From 2009 to 2013, I studied English at the University of Kansas, and during that time, I had to decide whether or not my focus would be on literature or on creative writing. I fought with my adviser over this for my first semester. He wanted me to pursue literature; I wanted to hone my writing skills. After I showed him a copy of November Snow, he relented, and I was an English major with a focus on creative writing. Now, that being said, the majority of my classes were still focused on studying different types of literature (instead of writing), and we often talked about the differences between literature and “other writings”, so today’s topic—discussed and written by Eliot Gilbert—hits home for me, and I hope you enjoy his post as much as I do.
My Issues With Literature
There is an elusive mythical status in the world of writing which can only be obtained, seemingly, by bribing (or blackmailing) scholars and booksellers. The status to which I refer is what I like to call capital “L” Literature, and I’m so against the term that I almost sighed by typing it out.
I am sure at least some of you have scratched your head trying to puzzle out the term “Literature”, without much avail. I, personally, am studying English Literature academically, and I still am not entirely sure what means. It’s seems peculiar to me to have a distinction between literature and Literature.
Here’s where I think the largest mix-up is: the western literary canon seems to insist that a work should be valued as Literature if it has a superb artistic merit, and if it has significantly contributed to cultural development of the western world. At first that definition seems to be satisfactory, but when put under any amount of scrutiny, it simply does not hold up.
Firstly, the definition seems to imply objectivity. In truth, the decisions are entirely subjective; works of writing are determined Literature by scholars and researchers who have their own interests and methods of interpretation. Put differently, some works are ignored because a scholar has no interest in them, and some works are elevated because they speak personally to the critic.
So, it is impossible to responsibly define Literature as an objective status. This brings up the second largest problem, in my mind: it’s a ridiculous “dog chasing its tail” situation.
Literature is determined based on personal interest of the scholar, and then either accepted into the critical community or rejected, over a span of time, and through further interest by other scholars and researchers. What happens, then, is that certain work gets attention, and then that work is elevated to Literature, and other work is ignored or put down because it doesn’t fit the present definition of Literature. Those who are fellow writers may see a similar situation in getting published without previously being published.
This, in my mind, has caused a host of confusions and issues. The main issue for me is a general dismissal of genre fiction. I like to use The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty as my go-to example. The novel, especially the 40th anniversary edition, is brilliantly paced, highly imaginative, has artistic and disciplined prose, and makes the reader think and discuss rather than spells everything out for her. In addition to this, the novel has had millions of copies sold, and spawned several adaptations, not least of which was the first film adaptation, which became one of the highest grossing films of all time. By anyone’s definition, The Exorcist should be literature, but a quick search on Google Scholar will demonstrate that is simply not the case.
The western canon of literature is extremely genre-biased. Works of science fiction, horror, fantasy, suspense, and YA fiction, are frequently ignored only because there is a preconceived notion about the quality of writing which is altogether unhealthy and false. In my own experience, there is frequently unskilled work that is considered “general fiction”, or even what is considered “contemporary literary fiction”.
As readers and writers, I think we need to broaden our scope of what is considered exceptional writing.
In his book Literary Theory: An Introduction, critic Terry Eagleton asserts that Literature should not be viewed in the standard way I described, but instead, as work that is highly valuable. I believe it is infinitely more useful to view Literature in this way, because it encourages subjectivity.
That is not to say I believe the casual reader is as skilled at literary analysis as a PhD would be, but I do believe that we should stop capitalizing the “L” in Literature; “literature” is, simply put, anything that is written, and every written work deserves an equal scrutiny, regardless of genre or format.
So go out there and create wonderful literature, and read wonderful literature. But please, for the sake of us all, try to avoid the more snobbish, capitalized consonant variety.
Bio: Eliot Gilbert is an emerging fiction writer, primarily working the in soft fantastic. He is a proprietor of aesthetic approaches to literature, and thinks genre work isn’t given enough attention as a serious medium. His work is appearing in the fall issue of Calliope, the literary magazine of the special interest writing group of the American Mensa. He studies English at York University, in Toronto, Canada. You can follow him on his website, on his Twitter, or on his Instagram.
