This week’s prompt asks us to identify a favorite book that we consider literary…
For me, it’s Robin McKinley’s Beauty: A Retelling of the Story of Beauty and the Beast. Am I biased in my response? Absolutely, but I wrote a 91 page thesis on Beauty and the Beast retellings and feel I’ve earned my bias. I even created a BookDrum profile on the book.
Why do I consider it literary? Beauty retains the charm and mystery of the classic French fairy tale by Madame de Beaumont while adding depth to the relationship between Beauty and Beast, and introducing feminist elements to Beauty’s role as hero (yes, hero). Every time I read this novel, I discover something new–a detail that I missed, a bit of dialogue that suddenly takes on new meaning. It can be read as a coming-of-age story, a romance, a hero’s journey, and a fantasy. I think this is one of the elements that makes a novel literary, that it can be read in so many ways.
I don’t believe in the idea of a “Canon” of literature, but I do think there are marks that identify literary merit (though these may be entirely subjective). In my opinion, timelessness is one of those marks. If I can toss it on the donation pile without a care, I probably don’t consider it timeless. It probably means, I read it for the pleasure of momentary entertainment and didn’t find much lasting value in the work. The best literary works whether part of the so-called “Canon,” or works of popular fiction that have become literary classics, remain relevant to readers despite social change, progress, etc.
For a taste of Beauty, I give you one of my favorite passages. This part takes place when Beauty first meets Beast.
“Would it help perhaps if I told you that, had your father returned to me alone, I would have sent him on his way unharmed?”
“You would?” I said; it was half a shriek. “You mean that I came here for nothing?”
A shadowy movement like the shaking of a great shaggy head. “No. Not what you would count as nothing. He would have returned to you, and you would have been ashamed, because you had sent him, as you thought, to his death. Your shame would have grown until you came to hate the sight of your father, because he reminded you of a deed you hated, and hated yourself for. In time it would have ruined your peace and happiness, and at last your mind and heart.”
My tired brain refused to follow this. “But–I could not have let him go alone,” I said, bewildered.
“Yes,” said the Beast.
I thought about it for a minute. “Can you see the future, then?” I asked uneasily.
“Not exactly,” said the shadow. “But I can see you.”
—Beauty: A Retelling of the Story of Beauty and the Beast, HarperCollins, 1978, p. 115