Literariness Under Fire?

So, if you guys can remember, I did a post last week about Literature and my frustration with its definition.  Specifically, my big problem with judging judgers who judge other people for reading what they like to read (as opposed to reading “real” books).  Please.

It even inspired Laura Ritchie to write about literary bullying on her blog.  Not long after that, I found a post by Amanda, pointing out that “Literary is just another word for asshole.”  (Given recent experience, I’m inclined to agree.)

This week, I saw an opinion post on one of my favorite sites expressing dislike for the term “serious reader” and its connotations.  If even Dr. B on BookRiot (who has a DOCTORATE in “serious reading”) is pointing out that there’s something wrong with the way reading is approached by the “academics”, then it’s probably something that a lot of people have been talking about lately.  Maybe it’s really a cause for concern.

Maybe instead of focusing on WHAT to read, we should try to pay attention to HOW we read and WHY we read.  Reading is, after all, a way of understanding the world.

Much besides, forcing a book, poem, or essay on people “because it’s better than that trash they’re reading” is one surefire way of alienating people from the wonders of a really good piece of text.  And nothing is more horrible than that.

At this point, I’d like to thank my Daddy for inspiring and encouraging my (occasionally unhealthy) reading habits.  It made reading and learning a whole lot of fun.

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16 thoughts on “Literariness Under Fire?

  1. Love the reader focused sentiment of moving away from the WHAT to the HOW and WHY. Also, your profile is great “I lie (sort of) for a living.” – I worked in PR once upon a time… and that’s how I felt… I’d laugh if that is what you do. Cheers!

    1. Thanks for visiting (and the compliment)! As a READER FROM BIRTH (with a father like mine, I might as well be), I always thought that the important part of reading is the experience – as opposed to the text itself. 🙂 The trend of making reading ABOUT THE BOOKS/ARTICLES is baffling.

      PS: I don’t work in a PR firm, though I DO work in Marketing. It’s not exactly lying, but you do have to create copy that occasionally spills into the realm of exaggeration. It doesn’t help that I’m the spawn of Advertising people.

  2. Thank you for the mention! I’m so happy to see other people supportive of reading what makes you happy instead of reading what other people tell you you’re “supposed” to read.

    Great post!

    1. As one of the (apparently many) contributors to this conversation, I think you deserve the mention. 🙂 Reading is a right that must be ENJOYED, and not a task that needs to be UNDERTAKEN. I think being overbearing about it is a step backward.

      And I’m glad people like you feel the same way. Thanks for the support! 😀

  3. I think the underlying issue here is not so much of literature (and the distinction prevalent in fiction—why only in fiction is a really interesting question to delve into—between the “literary” and “genre”, which doesn’t really make sense to me) but of cultural capital. I don’t think reading is purely an aesthetic activity, we are aware of this, already we are at the level of the social and political—and simultaneously aesthetic, of course—when we, others, individuals, or institutions categorize texts as poetry, fiction, nonfiction, fantasy, sci-fi, endless lists of genre. Certain categories enjoy privilege, preference, or popularity more than others. It cannot be denied (for example) that romance novels appeal to a larger audience than love or erotic poetry books. But while romance novels enjoy monetary and therefore culture capital, love or erotic poetry books enjoy cultural capital, somehow by not being as popular as romance novels, by the fact of it being institutionalized as something “deep” in terms of aesthetic (ironically a highly-politicized move that aims to hide the political in order to brandish the aesthetic—which goes on to show that the aesthetic is social and political). When people say wow that’s deep, or a similar expression in Tagalog, *malalim na salita* (a peeve of mine), it is an affirmation of cultural capital—or cultural class. And I think it’s not difficult to argue that a lot of cultural capital can be earned by reading the *classics*: not just for the “literary experience” and the pleasures of it, but also the power from the power to say, I have read this or that, i.e., this or that pertaining to works branded—or handed down—by *tradition* as *classics*.

    There’s so much more to be said, a lot of positions to consider, I think this has gone on long enough (I hope I make sense), but I’ll be happy to continue the discussion and not just bombard everyone with my opinion. Haha!

    1. First: Pepito, I love the fact that most of your comments can be dissertations in and of themselves because it gives us lots to think about. 🙂

      Next: You’re right in saying that categorical valuation exists, and that there is undeniable politics in the apparent “determination” of the accepted aesthetic. That’s actually what really frustrates me about this whole thing: something that is inherently beautiful (the act of reading) is institutionalized based on “aesthetics” which, I think, are not necessarily applicable to this type of artistry. The beauty of the text is not in the words themselves (though I’m not one to deny my own appreciation of the works of people like Nabokov and Kundera) but in that meeting point between the writer and the reader. Again, EXPERIENCE of the work, which is highly subjective.

      I also agree that this is basically about cultural capital, or “cred” in the eyes of particular social contexts. Again, this bothers me because (and this may disagree with some points people have made on the matter) reading is often a solitary act. You don’t have a community BEFORE and WHILE reading – you find one AFTER, if at all. Obsessing over the social ramifications of your choice of reading material even before you read is therefore unnatural to me. Preaching about the social ramifications of what ANOTHER person reading can border on the absurd.

