In the first post of this series, I discussed a few of the complications that come up when you ask a Lit major the question “what is literature?” Here, I’ll work inductively toward an answer of what, to me, qualifies a work as literature. In the next post, I’ll try to understand why I don’t classify some books as literature.
Disclaimer: this is just an attempt to figure out what makes something literature or not to me personally. This is not what I believe to be universal, cosmically-verified fact. I don’t think anyone can give a definition of literature on which everyone can agree, and some people will hate even my very first premise. Which is this.
Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment is the absolute epitome of literature. When I think of why I love books, what I love about Crime and Punishment specifically comes to mind first. And what is it that so draws me to Crime and Punishment? It’s a combination of elegance and rawness–elegance in the form of language and treatment of characters, rawness in the form of portraying human vulnerability and suffering. It’s character development. Dostoyevsky’s main characters are fully formed and have all the complexity and contradictory elements that can be found in real human psychology. (This is especially true of the male ones–the females have a bit of Ophelia/Hero/Desdemona syndrome in which self-sacrifice, purity, and helplessness are the only defining characteristics. But this is another discussion.) Crime and Punishment has done something to me in my most misanthropic moments. If I read it, I feel a connection with my fellow humans again. I remember what it’s like to feel compassion.
So how can I go from this, my favorite book, to defining literature? Well, I thought I’d base it on what I think qualifies Crime and Punishment as its paragon. When I thought about this a few days ago, I came up with a list from Crime and Punishment of what I thought might act as a defining point for a general literature definition. But every potential defining point forced consideration of a literary outlier for which I couldn’t account.
For example, let’s say I wanted to make some kind of moral argument. That’s not really my style, but it’s worth investigating. Crime and Punishment makes me more compassionate in real life, so maybe we can say that literature will have the effect of making a person or society better. Well, there’s several problems with that. Number one (and this is a big question), better how? Who defines better? Number two, several works I think qualify as literature, without really even knowing yet what I think that means, don’t make me or anyone else better. They might exist mostly for the sake of form play, like Ulysses. Or they might exist as art for art’s sake: every play from Wilde is like literary sugar with virtually no effect on the soul. They might be simple celebrations of language’s power to sculpt a scene. I remember a four-page description of a feast laid out on a table in A Christmas Carol (which I haven’t picked up since I was fourteen, so I hope I’m remembering this right), and it was delightful. Isolated from the rest of the novel, which certainly has a moral component, the description alone would make these pages literature, in my mind. So the moral angle is out. With it goes the idea that literature must have an effect on your everyday life or change you in some way. Wilde’s witty romances and Dickens’ talk of cranberry sauce didn’t change my life or my outlook on it.
But aha! After looking at this, a commonality has emerged. Both Dostoyevsky and Dickens have beautiful use of language. Maybe this can be a working point of definition for literature. But no–Hemmingway. I’m not overly fond, but I’ve read (for one) The Old Man and the Sea, and it’s literature–no question about it. For some authors, language nothing but a necessary utility to get a story across. For Hemmingway, mastering language means figuring out how to make language get the least in the way of plot as possible, and he does a very effective job at it.
But Hemmingway’s old fisherman is fully formed character. Maybe it’s character development that defines literature. I might be on to something here, as far as my own definition of literature goes, because lack of character development is one of my biggest criticisms of modern books. But if I make character development a necessity, I eliminate from the discussion all works without any characters. The Dickens Christmas Carol passage is out. The rainwater-glazed, chicken-surrounded red wheelbarrow only can sit in the lobby of the literary hotel–in fact many poems can’t be considered literature if there must be characters in the work. So I can’t say that character depth is a defining aspect, either. I could say that, if there are characters, they must be fully formed. But how subjective of a criterion is that? I’m sure plenty of people would say that, for instance, Elizabeth Bennet of Pride and Prejudice is a fully-formed character, and I would argue that she isn’t at all (even her contrariness is predictable and dull as dishwater, in my opinion).
Well, here’s something. Everything I’ve mentioned as literature is fairly old. I said that lack of great, fleshed-out characters in modern books is something I hate, and all things I’ve mentioned so far are at least pre-1960. Maybe the pages just have to be yellow. But even as I type that, I know how ridiculous a criterion that would be. House of Leaves is absolutely literature. It belongs more squarely in the category of literature than half the things I read in my Ancient Lit class. It’s much more literary than the Iliad. (Yeah, I said it.) Cloud Atlas is a literary masterpiece–a whole world and a whole age contained in itself. And, oh, the masterful, unassumingly-titled A Visit From the Goon Squad, an undercover mural of gorgeousness. No way does a work need to be old to be considered literature, and shame on anyone who says so.
So where does this leave me in my bottom-up definition of literature? Well, if there are characters, they should be good ones. And there isn’t really any objective way to decide whether or not they’re good.
So that wasn’t very productive at all.
Next up–what literature isn’t. Maybe that will go better. (But since I already know what I’m going to write, here’s a hint: it won’t, really.)