What Makes Literature Great?

At the Kenyon Review, Amit Majmudar explores the idea of what makes fiction become “great literature.” One of the reasons, Majmudar contends, is how much audiences react to its “excess”:

The magic of excess is not to be underestimated. It is the key to permanence. I would nominate Moby-Dick as the consummate work of Excess: Everything hypertrophied, whale-like, and accordingly unignorable. Most contemporary writers would point to David Foster Wallace as the supreme recent exemplar of the power of excess. But excess, whether in an individual great writer or clusters of great writers, seems to be the main underlying factor of greatness. The future is as uninterested in works of modest ambition as it is in works of language-bending syntactical experimentation.

This is a good essay—but I have one quibble.

All three qualities he identifies are traits that many of the”great” works possessed (or rather that audiences find in “great” works); but it does not follow that it was any of them, or all three, that made them great. (Perhaps I missing something from his argument? He seems to imply these qualities are what makes literature great.)

Tom Bissell’s essay on literary greatness, Unflowered Aloes, seems more persuasive. Bissell argues literary success is greatly a product of chance—and this is, sadly, a more reasonable explanation, that while there are many “great” works that are remembered, there are just as many—if not more—that are collecting dust, for no other real reason than pure chance. As valiant an effort as Mujmudar’s piece is (and it’s quite valiant), Bissell’s essay is the only one that gets to heart of the question.