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September 18, 2004 9:14 AM   Subscribe

Question for a gray Saturday. What is literature for ? Three litblogs -- Conversational Reading, The Reading Experience, and Leonard Bast -- discuss. Curl up and consider.
posted by dame (5 comments total)
This is my first FPP. If you have complaints or suggestions, please email me.
posted by dame at 9:15 AM on September 18, 2004

"What is literature?" is a sloppy question. If you take it literally, it can only be asking you to define the word "literature," and one can make up any definition one wants. There's no grounds for saying that one definition is better than another. At best, you can say one definition is more useful than another, because it captures the meaning most people give to a word. Defining cheese as "a food" is more useful (in conversation with other people) than defining it as "a type of rhinoceros."

I doubt this is possible with the word "literature," because it means too many things to too many people. Like the word "love," it is really a conceptual cloud that encompasses many related ideas. Asking for an exact definition of literature is like asking for an exact definition of "love."

The question probably means something along the lines of "Why is literature important?" or "Why should we value literature?" But these are also impossible to answer in any definitive way, because any answer would involve personal values. Such discussions COULD have merit. We could learn a lot about what makes a particular conversant tick -- but not a lot about literature. If you ask me to name the greatest 20th Century novel, and I say "The Great Gatsby," you haven't learned anything about 20th Century Novels, but you've learned what I like.

If you ask 100 people the same question, and 60% of them say "The Great Gatsby," you STILL haven't learned anything much about "literature," unless you decide to define "literature" -- or "great literature" -- as some sort of popularity contest. What if hundreds of people love a book but you hate it? Are you somehow "wrong"? Who is great literature great to? How many people have to love a book to make it great?

If the question is "what positive things does literature do for society?" we're seemingly on more objective ground. Except, we need to define "positive things" and then we need to show a clear causal link between reading literature and those positive things. I doubt we can do this.

One of the two bloggists claims that literature doesn't need to be anything other than literary to have merit. I don't know what he means by "have merit" other than "for him to like it." (But I agree his sentiment. For me to like a book, it just needs to be well-written stylistically and move me emotionally-- it doesn't need to have "social value". In fact, if it does, I will probably like it less, because it will seem less pure, and -- for me -- the purity is part of the pleasure.)

The other bloggist sort of agrees with the first one, but he seems to be saying "if literature is just about the pleasure of reading, how can we prove it's better than bad television?" To that, I'd say that you can't prove it. I'm not even sure what "better than" means in this context, other than particular people may like it better.

Of course, there are a whole series of questions about what should be taught in schools and what (or who) should get funding, but those are political questions. They involve power and intimidation and tradition. If you examine them too closely, I think you'll see that they devolve into absurdity. We need to fund the arts because they are worthy? Why? Because they are. Or because society is better with the arts? How do we know? We don't. We need to fund the arts because we need to fund the arts.

A better way to discuss literature vs. television is to do so without prejudice. One needn't be better than the other. The interesting thing about the two forms is that they are DIFFERENT from each other. They both give pleasure (and pain and fear and anger...). But they do so in different ways. Someone who never reads a book can still get his dose of stories -- but he's missing out on certain kinds of stories that work better in print (and vice versa: there are many stories that work better on screen).

If a blogger really wants to promote literature, he should spend time discussing what literature can do best -- the sorts of feelings and ideas that can be best conjured up with words and sentences. Politics is a red herring. TV can do politics too. It's the forms -- the artistic tools -- that are different. It's also the ways in which a reader/watcher interacts with the work that differs. THAT'S where the locus of these discussions should lie.

It irritates me a little when people compare "War and Peace" with "Gilligan's Island" (or "The Real World.") That's really stacking the deck towards literature. I don't want to get into a discussion about why "Gilligan's Island" is bad TV. I can't prove that it is. But I could -- given the time -- show you TV that is much more moving and provocative. So why not be more fair and compare "War and Peace" to (the TV series) "I, Claudius" or "Deadwood"? Quality stuff goes on in every medium.

Sure, more people watch "Gilligan's Island" than "I, Claudius," but then more people read Harlequin Romances than Shakespeare. Why do discussions about quality so often settle on media (TV vs. Literature vs. Film vs. Comic Book)? Why not champion quality in general? Why not champion storytelling?
posted by grumblebee at 11:09 AM on September 18, 2004 [1 favorite]

I haven't had time to read these linked posts, but that's a great comment grumblebee.
posted by josh at 11:39 AM on September 18, 2004

Great comment, grumblebee. Right on the mark.
posted by gd779 at 2:14 PM on September 18, 2004

I've been skimming The Reading Experience for a little while now, grabbing headlines in my RSS reader (bloglines), but had not heard of Bast's site; this post made me bounce over there. And good thing, too, as I would have otherwise missed this item.

Hysterical Realism. Now I have a name for the sort of writing I like as of late. Sweet.
posted by Ayn Marx at 4:21 PM on September 18, 2004

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