Defining Merit

What gives a book merit?

Throughout the course of this semester, I have been thinking about the concept of “merit” in literature and how views on a book’s merit can influence how or whether it is dealt with in censorship cases. defines “merit” as a “claim to respect and praise; excellence; worth” and “something that deserves or justifies a reward or commendation”. How do we determine what gives a book merit? Can we say that The Bluest Eye has merit? And is the book’s level of merit enough to justify its inclusion in certain classroom curricula?

I personally break merit down into the following categories:

Awards & Recognition

I think that the usual go-to for determining a book’s merit is to look at the praise, recognition, titles and awards that the author has earned. What we hear from sources we consider to be reputable sometimes lay the foundation for what we begin to think about a work of literature. It’s the reason why authors seek out established individuals in their field to endorse their books. What other people say about a work holds weight. Word-of-mouth has power.

According to the National Book Foundation, Toni Morrison was the recipient of the 1993 Nobel Prize for Literature. She was appointed as the Robert F. Goheen Professor in the Council of the Humanities at Princeton University in 1989. Her novel Song of Solomon won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1977. Her novel Beloved won the Pulitzer Prize in 1988. She is a two-time finalist for the National Book Award. Her other honors include the Rhegium Julii Prize for Literature (1994); the Condorcet Medal, Paris (1994); The Pearl Buck Award (1994); Commander of the Arts and Letters, Paris (1993); the Modern Language Association of American Commonwealth Award in Literature (1989); and the Anisfield Wolf Book Award in Race Relations (1988).

Toni Morrison most certainly possesses merit as an author in terms of awards won.

Personal Taste

No matter how many awards an author has won, a text will always be subject to a reader’s opinion. For some reason or another, a book may not resonate with us personally. What gives a book its merit may not always be our own cup of tea. Sometimes this depends on what we can handle personally. In other words, different people have varying limits in terms of materials that they find offensive.

Let’s take a look at some reviews on The Bluest Eye from Common Sense Media, for instance:

A parent who identifies as Marie S. says, “There is nothing good about this book!” Marie references the book’s sexual content and points out that the characters “talk many times about hurting white people”. However, a teen who identifies as LexiStat gives the book a better review, saying that they thought the book “was beautifully written”. “However,” they say, “[teachers] must have a full understanding of the book and should be able to justify [its] importance to a student’s education.” LexiStat recognizes that the book contains sexual content and “inappropriate/violent language”, but says, “If you focus on the graphic nature, you will miss the point that Toni Morrison is trying to make.” Here we see an instance where opinions on the book’s value differ based on what two different individuals see students being able to handle. Also note how the parent takes great offense to the book’s racial commentary. Like the case in Buncombe County, the marker appears to be what parents deem as appropriate for children to read and what they find offensive. Sometimes offensive content can drive readers to view a book as not holding any merit.

“Windows & Mirrors”

As Dr. Deborah James, one of my literature professors at UNC-Asheville, likes to say, literature serves as a mirror to our own experiences and a window into the lives of others. Before I wrote this page, I had a conversation with her about what gives a work of literature merit. She pulled the answers out of me. I think that how a work of literature makes me reflect on different aspects of both my and others’ humanity is part of what, in my mind, makes it worth reading.

See also, Dr. Deborah James, a Toni Morrison Scholar, Interview.

This page was written by Cara Forbes.

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