Thursday, December 27, 2018

What is "This Thing We Call Literature"?


In literature, words have connotations. And it's worth noting that the word literature has a connotation as well. The general consensus is that it's a bit highbrow, and it's almost expected to be less-than-accessible to the average reader. Literature is that long, complicated boring stuff we had to read in school. The definition I've tended to use with my students has been that literature is "the stuff that matters." I would always draw a distinction between good storytelling and literature. Stephanie Meyer's Twilight series, I would explain, is a great story, but actually contains rather weak writing, and it certainly won't ever be studied, nor will it even be thought of a generation from now.

Of course, I could be wrong. And there are far more scholarly and erudite people to explain and resolve this. Arthur Krystal is definitely one of those.

Krystal is one of my favorite critics, writers, and thinkers, and for Winter Break I've been reading and enjoying several of his books of essays and criticism, notably the inspiration for this post: This Thing We Call Literature. Krystal is, I believe, first and foremost an essayist, and he spends much of his practice in the form pondering the very nature of writing and storytelling. One of his targets in the book is the growing idea in contemporary society that literature is whatever we want it to be, or even worse, anything that is written. He draws some insight and perspective from the theory posited in a book of lit crit A New Literary History of America, which makes the astute observation that Bob Dylan is potentially the most well known and significant poet in America today. This perspective is, of course, validated by his award of the Nobel Prize for Literature. Add to this the news of rapper Kendrick Lamar being awarded the Pulitzer Prize, and you can see the argument take shape.

Exploring the depths of my original comment about Stephanie Meyer, Krystal's discussion of commercial or genre fiction versus literary fiction is the crux of differing views about literature. For example, he notes the significance of popularity in weighing a literary work's significance, and he concedes the obvious reality that the works of Charles Dickens were the popular fiction of their time. I particularly enjoyed his reference to Edmund Wilson's classic New Yorker essay disparaging popular crime fiction, "Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?" When I ran across an excerpt from that essay years ago in, of all places, an SAT prep book, it opened my eyes to to the battle over literature and popular fiction. Certainly, popularity is not the barometer by which we measure quality - fast food and reality TV being the textbooks examples of the flaw in that logic.

That said, Pop Culture has a distinctly different status than it did even twenty years ago. As Krystal notes: If you think Buffy the Vampire Slayer deserves to be the subject of an academic dissertation ... then you are living in the right time. No doubt. And I am certainly one to elevate Buffy to the body of work worthy of study. For years, I have half-joked to my classes that my first scholarly work of literary criticism will be centered on the three Bs of culture studies: "The Bible, Beowulf, & Buffy." But I don't disagree with Kyrstal or Lionel Trilling or Northrop Frye or Harold Bloom that there are clear distinctions for that which we deem literature. And, I'd also agree that post-modern obfuscation of ideas like quality and morality and truth are doing no service to culture. There's the good stuff that matters and won't soon be forgotten ... and there's everything else.

Anyway, if you want to read and ponder some thoughts on language and literature, check out some Arthur Krystal.

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