Booking Through Thursday

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When somebody mentions “literature,” what’s the first thing you think of? (Dickens? Tolstoy? Shakespeare?)

Do you read “literature” (however you define it) for pleasure? Or is it something that you read only when you must?

I don't know that I have a hard and fast rule about what I think literature is. "Standing the test of time" is part of it. I don't know if we are good judges of what is going to be thought good 150 years from now. I'd like to say, fliply, that the books reviewed in People magazine are not literature, but they just reviewed Jhumpa Lahiri's new book of short stories (and gave it a full starred rating) and she might be writing literature. It's too easy to be snobbish here. And while I consider Dickens "real literature", remember that he was hugely popular in his day--published serially, with each episode breathlessly awaited.

So, we can't go by that. And I hope there are authors that didn't get their due here (hello, Jon Hassler) that will be given their due in years to come.

And I think that even writers that don't, to my mind, write "literature", can have certain books that I think deserve to last. Smock's love, "little Stevie King", has a few books that I think will certainly be genre classics, though he's written a lot of yuck stuff, too.

Anyway, enough blathering about that. I guess the short answer is that I don't know exactly what literature is, other than "what is taught in decent schools" maybe.

Do I read it? Certainly. It didn't stand the test of time for nothing. And I adore my Dickens, unlikely coincidences and all.


the word literature makes me think of my 9th grade lit class- i adored my teacher. we studied mostly greek lit that year so i associate it that in my mind.

I'd rather define "good fiction, drama, and poetry" than "literature." And then there could be a range of "top-notch, extremely excellent fiction" down to "just good fiction." As far as what gets taught in literature classes, how influential a work has been should count for something, but that's not an overriding reason to make students read it if it's junk and/or has been pushed into being influential above its deserts for political and programmatic reasons.

So Dickens is in on my list of books of the past that people should read to know English literature because he's "definitely very good fiction" (which I guess is somewhere in between the others) _and_ has been very influential.


Agreed on defining "good fiction, drama and poetry". What would your definition be?

Here's one by a lady over at my place who was supposed to leave it here but it wasn't her fault because I...never mind.

Saith she:

Literature is written work which speaks to us over time and place because it tells us something true about human nature. It embodies universal truths (truths about fallen man as well as truths about the possiblity of redemption) in a way that appeals to the imagination, that delights us with its artistry, that moves us to embrace its truth.

Given the time element -- I'm just copying the long version of what Bill posted from Apolgia, in case you are interested. He rightly calls me on some not-so-well-thought-out or supported points, but I can't respond at this time.

Here's my stab at defining literature, early in the morning with classes to prepare for:

First, I'm going to limit my answer to written work, though there is a tradition of oral literature, and I am assuming that "literature" is that creative work which lasts over time, usually fiction, poetry, drama, and creative kinds of non-fiction such as the essay, maybe some historical writing and non-fiction on topics of universal and timeless interest.

So. Literature is written work which speaks to us over time and place because it tells us something true about human nature. It embodies universal truths (truths about fallen man as well as truths about the possiblity of redemption) in a way that appeals to the imagination, that delights us with its artistry, that moves us to embrace its truth.

It is universal; thus, I can respond to its truth about human nature even if I have no personal experience of its cultural context (of course, I may need to educate myself to understand other contexts to fully understand the literature).

It is timeless; thus, I can respond to its truth even if it was written centuries ago (again, maybe needing some historical education to understand its context). It is true: it shows us something real about human nature, fallen and/or redeemed.

That literature which limits itself to the truth of man's fallen nature can help us to see the horror of life without hope. The greatest literature, however, shows us the horror of man's fallen nature and the hope of redemption.

What I would say is not "literature" by this definition is any work which makes no moral comment at all on our condition -- even literature which is not redemptive can show horror at the evil it portrays; it doesn't have to suggest that evil is not really evil or should not be somehow expunged or punished.

Percy Bysshe Shelley's "Defence of Poetry" and Edmund Spenser's "Defense of Poesy" are both very helpful in sorting this out ("poetry" is used in its broadest meaning of "creative literature" in both cases).

Traditionally, the purpose of literature is "to delight and to instruct" -- or, put a slightly different way, to instruct through the medium of delight. Instead of *telling* people what is good and evil, right and wrong, literature embodies these concepts in a form which draws the reader through its artistry and then it *shows* (NOT tells) the reader truth and *draws* him to it. This leaves out the "art for art's sake" movement, which allows aesthetic excellence to be the end all and be all of art, and thus justifies such things as technically "beautiful" pornography. BUT -- it does NOT mean that art must be didactic, either -- didactic writing is usually not artistic enough to qualify as "literature" because it preaches.

Well, that probably opens more questions than answers and it makes me want to keep qualifying and explaining -- but I don't have time! Books, of course, have been written on the subject. But if Terry would like to ask me about anything I've said here, she can email me at alaiyo52 @ (remove spaces) and I'd be glad to try to flesh this out a bit more.

