A Reaction to Klein’s Pyramid of Literary Quality
When I was fifteen, I went through a psychology phase. Fascinated by the workings of the human mind, I dove through Freud, Jung, Skinner, Pavlov – the whole crowd, always looking for deeper understanding. But it wasn’t until I came across Abraham Maslow’s 1943 paper “A Theory of Human Motivation” that I had one of those forehead-slapping “Of course!” moments. His hierarchy of needs was so elegant that it instantly passed my common sense test. And while my assessment of his theory has gained in nuance since, it still forms a framework for how I think about human motivation. Which is why when Cheryl Klein (executive editor at Arthur A. Levine Books and the author of Second Sight, which I reviewed here) posted her concept of a Pyramid of Literary Quality, I sat up and took immediate notice.
NOTE: Since this is meant to be a response to Klein’s post, I won’t re-hash her theory here save to link to the diagram she included in her post. If you’re interested, I suggest you go read her original post and the comments people made there. It is short, and well worth the time.
On the Utility and Limitations of Sweeping Theoretical Frameworks
First, I applaud the simplicity of Klein’s pyramid. I get annoyed at much of the last half-century’s criticism because of its obscurantist tendencies, and so whenever I find something profound stated simply, it is a breath of critical fresh air. Klein’s theory is general, abstract, and high-level. As such, it works well as a model for how to think about aesthetic quality. But it is important to understand both its strengths and its limitations as a critical tool. While there are many types of criticisms, ranging from the consumer review to the in-depth analytical exploration, I believe that criticism is fundamentally concerned with three questions:
|1.||What is the quality/value of a given work (or body of work)?|
|2.||By what methods does a given work (or body of work) achieve or fail to achieve its artistic effects?|
|3.||What is the cultural significance of a given work (or body of work)?|
The first of these questions is categorical: a book can be good, or it can be bad, or it can take on any gradation between or beyond. It is subjective, in that the judgment stems from a particular critic’s own values, and those values are almost certainly not universal. The answer to this question may be valuable, and it may be interesting, and the exploration of its underlying rationale may be thought-provoking, but the question itself is very simple: it can be captured in a discrete thumbs up/thumbs down, or a star rating system.
The second two questions, however, are diagnostic in nature. They cannot be summarized in a pithy and universally understandable iconographic system. They focus more on questions of “how” and “why” and demand a more nuanced exploration of the methods at play in a literary work.
Sweeping generalizations like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs are only valuable insomuch as they offer a methodology, a way of thinking, about the questions we pose. While they are valuable as mental models for complex processes, they tend to fail as diagnostic tools because they over-simplify very complex systems. For example, when confronted with the specific and idiosyncratic complexity of an individual’s or group’s neurophysiological, emotional, cultural, and psychological motivations, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs gets caught up in too many caveats to be useful.
Klein’s pyramid of literary quality faces the same problem. As a framework for thinking about aesthetic quality, it is useful. As a tool, it can even provide a method to answer the first of those three critical questions. But on its own, a mental model cannot really explore the specific diagnostic issues inherent in the second two. Klein’s pyramid of literary quality cannot answer questions of “how” or “why”.
But that’s okay, and in my view does nothing to diminish the value of her pyramid of literary quality. What the pyramid does well, I think, is provide a system for careful exploration of literary techniques and devices. For each component of Klein’s hierarchy, one can identify diagnostic tools, techniques, and perspectives through which to explore literary works.
Completion and Competence: Important in Specific Contexts, but Should be Flipped
The fact that Klein’s pyramid starts with “completion” and “competence” (as in “readable and understandable” for someone not the author) should not be surprising considering her work as an editor. She no doubt has to deal with piles of half-finished, and utterly incompetent manuscripts on a daily basis. But most critics, in particular those of us who criticize traditionally-published titles, rarely face incomplete or otherwise incompetent work.
If a book comes across our desks, and if that book has been edited and published by a reputable publisher, odds are that the story is “complete” and the writing “competent” according to several objective and presumably knowledgeable assessments. But with the rise of independent publishing, and in today’s series-heavy genres like science fiction, fantasy, and mystery/thriller, the concepts of completion and competence both need greater nuance.
First, a writer’s assessment of their own work is always skewed by their intentions, their aspirations, and their emotional investment in their own work. That’s only natural, and it is universal whether we publish through traditional channels or go independent. In traditional channels, there are multiple voices that weigh in on the book before it ever reaches the shelf: the editor, marketing, publicity, sales, etc. all comment and review the book before it even gets acquired, let alone printed. As a result, there are many individuals who assess whether the writing is “competent” (read: understandable), and whether the story is “complete”. This often, and even for experienced writers, provides some measure of reality check.
But if we publish independently, then we risk missing out on that reality-check: we might think we write as well as Shakespeare (fine, we can be humble and think we write like Marlowe) or we might think that our book is done. But outside opinions – not informed by our intentions, aspirations, and emotions – might have a different view. Thus, for independently published books that might not have been subjected to the same editorial process as traditionally published titles, the concepts of “competence” and “completion” become both important and relevant. For books that are traditionally published, competence in my experience tends to be a given, but the completion of the story remains interesting.
