What is Literature? Part One: Why You Shouldn’t Ask a Lit Major

2013-07-11 18.13.42

Lit·er·a·ture. noun. 1. A slippery fish.

This will be the first in a series of posts over the next few days in which I tackle a beast of a question: what is literature?  Before really confronting the subject, I wanted to relay some thoughts I’ve had as a Lit major just recently out of school, surrounded by peers studying the same.

I’ve spent years trying to define literature–not even broadly, just looking for my own personal, working definition.  After all, what literature is and isn’t amounts to individual standards, tastes, and regard for expert opinion/the test of time, which will vary person to person.  As is the case in regards to individual perception of beauty as described by Kant, another inherent (yet oxymoronic) conviction is that my personal decision about what is and isn’t literature should also be everyone else’s personal decision, but I’m going to try to pretend that I’m fine with dissenting opinions in an attempt to make it truly so.  Faking it (non-judgmentalism) till I make it, if you will. So let me take this opportunity to say, with bright smile and gritted teeth, I encourage all disagreement!

It took me a long time to figure out that I didn’t actually know how to define literature. In my last semester at my community college, I took an American Lit class with a stand-out teacher who seemed to specialize in challenging ways of thinking.  On the first day, he made each of us articulate our definition of “literature.”  It was a disaster. There was never a doubt, even before I took my first college course, that I would major in Literature, so I was pretty perturbed when my turn came and I had nothing to say about the very subject in which I was aiming to become an expert. But as I went on with my studies, I quickly learned that I wasn’t alone in my inability to nail it down.

The more I heard from fellow English majors, specifically Lit track folk, the more I was (and am) convinced that some of the worst answers to the “what is literature” question come from those who major in it.  These are people who feel so strongly about the subject that they decide to make it their main area of study.  Of course they have convictions about its worth, and there’s a real pressure to justify the choice to invest oneself in literature beyond “Man, I sure dig reading.”

Most majors have pretty pragmatic uses.  Oh, you’re studying medicine?  If we didn’t have people like you, I would have died of pneumonia about seven years ago, so that’s pretty useful. Studying geology?  Cool–please let us know when to evacuate the entire American West because Yellowstone is about to flip its lid.  History major? A tiny bit harder to make the case for, but it teaches us patterns, helps us understand international relations, is of tremendous use in politics, etc. What’s the common thread here?  Use to society.

When most Lit majors try define literature, they simultaneously make an argument for its value. It’s as if the question “what is literature?” implies a begged question, “why is literature worthwhile?”  (Or perhaps, in some people’s cases, “I’m paying for you to major in WHAT? Absolutely not–you’ll become a registered nurse like we discussed”). Maybe it’s because literature, like art, seems so much more like a luxury rather than a necessity when compared to other areas of study.  Therefore, when we talk about what literature is, Lit majors often immediately go on the defensive and try to make a cause for the betterment of society. Elevated minds and culture and all that.  I’m not at all belittling the societal benefits of literature, but I am saying that Lit majors often don’t have clear enough heads to think about the subject critically because they’re too busy jumping to the part where they defend it.

Another real problem of Lit majors is an combination of ego and Protestant work ethic. Most will boldly proclaim their love of Shakespeare or use him as the primary go-to example of what literature is, and often (not always, but often) encoded in this example is a collection of disjointed, unspoken, perhaps unconscious thoughts, such as the following: “Shakespeare has a reputation of being hard to read. I had an awesome teacher once who helped me understand Shakespeare.  Now I understand something hard to read, so I am good at English, or something.” “Shakespeare has a reputation of being hard to read.  He also has a reputation as being amazing. Therefore, literature should be hard to read, but amazing if you work really, really hard at it. If it’s easy to read, it won’t reward the people who had to work to earn the meaning, so it must not be literature.” If something is easy to read, anyone at all can appreciate it and I’m not special, nor are my skills valuable, so Shakespeare is a good example since many people don’t understand him” “Shakespeare has been touted by experts for a few centuries now as the pinnacle of English literature. Therefore, if I am going to be an expert, I should align myself with other experts or else my taste will seem deficient.” “Shakespeare is old.  Old literature is classy. I’m not supposed to like new things, as a Literature major. Only smart, classy people like old books with hard-to-understand language.”

This is, of course, not a tirade against Shakespeare or especially against the people who study him and adore him.  In fact, the majority of the truly brilliant people I’ve met in the field are primarily Shakespeare scholars (probably contributing to the mimicked worship described above–thanks, guys). I’m just bringing to light some of the encoded messages in a Lit major’s discussion of the subject that might not appear in, say, a math student’s definition of literature.

I’m going to try to be the exception to the rule in my discussion of the subject. This shouldn’t be too hard for a few reasons.

1. I’ve been watching and taking note of bad definitions of literature from Lit majors for a few years now.

2. I am fortunate to lack the insecurity of many Lit majors because, as an adult student, I’ve never been required to justify my desire to study books to any funding entity. My only thought was “Man, I sure dig reading” when choosing my major.

3. If anything, I feel a teenage-angsty rebellion toward the experts. A million brilliant people over a long period of time have said this is worth reading? Fine. I’ll read it, and I’ll look for what they found valuable.  That doesn’t mean I will come to the same conclusion. I’m very aware of the Emperor’s New Clothes Syndrome, and–Hume be damned–I think time can fail to expose the truth.

4. Do I think literature adds value to society? Absolutely! Do I think that value can always be concretely defined or empirically verified? Not in the slightest. The value of literature to society should be part of the conversation.  It should not be the whole conversation.


4 responses to “What is Literature? Part One: Why You Shouldn’t Ask a Lit Major

  1. This is a really nice post, Amanda. I’m wondering whether we actually NEED a definition of literature. It’s rather like asking how to define hot chicken soup. Anyway, I have just added the rest of your blog to my own to-read list. Please keep writing.

    • Thanks for commenting. Perhaps the definition isn’t necessary, and considering that it’s like trying to nail jello to a board, defining literature is indeed a bit of an exercise in futility. But it’s fun to work through, for me personally.

  2. Pingback: What is Literature? Part Two: Bottom-Up Logic | In Litero: An Evaluation of Literature

  3. Pingback: What is Literature? Part Three: What Isn’t? | In Litero: An Evaluation of Literature

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