Friday, August 31, 2012

Theory: The Klein Pyramid of Literary Quality

I am finishing out this month of blogging (hooray!) with a theory I've been working on for some time. Last February, thanks to John Green's The Fault in Our Stars -- which I loved intensely and immensely -- I was thinking about Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs and how it might apply to literary judgments. That is, to use the books within the book of The Fault in Our Stars (which form an important part of the narrative), what makes The Price of Dawn (an action-adventure novel based on a video game) better or worse than An Imperial Affliction (a literary novel about life, love, death, and the existence of God)? Is one better or worse? How do we decide that? And for me, in my real-world daily life:  What makes one manuscript better than another on a solely literary basis? To answer these questions, I hereby present, as a hypothesis up for discussion, the Klein Pyramid of Literary Quality:

(My original sketch of the pyramid above; much more readable version created by the kind Ed DeCaria.) To take these from the bottom (lowest level) up:

1. COMPLETION. The literary work is complete. (Lots of writers never even get here -- a completed manuscript -- so truly, this counts for something.)

2. COMPETENCE. The literary work is readable and understandable by a reader who is not the author.

3. CHARISMA. The literary work is able to make you feel the emotion the writer intends you-the-reader to feel, so well as that intention can be discerned. (While the subject of intention is clearly nebulous and much debated, I feel as if it is safe to say Pride and Prejudice is intended to make a reader laugh, for example, while Pet Sematary is intended to scare us, and any romance novel is intended to make readers fall in love along with the characters.)

3. QUALITY. The literary work displays some measure of imagination, originality, and/or accomplishment in at least once of these areas: Prose, Character, Plot. Ideally, all three aspects of the Quality triangle will work together to contribute to the book's Charisma or Questioning or both.

3. QUESTIONING. The literary work intentionally asks and answers questions about our human existence. (See above for caveats on intention.)

4. CONSONANCE. The literary work successfully integrates all of the above into a meaningful and beautiful whole. Consonance books are masterpieces.

How to Use This Pyramid:  To measure the literary quality of the work, you fill in all the triangles/trapezoids the particular work has achieved according to you, the reader. The darker the pyramid, the better the book is. A book must have all of the triangles/trapezoids of the previous level filled in to advance to the next level. Thus, for me, The Fault in Our Stars would be one solid dark triangle, because I think it does everything well, up to and including Consonance. But Twilight would be a dark trapezoid at the bottom (Levels 1 and 2) with just the Charisma triangle filled in above it, as it totally caught me up in the feelings of falling in love, even as I was not overly impressed by any of its Quality attributes, and I don't think Ms. Meyer especially intended to Question anything. An intensely didactic picture book might fill in Levels 1 and 2 but then have only the Questioning triangle complete, as it's asking how we should live and then answering that question, but with no emotional appeal (Charisma) at all.

Each judgment would be peculiar to its reader and the date s/he read the work, as opinions vary widely and can change over time; but that is where half the fun of literary discussion comes in, as one reader might say "Oh, this book was totally Charismatic for me!" and another would sniff, "Hmph. It barely achieved Competence!" The more widely it is agreed a book fills up the pyramid, the closer to classic status it moves in the public eye. And this pyramid has nothing to do with sales or other financial success; it is for aesthetic judgments only.

There are two more concepts that I've puzzled over whether and how to include in the pyramid:  the ideas of Pleasure and Ethics. Gone with the Wind, for instance, would have earned Consonance from me when I read it in seventh grade, and it Pleased me intensely at the time, but it's also a book rife with racial stereotypes; should it then not be allowed to achieve Consonance in my judgment, because its Ethics are bad? Or Waiting for Godot is likewise Consonant for me, but I hated reading it (I've never seen it staged):  Can it then not be Consonant because I didn't take Pleasure in it? (I guess there was some Pleasure in recognizing the mastery of the construction, how completely the Quality of its plot, characters, and prose contributed to the Questioning and Charisma it wanted to achieve; but none of that really made up for my desire for someone to move, dammit.) (Also, clearly, I would have to come up with synonyms for "Pleasure" and "Ethics" that start with K sounds.)

What do you think? Are there categories I've left out that should be included in any future revision to the Pyramid? Would YOU include Pleasure and/or Ethics, and how, and what would you call them? What books have you read this year that you would call Consonant and why?

I would be delighted to hear thoughts here! And thanks to anyone who's stuck around and read my posts through all of this month; I've really enjoyed the writing of them, and appreciate your attention.


  1. Very nice. I think I will use your pyramid when I rate books from now on. I've often wondered what it is about a book that makes me want to award it five stars, over the four-star books that are also very good. I think you've hit it with "consonance" - and like you said, whether a book achieves it or not varies from reader to reader.

