What Is Literature (and Should We Really Fight Over Its Meaning)?

“What is Literature?”

That was the first thing one of my favorite professors asked my class back when I was in college.  And despite having spent four years studying, examining, and reading examples of Literature, I find myself here – almost 10 years after the question was asked, still struggling with its definition.

Oh, don’t get me wrong.  I actually do know how to define Literature – it’s an artful presentation of significant aspects of human life, through text.  I know what it looks like, based on all the readings my classmates and I had to go through back then (some of them are actually still studying if not teaching Lit one way or another).  For all intents and purposes, I know how to differentiate a supposedly “literary” work from other kinds of written work.

The problem is that I think (in my heart of hearts) that the delineation is bullshit.

There, I said it.

I’ve become really uncomfortable with the disdain with which a lot of Literary scholars seem to treat certain genre of fiction (did that sentence make sense at all?).*  It’s as if works of science fiction, romance, and fantasy have no intellectual merit whatsoever, even when they do.  See, let’s go back to that definition:

It’s an artful presentation of significant aspects of human life, through text.

In what way does this definition EXCLUDE genre fiction and the like?  If there’s anything I’ve learned during my four exhausting but fulfilling years in Literature, it’s that practically anything can be literary if you know how to read it.

An ecard declaring itself a poem
This is either brilliant or stupid; it depends on how you look at it.

In fact, that definition I laid out up there has become more complicated since the word text started to encompass anything from advertisements to architecture (I’m not kidding).  In other words, they can fall under Literature too.

As far as I can figure, what makes Literature truly literary in the eyes of scholars is the sheer number of layers you can attribute to text.  That’s all well and good.  But I have issues with the idea that some specific types of text don’t have layers at all.

After all, WE AS THE READERS are the ones who find the layers; each of us has the ability to determine the profundity of each piece of text that we have the fortune (or misfortune) or reading.  The way I see it, Literature can’t be unanimously defined.  Not anymore.

At the end of the day, what Literature actually is is a reflection of us:  our aspirations, our fears, our time; the themes of our own humanity.  It’s different for every person, so maybe we should stop TELLING people that they’re reading the wrong things.  Instead, I think we should just share what we like to read and hope to heck that piece of us inspires other people.**

So to all of you folks out there who’ve told me that I’m wasting time and intelligence reading stuff that aren’t high-brow, I’d like to say:  enjoy your Ivory Tower.  I’m sure you’re very happy condescending to people from up there while the rest of us are enjoying the weather.

* Lemme just clarify that I’m not talking about my former professors and peers in the literary circles here.  I’m talking about actual literary snobs who look down on you for not reading everything F. Sionil Jose (and the other Literary Greats) wrote, the ones who look down on you because *gasp* YOU LIKE POPULAR FICTION MORE THAN MILAN KUNDERA.  The folks I hung out with were cool enough to let me treat Tarot cards as text.  Or let me argue the literary merits of graphic novels, comic books, and manga.

** I also want to say that I still think that there are some books that, in my opinion, AREN’T worth reading.  But if other people find a strange kind of meaning to the Twilight series, who am I to judge?  As long as they don’t force it on me, I won’t give a shit; they can read anything they want.  I just want to read whatever the hell it is I want to read too, without other people telling me how shallow Neil Gaiman is because he writes fantasy and children’s books.

14 thoughts on “What Is Literature (and Should We Really Fight Over Its Meaning)?

  1. “…an artful presentation of significant aspects of human life, through text.”

    Very nice. Succinct.

    Do I really need to go back and try The Unbearable Lightness of Being for a third time? What am I going to get out of it that I couldn’t in the first two failed attempts? On the flipside of that, The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay still holds up as being a literary masterpiece. But people put Chabon in a different arena than Kundera.

    I suppose its all relative.

    1. Hi, and thanks for visiting! 🙂

      My general philosophy in reading is this: if it’s hard to get through, then stop. It might not be for me. I might not be in the right state of mind for it. Then I try to read it again later – when I’m older, or read something similar, or lived through an experience the book promises. But it’s up to me, and to you, as readers. You don’t need to finish reading “Unbearable” if it doesn’t call to you. It doesn’t make you less than those who read it, just as it doesn’t make me MORE than those who didn’t. Again, it’s all relative.

      Here’s to relativity! 😀

      Meanwhile, you’ve just prompted me to look for Chabon’s work (I haven’t gotten around to reading him because SO MANY BOOKS, SO LITTLE TIME).

      1. If you want to get into Chabon, I would suggest starting with “The Mysteries of Pittsburgh” or “Wonder Boys” before jumping into Kavalier and Clay. Just MHO.

      2. Oooooo, thanks for the rec. 🙂 Knowing my own reading habits, it might be best for me to ease into the author’s other works first – so this is very much appreciated.

  2. I agree, and I have to say that this insulting attitude some people try to force on others just gets me steamed. I feel inclined to go blog about it myself.

    In fact… I think I will!

    Don’t let opinionated fools stop you from being YOU!

