Critics point to literary merit as necessarily subjective, since aesthetic value is often determined by personal taste, and has been derided as a "relic of a scholarly elite". Despite these criticisms, many criteria have been suggested to determine literary merit including: standing the test of time, realistic characters, emotional complexity, originality, and concern with truth.
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.
Poetry has its own standards that constitute literary merit, though these may overlap with prose. Use of rhetorical devices (i.e. similes, metaphors, etc.) as well as style of diction, rhythm, and syntax tend to produce work which meets the above criteria. For example, William Shakespeare's sonnets have received acclaim for his early pioneering of iambic pentameter a rhythmic device. Merit may also be derived from a poem's theme but tends to explore a greater focus on structure and positioning as well. Calligrams represent a poetic example in which critics explore the geometric shape of the text not necessarily an original theme or idea.
Novels, novellas, and short stories vary slightly from poetry when ascribing literary merit. Typically, prose scholars consider the theme or greater message of the text, often in relation to motifs or symbols found within the story. The Great Gatsby, Heart of Darkness, and "The Tell-Tale Heart" each represent a category of prose recognized for a praiseworthy theme. Due to prose's traditionally greater length there is more space to express ideas in comparison to poetry. This couples with assisting in character development and emotional climaxes, traits often associated with valuable stories.
Much debate centers around the correlation between literary merit and product sales. Erotic romance novel Fifty Shades of Grey has sold over 125 million copies worldwide despite being panned by critics due to poor writing. In comparison, John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath has been critically acclaimed for its symbolism, plot, and character development and has sold approximately 14 million copies. Notable is the difference in release dates, The Grapes of Wrath having been introduced to the public in 1939 as opposed to Fifty Shades of Grey's 2011 release. However, change in personal tastes coupled with an increase in American literacy explains this discrepancy. Book series including the likes of Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings, both of which have received positive reviews, also benefit from strong sales. Therefore, it is entirely possible for literature to demonstrate merit and a strong public interest.
Experts may disagree on the quality of works based on their cultural or ethnic background. Today, a disproportionate amount of merited literature has been produced by Western authors found within the United States, Western Europe, and the European Mediterranean. Scholars point to the Enlightenment, Renaissance, Victorian England, and to a lesser extent, the Industrial Revolution as prime examples where literature has flourished in the West. Consequently, fewer works are credited to Islamic intellectuals of the Dark Ages despite significant evidence of the caliphate's emerging culture.
- Thaler 2008, p. 68.
- Thaler 2008, p. 69-70.
- Morgan & Peters 2006, p. 155-156.
- Stedman, Alex. "'Fifty Shades' Spinoff 'Grey' Copy Reportedly Stolen From Publisher". Variety. Retrieved 23 October 2015.
- Chilton, Martin. "The Grapes of Wrath: 10 surprising facts about John Steinbeck's novel". Retrieved 23 October 2015.
- Sowerwine, James. "Caliph and Caliphate". Oxford Bibliographies. Retrieved 23 October 2015.
- Thaler, Engelbert (2008). Teaching English Literature. UTB für Wissenschaft. p. 231.
- Morgan, Bill; Peters, Nancy (2006). Howl on Trial: The Battle for Free Expression. City Lights Books. p. 224.