"A word in earnest is as good as a speech"
~Charles Dickens: Bleak House

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Literature Tuesday ..... What is literature?

I have been writing a literature Tuesday blog for awhile. It started with Shel Silverstein and has included: Tennyson, Maya and some work by yours truly (which honestly probably should not be considered literature).

Not really answering my question so I decided to search further.

What I found was Jean-Paul Satre: "What is writing? Why does one write? For whom?" Questions about literature. Poets, Satre tells us "But if he dwells upon words, as does the painter with colors and the musician with sounds, that does not mean that they have lost all signification in his eyes. Indeed, it is signification alone which can give words their verbal unity. Without it they are frittered away into sounds and strokes of the pen." Wow - that was deep. Not sure I truly understand it, but it is deep. Having only researched this briefly I think he is trying to say that with painting and music and poetry you can only create replications of the world - but with prose, with literature, you can use language to create a reality instead of just a copy of it. You can describe a situation in such a way that it brings about emotion.

I am not sure I agree with Mr. Satre, but that is what I got from what I read of his great definition of literature. Obviously his words did not create much emotion for me - because I was bored by page 50. So, I continue my search.

Dictionary.com gives me a clearer picture I suppose: "writings in which expression and form, in connection with ideas of permanent and universal interest, are characteristic or essential features, as poetry, novels, history, biography, and essays."

This intrigued me ... ideas of permanent and universal interest. Does this mean that Hitler's political manifesto Mein Kampf should be considered literature? It is still widely read, by some so that history does not repeat itself ... by some to make sure that it does.  In twenty years will people still read Twilight and think wow - that was a great story? If one of the requirements of literature is that it be permanent, how long must we wait for a piece of writing to be considered literature. My father read "Carrie" by Stephen King in 1974 and loved it. I read it an loved it. My son has read it and loves it. Does this make it literature. On the other hand Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte was apparently not very popular when it was written but now it is considered literature which many college students are required to read (I hated it). So who decided it was literature that we must all read.

I like a story - one that I can read and fall into. One that paints pictures in my head (which is why I am not a big fan of the new practice of making movies out of "modern literature" before people have had a chance to actually read), the movie of course is never as good as the book (or at least it shouldn't ever be). My search is brief and inadequate I fear. I still have not created a clear definition in my head of the criteria by which I should judge what I read. I hate to make the connection but I think my definition of literature is akin to the Supreme Court definition of pornography in 1964 "I know it when I see it."

For future "Literature Tuesdays" I think I will stick with sharing examples of what I like to read. You can determine whether or not you agree that it is literature. I would love to hear your opinion!

Addendum to Literature Tuesday:
I was searching for quotes from the Bible, specifically from the Book of Ruth to prove a point to a friend on Facebook. I was too lazy to go downstairs and get my Bible so ..... you guessed it ..... I googled it. I found this page which ironically is about the Bible as literature:

"We might say that literature does not tell about characters and actions and concepts but presents characters in action. Literature not only presents experience but interprets it. The writer of literature selects and molds his material according to discernible viewpoints. Human experience is presented in such a way as to express, whether explicitly or by implication, a world view. Finally, literature is an interpretive presentation of experience in an artistic form. That is, the content of a work of literature is presented in the form of a novel, play, short story, poem, and so forth…A working definition of literature, then, is that it is an interpretive presentation of experience in an artistic form."


1 comment:

  1. i think you summed it up brilliantly - "I like a story - one that I can read and fall into. One that paints pictures in my head" - that sounds like literature to me!!!

    and what makes a classic? i'm sure "one person's classic is another person's idea of verbal diarrhea..." - how do 'they' decide? is it a case of like-minded 'literary critics' getting together and voting for their favourite authors, style or era of writing?

    like you, i also like a story i can get totally absorbed in...