  2. Hmm, these are pretty good. If I had to include a category in the pyramid, it'd be to maybe incorporate pleasure or "Captivation" somewhere between Charisma and Quality as you've suggested. Does the story "hook" me and make me want to carry the book around with me to appointments, etc. When I finished reading Andrea Cremer's NIGHTSHADE series this past year for example, like other great stories, I remember feeling chagrined that the saga came to end. I was totally immersed in the story. To have earned Consonance-status like Pride and Prej and/or Gone with the Wind, there should also be that bittersweet emotion that washes over you as everything is conlcuding, unless you re-read a story -- which I have on occasion :)

  3. Maybe the ethics is an undoing step where questions are posed and if the answer is yes, you overlay a white triangle or two or three...

  4. I would add 'sensibility' -- that is, the evidence, conveyed in the descriptions, the thought processes of the characters and the general structure of the manuscript of a unique and fascinating intelligence, with an original, perhaps even a jaundiced view of human nature and the world. For me, this is the most significant pleasure in reading a novel, short story or memoir, this immersion in someone else's world view and style of thought.
    When William Faulkner describes a rainbow in terms of the rain as "the chromatic arch of its insubstantial armistice"; when Somerset Maugham inform us that "Most people resent us when they treat us badly. Alroy Kear was too big-hearted for such pettiness. He could treat you very shabbily indeed without bearing you afterward the least ill will."; when Hemingway says "In Paris in the spring, the only problem was where to be happiest and if you could avoid making appointments the days had no limits. People were always the limiters of happiness, except those few who were as good as the spring itself." ... when I read such sentences, I'm experiencing more than a good book. I'm actively engaged with an extraordinary person I could never meet any other way.

  5. I love, love, love this pyramid. It makes so much of your considerations as an editor make sense to writers. It also brings at least some logical solution to personal subjectivity. For instance, I love Godot but am in comparison equally put off by Austen. (Sorry, it's not personal. I try and try to like that stuff. I just can't.) But the pyramid allows for these differences and compensates for them. THIS WAS SUCH A COOL POST!

  6. Love this! What a great way for writers to measure their work as well.
    The use of a "captivation" module would work, but I don't think you necessarily need it. The engrossing pleasure I hope to find in a book is part of that book's charisma. My suggestion is to bi-sect your charisma triangle to represent the charismatic intentions of the author and how well they're achieved, as well as how much the reader enjoys the resulting story.
    As far as ethics, IMO that seems like a lose-lose item to consider. Projecting current day and Western ethical ideals onto books that were written in places or at times without those feels artificial and didactic. Perhaps, the second half of the charisma triangle would take care of this, recognizing the extraordinary task of an author rendering an unethical character/situation in a captivating manner.

  7. I see that you saved the best for last :) I've really enjoyed reading your posts.

    Like Amy up above said, we do this unconsciously when we rate books ...

    Your diagram is wonderful. I would add resonance right up there with consonance, or even above. I use it in the sense as it is defined in physics, in that the resonant frequency amplifies the basal freq. So what we couldn't articulate before (nebulous ideas, beliefs, etc.) suddenly become crystal clear when you read great works.

    1. What a terrific post! This is a neat topic to think about.

      I like the idea of "resonance." And while I agree that projecting current ethical standards to works written in another time and place can be problematic, I also think we *can't* ignore those ethics. The Secret Garden and The Taming of the Shrew are both examples of books that reflect the ethics of the culture that produced them, but (to me) are strong enough that, when I read them now, I can both enjoy the story while being cognizant of/considering the issues of race, class, and gender that they include. The Little House books and Gone With The Wind, to me, don't transcend the ethical issues I have with them, much as I enjoyed them in the past. I am not sure what the difference is...I need to give more thought to this!

      To me, also, high quality works make me see the world in a new way - this is related to "Questioning" but a bit different, I think. Maybe "Resonance" includes it? I've been trying but failing to think of a catch-all term.

      Thanks for the month of posts, Cheryl - I've really enjoyed them!

  8. This is interesting! Thank you for sharing it. I look forward to using it to help analyze why I enjoy (or don't enjoy) certain books.

    And I think you're right, Ethics and Pleasure must certainly come into account somewhere. For me anyway, both play a huge role in determining how I feel about everything I read.

    Maybe you can refer to Ethics as Conscience? Does the story strive to do right by everyone it mentions, or are such matters ignored?

  9. Oh, this is wonderful. From my perspective, ‘Self-Actualization’ incorporates a notion of ‘Self’ that includes the ‘Other’ in a holistic way, and so it’s not just the literary work that is up for examination. In the relationships between author and reader, we must also include the packaging. Perhaps the book cover that bears the author’s name should also show consonance.