  3. During one of my Music Literature classes way back when our teacher gave us her definition of music. I don’t remember her exact words but it was something all-encompassing like “sound over time.” A lot of us in the classroom had blank stares after hearing her say that, and while there is a lot of weird 20th century music that I don’t really care for, I’m not going to argue with her definition, because the definition of music is many different things to different people. (Go look up 4:33 by John Cage, it’s a really interesting take on what music really is.)

    I said this in Unrestrained Fancy’s post (which is how I found this one). People who claim that literary fiction is superior to genre fiction are pompous asses. If you want to look for layers of meaning, you’ll find them.

    Several years ago, I started to (somewhat) sarcastically analyze The Cat in the Hat by Dr. Seuss. I discussed the psychological effects that the cat’s visit had on the children, how they might learn to disregard authority figures in the future if they don’t get caught, how it’s ok to ignore an authority figure – even if they’re present – if they don’t have the ability to punish you for your actions (the goldfish in the story). There are dozens of other things that I could have looked at in the book as well, so if you’re using layers of meaning as your definition of literature then I think The Cat in the Hat definitely qualifies.

    Ok, I’ll stop being facetious now. What is literature? If I’m forced to come up with a definition, I would simply say “organized text.” In that vein, every book ever written counts, tarot cards count (and I would have loved to be involved in that discussion), manga and graphic novels count.

    1. Thanks for clicking (and supporting Laura, too)! 🙂

      I keep wondering about this conceit of depth that some academics insist upon. And I absolutely agree that layers of meaning can be found, if you look hard enough. After all, I DID get to do thesis discussing the potential of the Tarot as a Universal Text (it failed, by the way, as the actual methods of reading and interpreting the cards seem to vary when comparing Western and Eastern cultures, if not from person to person; but you can also use that to argue that any universal language would also be open to thousand of interpretations subject to experiences that are both cultural and personal).

      As an aside, I’d have been more excited in school if they let us do something like your Cat in the Hat analysis; sadly the Faculty at large insisted on keeping our theses focused on more “local” topics.

      PS: I will Google 4:33 as soon as I can. o7

      1. I should have explained it in my original reply, my excuse is that it was kind of late when I wrote it. 4:33 is a piece where the performer sits on stage and does nothing for 4:33. Cage’s idea was that over that time the audience and other ambient noise will create the ‘music’ that they’re expecting to hear from the performer. It’s a very strange idea, but it does make you question what really qualifies as music.

        I would argue that tarot cards should count. The fact that eastern and western cultures would have different opinions on them is one of the larger reasons that they should. I think that people being able to have different opinions on the theme based upon the writing of the piece is one of the central aspects of being literature. If there is only one possible interpretation of the writing, then it’s most likely a technical manual and not a composed piece.

      2. Re 4:33 – no problem; I think the concept is fascinating and incredibly relevant to the discussion (I Googled it). Meaning can be a very fluid thing after all, which begs the question of whether or not there should be strict forms and definitions applied to literature and the arts.

        Re the Tarot: I believe that it SHOULD be considered Literature – the tricky part is proving that it can be as “universal” a text as many claim it is (because that is the main question that most people ask). I didn’t have enough time to delve into it as a student, but I wanted to expand the study into the exploration of language as it is used in Literature; that no matter how “universal” a supposed language is, CONTEXT still gets in the way. In other words, meaning cannot be truly dictated, no matter what the intent is.

        You are absolutely right about opinions with regards to themes; the point of Literature is having a universal experience, rather than having a universal language. And interpretation of the experience is based on how the experience itself was experienced by the reader (if that makes any sense).

        Again, the context is the important part.

  4. Very similar to the question of “What is Art” (see Duchamp’s “Fountain”).

    I think life is too short to read books that aren’t enjoyable. I think we can’t particularly decide what is literature until it’s had a longer shelf life. (What is a classic? Even worse, what is a “new classic”?)

    To me, something is literary if it reveals something poignant about human nature and makes the reader feel more human while reading it. But then what makes us human? Are we human, or are we dancer? 😉

    Thanks for the head-scratcher. It’s something I haven’t considered in a while.

    1. Oh hi! I didn’t expect anyone to comment on this post after such a long time (but I’m glad you did) 🙂 Thank you!

      First: I absolutely agree that you can’t stick with a book that you aren’t enjoying at all; reading becomes a chore when you do that, and I think that’s one of the saddest things that could happen to any person who can read.

      Second: I agree that Literature (with a capital “L”, as defined by scholars) is like fine wine in the sense that it’s quality is best judged when it’s had the chance to age – not that I particularly like wine, mind you – I also think that the term is applicable to something OTHER than “the classic”. You’re right to ask what the definition of “classic” is, because, much like Literature, its meaning fluctuates from ideology to ideology and from experience to experience. Again, there is a measure of bullshit in trying to find delineations when the definitions ultimately shift in history (if you really think about it.


      1. Ha! I didn’t even notice the date. WordPress just told me you liked one of my posts and gave a list of some of yours, which I read, and enjoyed!
        Glad you liked the quote 🙂

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