercise our feelings over-much. A book of religious poetry gains upon us as we are faced with emotional tension or personal calamity. Such books lose their appeal when the melancholy mood passes away. Necessarily these books have not much permanence, and have not the stability that we demand of a true literary work.
Another type of judgment of a similar character is what Arnold called historical estimate. It is related to purely historical factors. All types of books that appealed to one age may not appeal to another. For example, 'metaphysical poetry' in England had extensive literary vogue in the early 17th century, but later on lost its popularity, only to recover something of it in more recent times. A work may have importance in relation to an age but it loses its general acceptance except for the scholar later on in a more sophisticated age. Historical estimates has greater value for the student than for the general readers. Its value is comparative or relative, and not absolute.
Real estimate of any work of literature is definitive. It has a permanent value, irrespective of time or person. Age cannot wither away its charm nor custom stale its infinite variety. We come back to it again and again, and always discover something new to enjoy or to brood upon. This is true literature and not a mere book. To be able to discover and relish such literature is what makes judgments real and dependable. And this needs appreciation of what constitutes its form and substance,—the two basic qualities inherent in a work of literature.
A literary work must have excellence in its structure. An artistic achievement has to create a unity of impression and a totality of effect. It must have the beauty of completeness, the beginning must look forward to the end, and the end must be involved in the beginning. And each episode or fragment must be similarly integrated with the whole and with each other. This is obvious in classic art though romantic art admits of some laxity. This difference is to be explained by the difference in aim and attitude. Classical art seizes upon a fragment of experience isolated from the flowing current of life at a moment of high tension, and embodies it in his creation. The attitude is one of concentration ; the aim is perfection. But Romantic art deals with the mighty stream of life that overflows in diverse ways, or blanches out in minor episodes. Often there are episodes and characters whose relation to the whole is slender. Here the episodic diversions become irritating in an author who has no clear purpose ()I. overmastering passion, but in the case of one who has, this purpose or passion helps him to hold together the episodes and create a unity of effect. When life becomes a complex of contradictory forces, as it has in the industrial era of capitalist society, art and literature become increasingly romantic in tendency, and expression ranges from the fanciful to the phantasmagoric. This explains the wend patterns created by modern artists. Judgment on style and expression must be guided by these primary principles.
As regards the content or substance, literature must be characterized by `high seriousness',—a somewhat vague but useful phrase of M. Arnold. It indicates the need for having a serious purpose. No artist should care to express himself unless he has something to communicate which he cannot help communicating to others. It must be an irresistible, ble compulsion, for only this can communicate to his expression this `high seriousness' which lifts the reader out of himself to the contemplation of something greater than himself.
This sublimation of the mind comes from the quality of the writer's interpretation or 'criticism' of life which appears to the great writer not as an artistic phenomenon but as a dynamic process Hii experience of life has taught him, as Tennyson said. Through the ages one increasing purpose runs, And the thoughts of men Are widened with the process of the sun. The great writer selects art of the facts of life, the significant elements of which represent the upward movement towards a better order of things, 'a something greater than before.' That is why a very great work of literature is cultured with the rainbow colors of hope and faith. Pessimism or a negative attitude is unknown in such literature because these are due to the inability to recognize this process in higher things.