(Credentials: Ph.D. in English and 20+ years teaching literature and composition at the college level, both secular and Christian institutions)

addendum: I see that I have not much addressed the "artistry" part of my definition, but it is vital, of course -- to be "literature" a work must be artistic; it must be aesthetically sound. I guess I tend to take that as a given, but it's not always assumed these days, it seems . . . A work which shows us truth but is poorly written at any level (poor plotting and characterization, or fractured grammar and syntax to force a meter or rhyme, etc.) is not literature by the description I have offered, because artistic excellence is part of what makes something literature. And I could go on about that for another long essay, but will refrain in the interest of getting anything else done today . . . :)

second addendum: Okay, I really am going to stop -- but I meant to note that at Mere Comments there is a thread right now called "Evil in the Ordinary" in which commenters are discussing a movie which holds out no redemption and whether we should accept that as excellent art. You may find some of the discussion interesting.


I should have been more careful how I worded that. My own inclination would be to define by instances, both good and bad, better and worse, rather than by giving a definition in the more ordinary sense. So, for example, I would say that Chaim Potok's _The Chosen_ is top-notch, excellent fiction (Bill Luse is going to get tired of hearing me push this book) while Dickens's _Pickwick Papers_ is pretty darned good fiction but not great and George Eliot's _The Mill on the Floss_, for all that it gets taught in literature classes, is poor fiction. This is not meant to be a slam at either Dickens or Eliot, btw. Dickens's _Bleak House_ and _A Tale of Two Cities_ are both great fiction, and Eliot's _Adam Bede_ is right up there in the pretty darned good range.

Sez me. Other people will probably disagree with every one of those statements. I could give reasons for them, though, which would give us some small handle on greatness and poorness. For example, _The Mill on the Floss_ seems to me poor because it has a resentful undertone and a boring feminist agenda. Its main character is dislikable when she is supposed to be sympathetic, and so forth. The author just did not, IMO, succeed. _The Chosen_ is a gem for so many, many reasons. Every word belongs. The author works with both power and restraint. The novel resonates on multiple levels. The author eschews tricks and crutches. (Unfortunately he didn't go on eschewing them in his later novels. One of the worst crutches Potok takes to using in other novels is the "conversation with dead people or imaginary people" trope for artificially giving his book a climax. It's awful.) The characters in _The Chosen_ are deeply sympathetic, but the book is not sentimental. The book portrays a subculture that will be unfamiliar to most readers and does so with just enough explanation and not too much, in a way that is believable, even while using a first-person narrator. And so on and so forth.

Er, sorry. Don't know how that last comment ended up anonymous. It was I.

I figured it was you!

Agreed with the The Chosen. Bill can lump it if he gets tired of hearing about it. (I love you, Bill!)

I think I agree with Pickwick and A Tale of Two Cities, also.

My "greatest piece of literature" label would go on The Power and the Glory, by Graham Greene, which I find surprising, since I am not necessarily a Greene-ophile. Maybe To Kill a Mockingbird, which is certainly one of my favorites. Pride and Prejudice, Til We Have Faces (though I'm sure most wouldn't agree).

But I like Beth's definition above. It's something I have lacked, being largely "self-educated" in these matters. You don't think at length or in depth about literature in an accounting program. So I had a lot of catching up to do--and still do.

Thanks, Lydia, for your thoughtful responses.

Since you like _The Power and the Glory_, may I recommend Evelyn Waugh's _Brideshead Revisited_? I love Greene, but this novel took his place immediately -- many of the same themes, yet it is, I believe, the better book at every level (and I love P&G).


Oh, Beth, I've read and love _Brideshead Revisited_, it's actually one of my keeper books. And while I think it truly excellent, it does not have the same emotional appeal for me that P&G does. And I think that's odd, because I don't like much else of Greene's--they all leave me cold. You're probably right: Brideshead is a better book overall. But that little whiskey priest is so personal to me, because he is such a failure at so much, but can do the one important thing......

This is what I'm talking about. In the end, it often comes down to emotion for me, rather than some objective thing. It's a flaw in me.

Beth, I really loved all that you wrote on Bill's site in response to my questioning. It's given me a lot to think about. I thank you so much.

Thank you! I enjoyed the challenge and have enjoyed the comments on this thread. I think often books move us or not for reasons that have nothing to do with their intrinsic value as "literature" -- and that's because we're all at different places on the journey with different needs and perspectives. This is why the same book will affect us differently at different seasons of life, too. For me, the characters in BR gave me more hope than almost ay book I've ever read . . .

Apologies for the double post -- not used to my new computer yet . . . !



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This page contains a single entry by MamaT published on April 3, 2008 6:19 AM.

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