What is Literature? Part Three: What Isn’t?

Before we’re back to our regularly scheduled programming of discussing specific works (I’m currently snail’s pacing my way through Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose), I’d like to do one last exploration for my “What is Literature?” series.

In the first part of the series, I talked about how those most immersed in lit are sometimes the worst people to ask.  In the second post of the series, I unsuccessfully tried to dream up literary criteria using examples. Today, I wanted to see if I could at least decide what literature isn’t. Maybe I can come up with a woefully oversimplified definition through opposing qualities.  It’s sure to be as flawed as any invented and imposed binary system, but at least it’d be something to work with.

Once, when I was at O’Hare getting ready to fly, I thought I’d stop and look at a Hudson News for a crossword puzzle. I stared at the rows and rows of Sudoku, which I despise. No crosswords in sight.  Fine, a book then.  Here are shelves teeming with mystery and crime behemoths, sure to reward the buyer with a cardboard cutout detective who meets a sassy and attractive problem-solving partner.  Each cliffhanging chapter will leave our cavernous, undeveloped characters in some kind of peril which momentarily distracts them from the stilted and formulaic sexual tension between them.  As I looked up and down the rows, finding exactly zero things I thought I could stomach, I decided that Sky Mall had more appeal–at least it has a sense of humor about itself.

Airport bookstores are where you go to find examples of “not literature,” in my opinion.  Like I said in my last post, it isn’t that I hate contemporary lit–or even that I hate popular lit.  I just hate bad books with bad characters and tired plots.  Most authors have a decent idea or two.  But those ideas are smothered by predictable, cheap engagement tactics and–the worst–empty shells in lieu of characters. The primary offender here is someone like Dan Brown.

But what about books I wouldn’t call bad but still can’t think of as literature? To me, Stephen King fits into this category. Most of what I’ve read from him is recent, and fans tell me that I’d change my mind if I read The Stand or The Dark Tower. So I qualify what I’m saying by admitting I haven’t read what most consider his best stuff.  But, to me, King is a plotsmith and nothing more.  He writes forgettable characters and has very forgettable prose. But the plots captivate, especially in the moment, and sometimes haunt the reader well after the book is finished. Is this enough to make it literature? My personal feeling is that, no, it’s not.  And it’s really, really difficult for me to pin down why.

What’s the difference between a King book and, say, Wuthering Heights? I like one more than the other, but I’m taking an extra step in calling something “literature” or “not literature.”  Even coming from someone who thinks the standards for literature are subjective, I simply feel that I’m appealing to something more universal when I talk about literature versus personal taste.

Is it the prose?  Is it the characters? Is that really the difference between “literature” and “not literature” to me?

As I’m contemplating this, I’m tossing around the idea that insecurity is buried underneath mountains of snobbery.  Do I define “not literature” according to ideas of purpose: specifically, edification as opposed to entertainment?  In other words, do I let the question “is this book amusing me or elevating me?” dictate my definition, making sure I only consider those books that make me feel serious, classy, and educated as literature?  In trying to find an honest answer, I just can’t think it’s so.  I read Dickens more for entertainment than any feeling of self-satisfied refinement I might get from being a person who reads the classics.   But on a subconscious level I do wonder how much of my definition of literature is tied in with self image.  I’ve seen plenty egos forged in the fires of classics-immersion.  (Glasses pushed down the nose, tea in hand, pinkie extended–all optional but desirable.)  I don’t think I’m in that club.  But it’s hard to say, being so unable to define literature clearly to myself.

But enough waxing philosophic! Next on the agenda comes thoughts on The Name of the Rose, or at the very least this copy of The Elements of Style that’s been sitting by my bed.  Slow reading these days.  Looking for a job really is a full-time job.

 

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2 responses to “What is Literature? Part Three: What Isn’t?

  1. Another fantastic article, Amanda, and thank you for posting it. I’m wondering whether the distinction even exists, between “literature” and “not literature, but still an entertaining read” – the latter category including Stephen King and (please don’t hold this against me) Dan Brown. Surely there’s a continuous spectrum here, with the edifying, uplifting works at one end, and the purely entertaining works at the other end. Which of us has the right to draw a line in the sand, somewhere in the middle of the spectrum, demarking that which is literature?

    • Great comment–exemplified perfectly, I think, by the fact that we sometimes call the informational pamphlets given out at the doctor’s office “literature.” I’m inclined to agree with you. Maybe drawing lines in the sand is a task best abandoned in favor of relaxing in the sun with some beach reads.

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