  10. I love this post and the Klein pyramid! I thought a lot about how I make literary judgments earlier this summer, when NPR invited people to vote on the “best-ever teen novels.” I struggled to figure out what criteria to use (your pyramid certainly would have helped me), and I wasn’t sure how to factor in how much a book engaged me versus how much I admire the literary quality, because my engagement and admiration don't always go hand in hand.

    I think I subconsciously consider charisma, questioning, and consonance as I evaluate books I read and decide which books to recommend to my middle school English students or include in my curriculum, and I love the way you have articulated those three concepts. Maybe ethics can somehow fit into consonance (and therefore you, as an adult, might not give GONE WITH THE WIND consonance even though you would have as a younger reader), and the idea of resonance that some people have mentioned may be an extension of questioning? But I do like the idea of leaving room for pleasure (and maybe calling it “captivation,” as Tuere suggested, so it matches up sound-wise) at the top of the pyramid.

  11. The Fault in Our Stars arrived in my reading queue the week I came back from Amsterdam this summer. I can't remember the last time I was as swept up in a story as I was with Hazel Grace's. Long after I turned the last page, I remain haunted by the revelation that what she wanted most was to know her mother's life would go on.

    Thanks for the great posts this month. I love Klein's pyramid and look forward to seeing you in October for your workshop!

  12. I agree with Vijaya. I think "resonance" is essential to add. When all the parts of the triangle resonate with us, we have that special book or what is a masterpiece to that reader. Wonder and Middlesex were the most recent books I've read that I consider to have it all. As always, thanks for your thoughtful posts which help the literary community understand more about writing, editing, and books.

  13. I like the pyramid a lot and don't think you need to add ethics or pleasure. You've got those covered. If the book isn't pleasurable, then it ought not rate highly in charisma. If it stereotypes race, it should get a lower mark in quality characters. If the characters do nothing, the book should be dinged for a less than top quality plot.

  14. For some reason, I've always liked pyramids as thinking tools. This is a neat one for analyzing the books we read (or write), and it's flexible enough to cover a lot of possibilities. I especially like your emphasis on questions rather than themes.
    We'd probably all agree that in a really great book, that "whole" you describe as consonance is far greater than the sum of its parts and can't really be said as well in any other words.

  15. It's been great reading these posts! I love this pyramid. It's a great tool to measure our own work and also other work we read. I don't think you need to add ethics, but pleasure (or contentment--for your K sound) would be a good addition. I'd put it right below consonance. For me it's all about how the book made me feel in the end. If everything you have in the pyramid works together, the end result is a pleasurable read and I'm content when it ends (though if it's a series, I'm excited for the next installment). If not, I feel like I've wasted my time reading (and time is a valuable commodity). So my vote is for contentment. ;-)

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  17. Loving the Cherymid. You describe Consonance as integration, which makes me think of the line that the greatest art is to make any art look easy. Instead of integration, I would put Transcendence at the top. A great book gives me something I didn't even know I needed. It tells me something new and unexpected about myself and the world.

  18. This is a wonderful tool for authors aiming for that higher pinnacle. Obviously, as you pointed out where "Twilight" might fit, you don't *have* to hit the highs to have a commercial success. But, if it's a matter of pride in your work for years to come, then the upper levels are not bad things for a writer to keep in mind (and there's no reason the "lows" of genre fiction (of which I am a big fan) can't hit these highs, either).

  19. i think this is a fairly clear layout of what makes a work of fiction "work" and would loved to see this offered up for discussion in classrooms. teens especially would benefit from a very concrete understanding about how some books are better quality and why others (especially those they "love" which fall short on the pyramid) are sub-par and derided by teachers.

    as for the ethics and pleasure question, could these not be like interchangeable elements with charisma or questioning, so long as the book has all other elements in place? it would be a shame to have such a hard and fast delineation between a good, solid book that might supplant reader-pleasure (genre fiction in particular) because it didn't fully achieve charisma or questioning. and isn't it the experience the reader brings to the book that might define whether these elements are present?

    i may come back to this and second-guess these thoughts - my ice cream hangover from last night might be clouding my thinking - but as it stands, what an excellent tool you've created.

  20. I wrote my thesis on Narnia & Harry Potter using Maslow's pyramid!

  21. This is so helpful to a teacher of writing! Anything graphic is really, really effective.

  22. I love your pyramid! It makes a lot of sense, and has me looking at books with new eyes. I have to agree that pleasure (or "captivation," as someone else recommended) should be part of the pyramid somewhere on the mid-level, possibly as part of the charisma section.

    And I emphatically think that ethics should be part of the pyramid. (You could term it "conscience," if you want to keep the k sound.) Your example of racial stereotypes is a good example. The pedophilia in the book Lolita is another.