Want to be a guest blogger? I would love to have you on! I am accepting original posts that focus on reading and writing. A picture and a bio are encouraged. You do not have to be published. If you qualify, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
18 thoughts on “#MondayBlogs: My Issues With Literature”
Absolutely, wholeheartedly agree with every word in this guest post.
Louis, glad to hear you agree! I always thought literary criticism was snobby, but then I realized it was the content rather than the approach.
Brilliantly said (or typed)!!
Thank you, Francina! I have about zero prowess with the spoken word, so rest assured it was typed.
Having flashbacks to my college days here. The lone fantasy author in the creative writing program left me being on the ‘wrong side’ of this debate many times. Never understood the point of claiming some stuff is more elite than others. Reading and writing is supposed to be fun and this always turned both into a bizarre competition.
Oh boy, tell me about it. I’m lucky to be attending a university with a fairly liberal English department (I remember my first year English professor did his dissertation in vampire and werewolf studies) but the snobbery is most assuredly still there. As I said in the post, every critical investigation is arbitrary. Poe is a father of the American short story, but Lovecraft writes “purple prose” and deserves no attention outside of popular culture. It’s a weird thing.
Thank you for writing for http://www.ShannonAThompson.com today, Eliot! Happy to have you on. Great discussion.
It was absolute joy writing the piece, Shannon! Happy to be on.
Thank you for writing this! At times it feels like saran wrap over a bouquet of creativity.
It was my pleasure! I can talk about this endlessly, I think. What an excellent metaphor. I absolutely agree.
I completley agree. I think so many amazing books are never given the awards that they deserve. Even though many fantasy/sci fi/ YA books are extrememly popular the authors never get any credit for their writing.
It’s an odd thing, right? Even without popularity, I feel like we should at least be more open to say “Wow, this science fiction piece is incredibly written. I’m going to write a journal article on it.”
Definately! The critics tell everyone what’s good but ignore the sheer popularity of a book by it’s sales. Isn’t it obvious?
Excellent insight. Our entire field is absolutely based upon subjective taste. But ascertaining different audience’s tastes is part of the joy of writing, in my humble opinion.
For sure. I think that if something is done with intention and skill, then it’s a valid as a piece of art to be put under critical scrutiny. As a creator, you have to find your audience and be kind to them, but subjectivity is where passion flourishes. It’s not a bad thing at all, we just need to open up our academic discourse to be more welcoming of new ideas.
It’s easy to get annoyed about Literary fiction when its proponents cast themselves as elite and all other genres as inferior, but I think you’re missing the point. Literary is not a declaration by an elite group of critics but a genre, just like SF, Mystery, Romance, Western, etc. Literary is an approach to the process of writing that values a particular kind of language (great beauty) and set of subjects (wrenching issues about being human). It’s not that much different from detective novels with a “hard boiled” voice, or Regency novels with all sorts of detail about clothing and manners.
Some people enjoy Literary fiction. Some don’t. Just as some people enjoy Thrillers and some don’t. So if you get snide comments about not being Literary, just smile and agree with them. Because Literary is a genre like all the rest.
You bring up a very interesting point! Literary fiction is a genre, while as “Literature” is a critical accolade, and therein is even further confusion, I think. It’s like how you can say something is romantic, Romantic, or a romance (that is to say, pertaining to love, having to do with the cultural movement, or a medium of prose). Or a realist piece or a realistic piece.
Semantically, there is a very key difference between “Literary” as a genre, and “Literary” as an elitist attitude. On my website I list my niche as “Literary experimental fantastic”, for example, referring to a genre rather than a self-congratulatory attitude. Because the two terms refer to unique concepts, but are nearly identical as words, there is a lot of confusion.
Unfortunately, the Western canon of literature is living proof that scholarly authorities do, indeed, elevate “Literature” and put down “literature”. I’m not basing it on a feeling I have, nor a misunderstanding, but a real problem in the academic world, which has direct influence on what is considered “high brow” and “low brow” among everybody in and out of it. Simply put, our literary authorities frequently dismiss both popular and quality works because of an elitist attitude commonly held because of no other reason besides “propriety”.
What I’m addressing in my post is what is written above, not “Literary fiction” as a genre. Though again, you bring up a very interesting point and I think having the two words so close to each other only adds to the confusion.