January 28, 2007

Can we really define literature?

This article really struck a cord with me because a few of my friends and I have recently had a discussion about just this. What exactly is literature? How can we define what it is? The following quote from our reading really stood out to me.

If it will not do to see literature as an 'objective', descriptive categor, neither will it do to say that literature is just what people whimsically choose to call literature. For there is nothing at all whimsical about such kinds of value-judegement: they have their roots in deeper structures of belief which are as apparently unshakeable as the Empire State building.

Eagleton, ''Introduction: What is Literature?'' -- Jerz EL312 (Literary Criticism)

As I was reading the article I couldn't help but think of that conversation that Diana, Athena, and I had over dinner last week. We live in a day in age that is flooded with popular culture writing such as the Harry Potter novels and the writings of Clive Cussler, to name a few. The conversation basically came down to are Rowling and Cussler any better at writing than Poe or Dickens? We couldn't settle on an answer at all. It all depended on our personal views of what we call literature. I think that they are all literature in their own ways. Poe and Dickens are writers of literture that is classic to our day in age, but who is to say that the writings of Rowling and Cussler aren't going to be the classic literature that people read when they are discussing the period that we are currently living in?

I think that this is part of the problem that Eagleton was having when trying to pin down what literature is. It is almost impossible to make a solid, singular definition because it is all arbitrary depending on how you are reading the words on a page. I loved his analogy of a drunk reading the sign in the London subway. That drunk broke down the words on the sign word by word and read more into it than it actually was, but isn't that exactly what we do when breaking apart a passage for better understanding or to try and find meaning in any piece of literature.

Another problem that one has when trying to define literature is that writing is always changing. Authors are constantly finding new ways to grab an audience and in doing so create new genres of writing. Is it then wrong to say that these new ways of writing are not to be considered literature? As one can see by reading this entry this is a subject that continues to baffle me even though I have studied it since I came to Seton Hill. I'll be interested in seeing what everyone has to say about this article.

Posted by Tiffany Brattina at January 28, 2007 3:48 PM | TrackBack

Poe was only moderately successful in his lifetime, but Dickens was a huge popular success in his own age, as was Shakespeare in his age. Not all stuff that is worth looking at as window into the popular culture of today will be worth looking at as literature a generation or more from now. But those who only write for an existing audience that knows exactly what it wants, and is willing to pay for it, will rarely shape the critical canon of the future.

"My whole theory of writing I can sum up in one sentence. An author ought to write for the youth of his own generation, the critics of the next, and the schoolmasters of ever afterward." -- F. Scott Fitzgerald

Posted by: Dennis G. Jerz at January 28, 2007 4:05 PM

Hi Tiff,

I guess, to a certain extent, we have the same idea. You said, "The conversation basically came down to are Rowling and Cussler any better at writing than Poe or Dickens? We couldn't settle on an answer at all. It all depended on our personal views of what we call literature. I think that they are all literature in their own ways."

That's basically what I said because when I had to think about this question and had to judge I asked myself, "Who am I to say?"

Posted by: Gina at January 29, 2007 10:56 AM

One of the things that always discouraged me about writing was the thought that nothing I ever wrote would be considered GOOD. Like, Poe or Shakespeare good (or even Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul good). I mean, I appreciate them and everything, but come on guys, leave a little fame for the rest of us!

Then again, modern writers like J.K. Rowling have managed to come up with interesting plots that draw millions! When I think about that, and as you said, how the perceptions of literature always change, I start to feel a little better and consider submitting to Chicken Soup.

Posted by: Valerie Masciarelli at January 29, 2007 7:29 PM

Who are you to say, Gina? You're a soon-to-be English BA, that's who you are!

You've spent years studying this sort of thing. You're part of the population that is most likely to continue studying English in grad school... I hope you'll spend a lifetime buying books, giving them as presents, maybe even writing them. And that gives you a position of experience.

Posted by: Dennis G. Jerz at January 30, 2007 9:55 AM

Yeah Gina, give yourself some credit, girlfriend!

Posted by: Valerie Masciarelli at February 1, 2007 1:10 AM

Overall, many of us have gained an experience of interpreting what makes these poets and writers so valuable to their time period and ours. We can't sit and there and say "Poe is better than Dickens and Rowling, but not Cussler." We can only say that we enjoy their writing more. What we can do as critics, is focus on why these writers are so influential to their audience, and what makes "what they write" and "how they write it" so important for readers to understand.

Posted by: Jason Pugh at February 1, 2007 12:02 PM
Post a comment

Remember personal info?