The concept of completion as a criterion of quality – and the definition of a “literary work” itself – becomes more interesting when we consider a series. Science fiction and fantasy, in particular, are famous for their sweeping epic sagas that span multiple books. This raises an important, I think, question of when should a literary work be judged? Should we judge George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire based on its component novels as published? Or should we wait for the story to complete? And what of series like Frank Herbert’s Dune books, or Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time, where the author passed away before their magnum opus was complete? And where different authors were brought in to “complete” the cycle? These are fascinating and nuanced philosophical questions which make the – seemingly categorical – criterion of completion more complex than initially thought.
For this reason, and outside of a specific editorial-context, I would suggest flipping Klein’s first two elements. Competence, as in the degree to which sentences, thoughts, and paragraphs can be understood by a reader other than the author, is the more categorical and the more contained of the two criteria: whether a book is competently written or not is usually apparent within the first several sentences (or paragraphs). Whether a book is complete or not can be debated at length even after it has been published.
Charisma, Questioning, and Quality: The Heart of the Matter
The heart of Klein’s pyramid, literally and figuratively, combines the concepts of “charisma” (the intersection of author intention and reader emotional response), “questioning” (thematic exploration), and “quality” (a nebulous conjunction of prose, character, and plot). This is both the most interesting and the most problematic of Klein’s levels, I think.
Perhaps surprisingly, I don’t have an issue with Klein’s concept of charisma. While I might choose to de-emphasize authorial intention and focus more on reader response, I still think that “charisma” is a good way to characterize the ways in which a story engages its reader on an emotional level. This, I think, is a quibble that stems from the differences between editorial and critical perspectives. But that is all that it is: a quibble.
Similarly, I don’t have any issues with her criteria of “questioning”: as charisma focuses on the emotional response generated by a text, so questioning focuses on the intellectual or philosophical response. Makes perfect sense to me.
But the third component of this level – the very heart of the pyramid – is where I start to question a little further: Labeling this criterion “quality” mixes ontological concepts a little dangerously. After all, the pyramid as a whole is intended to serve as a framework for literary quality: as currently labeled, the pyramid suggests that “quality” is at the heart of “literary quality”. This might be a semantic quibble, but leaving the label as is risks undermining the pyramid’s value through an implied tautology.
I understand and support the purpose of labeling each level of the pyramid with a K-sound: it makes for an easy mnemonic, and plays nicely with the sound of Klein’s name. It would be a shame to forgo that pattern once established. That being said, I think we could re-label the “quality” section while both maintaining its phonetic characteristics and strengthening its conceptual utility. Rather than “quality”, I would call it “content”.
Klein explains how her concept of “quality” rests upon a combination of the story’s prose, characters, and plot. While I would suggest adding a fourth leg – narrative structure – these are all identifiable tools which writers use to produce the effects that Klein calls “charisma” and “questioning”. They are quite literally the content of the story, the words, sentences, paragraphs, perspectives, and chapters on the page. And if a literary work evidences “charisma” or “questioning” in Klein’s vocabulary, then it is expressed through the content of the story: namely its prose, its plot, its narrative structure, and its characters.
And Klein is exactly right when she claims that when a story’s
quality content, charisma, and questioning work together in a cohesive, unified whole, the result is consonance. This is a concept to which I subscribe 100% percent (and which I’ve written about before here and elsewhere on the blog).
What’s (not) Missing: Pleasure, Ethics, and Resonance
In her own post, Klein asks whether Pleasure or Ethics should be included in her pyramid, and further in the comments to her post there is some suggestion around the concept of Resonance. While I am sympathetic to these questions, I do not think they have a place in Klein’s pyramid: Pleasure, Ethical Judgment, and Resonance are the effects a literary work evokes within the reader, and not the means by which a literary work achieves quality.
Pleasure is an emotional response to the story: a reaction produced by any combination of the story’s charisma, its questioning, or its content. That pleasure may be intellectual, it may be emotional, it may be physiological (the heart-racing in response to tension, for example). But it is a reaction to characteristics described elsewhere in Klein’s model.
Ethics, or more specifically the reader’s ethical judgment of the text, is similarly an intellectual response to the content, questioning, and charisma of the story. It is a response produced by the text within the reader, and the strength of that response may well be a measure of the story’s literary quality (consider the relationship between content/prose and the reader’s ethical judgment for a work like Nabokov’s Lolita). But that makes ethical judgment a measure of the story’s quality, and not necessarily a contributing factor.
Like pleasure and ethical judgment, Resonance is also a reaction in the reader to the text. I think of resonance as the reader’s reaction to what Klein calls consonance, or a story’s artistic unity. When a work is consonant, when its content, charisma, and questioning are unified, it will resonate with the reader.
Conceptually, Pleasure, Ethics, and Resonance are all missing from Klein’s pyramid. And that is as it should be, because they are not methods by which a story achieves literary quality. They are literary smoke: a second-order effect, a consequence of the literary fire built into the story.