Depth, Complexity, Quality

Some thoughts from Professor John Lye

A common way of identifying the qualities that characterize literature as 'good' is through the concepts of depth, complexity and quality.

The basic idea behind depth and complexity is that literature, as does any art form, represents human experience in a way that is both revealing and compelling, that tells us something about the world, holds it up for our examination, and does so in a way that engages us. This telling about the world will also tell us about ourselves, about the nature of human experience.

As there are local as well as broader components to any understanding of the world -- values and ideas which are common to a particular place and time as well as those which tend to encompass large numbers of groups over time -- fiction will also tell us something about the specifics of a time and place, about how a certain group or time saw the world.

The skilful use of the resources of the art form in evoking depth and complexity is known as quality.


The idea behind complexity is that our human experience is: Representation of experience which best evokes all of these varying and interconnected elements of our experience will give us the truest sense of the world and its meanings and of what it is to live life. That's the gist of the argument which values complexity.


The concept of depth as a value begins with the idea that we are historical and symbolic beings who are formed largely by culture but who also have common human needs, and who experience life with the complexity that I have just referred to. Depth is the word used to capture the representation of the symbolic and historical meaning of life: There is more to us than our surface, more to life than our physical sense of it. For a work of literature to have depth is for it to create a sense of this, to define some of the forces and feelings which give resonance to our being.


In order to evoke the complexities and the depth of experience, literature has to use all of its resources well:

The more the resources of language and meaning are used to reveal the depth, complexity, lived experience, and full potential meaning of the issues and events introduced by a work, the more we say this work has quality.