      Final: The “Literary” vs. “Genre” war’s prevalence in fiction actually would be a fascinating topic to explore (I have to look and see if anyone’s done a paper or thesis on that yet; if not, I’d be surprised). Is it because fiction can flow so seamlessly between popular and profound while poetry and essays are more firmly associated with literary and secular, respectively? What makes fiction do that so well?

      1. Thanks Elea, I hope my comments don’t sound too academic—but I think they do. Haha!

        I take it that what you mean by this—

        That’s actually what really frustrates me about this whole thing: something that is inherently beautiful (the act of reading) is institutionalized based on “aesthetics” which, I think, are not necessarily applicable to this type of artistry.

        —is that reading is an art (and thus reserves its claim to the subjective, else it’s “not understood”—but without aesthetics? correct me if I’m reading you wrong). However, I don’t think I can ever read a dictionary entry on “aardvark” as literature without feeling like I’m trying too hard. I suppose this kind of reading is a matter of shifting contexts? I don’t even know how else a text is supposed to be literary except by the very society or community that pronounces it as such. So yes, I’m in the literature-is-what-it-is-not camp, and while it’s nice to consider genre differences to see why fiction is so popular, I’m inclined to think of an historical precedent instead of something essential: epics, if I’m not mistaken, were pretty popular back in the day (e.g. Aeneid as a foundation poem of Rome); or even the Japanese courtesans who use poetry to flirt with each other. Or songs (hello, troubadours). So it’s probably not because fiction “tells stories” because, well, Plato would say poetry is fictional and is therefore a lie! and because narratives are also a big element in poetry.

        I’d also like to think that the meeting point in reading is between the reader and the work, though the poor writer finds that his intent or attempts at refining the work and so on are rendered meaningless both by the work and the reader. But we do enjoy refined pieces, don’t we, subtle pieces that move an aspect of us, be it emotion, intellect, etc., not by their verisimilitude (they cannot be refined otherwise) but by the links, clues, connections between words—which are assembled by an author—into which we impose our own associations while simultaneously being imposed by the limits of the text: its words. In other words, reading is writing, both in my case and in your case.

        Also, cred is a good word. Would love it if street cred actually reflected “reading cred” instead. Gangsta!

      2. Maybe a LITTLE academic? XD But it’s a good thing, especially if you’re in the mood for it.

        As for my comment – I suppose I did express something a bit problematic here, as I failed to qualify “aesthetics” as “exclusivity-based aesthetics” (thus, the quotation marks; I should have typed *air quotes* and explained it better) and didn’t quite make the delineation between “functional” reading and “leisure” reading (something I should write about someday, if my brain lets me).

        That being said, I think you hit the nail on the head in saying that a text is only literary based on the pronouncement of a specific community – a pronouncement which is also problematic. I also want to note at this point that a considerable number of “literary” works are deemed so by “serious readers” in part thanks to obscurity in both its expression and state in the populace, as you have said before; I find it a bit annoyingly hipster-ish in some cases, notably when they look at other people and declare “Oh, Kundera. I’ve been reading that since I was five.” Really, that last bit is the one thing that pisses me off the most.

        You’re right about fiction, of course (and wow, it’s been a long time since I actually had to think along these lines). I still have to ask, though (because I can’t really think of an acceptable reason off the top of my head at the moment) – what makes it the ideal vehicle for secular narrative NOW?

        With regards to the reading being writing and vice versa – I absolutely agree. Although I do have to wonder at the ability of “poor writers” to still move us emotionally and intellectually through the links, clues, and connections between their words? (God, I better re-read my Iser and Fish notes; I suddenly miss them).

        PS: Reading cred as part of street cred IS an awesome idea – provided there wouldn’t be book gangs roaming around and shooting rivals. Wouldn’t want anyone getting shot because of an argument over reading choice/canon.

      3. Of course the academic in me would love to go on and on with such a discussion (that would probably end in a deadlock, an aporia): how can something be literary? how is literature possible?[1] But that’s already a digression, I mean the issue here is cultural snobbery, and perhaps democratizing “literature” (though I’ve been steering our discussion towards that aporia, I think—sorry). Also, what do you mean by secular narrative?

        Is it wrong of me to assume that when we become annoyed at some hipster who proclaims “oh Kundera, I’ve been reading him since I was five” and “don’t waste your time reading that piece of shit”, we also affirm the authority they attempt to assemble? Because as I see it, they’re channeling Tradition (still probably High Western Modernism—check out the late T.S. Eliot), which we are always forced to reckon with. It’s a defense mechanism. It’s easy to be moralizing in response because they are moralizing reading: why do you read this and that. Well we can just ignore moralizations from either side and read, as you said, in solitude, regardless of a text’s difficulty, seriousness, or cultural and social baggage.

        Oh, and when I typed “poor writer” I meant it as in “kawawang writer”, not “bad writer”! (Here’s to “functional” reading—communication—and that other reading, which dwells and thrives in the opacity of words.)

        [1] Someone (he’s dead now)—I admire him deeply—had asked this before: “comment la littérature est-elle possible?”—How is literature possible? (Good excerpt here. Warning: “serious” reading. XD )

      4. I fully admit to not having participated in a truly academic discussion about anything for years now, so you must forgive me of most of my reflections sound trite too ^^; (Although I do agree that defining literature is nigh-near impossible enough without throwing the molotov cocktail that is cultural snobbery into the mix).

        Anyway, secular narrative (at least to me) is narrative in the form that is most appealing to the most people; often, a work that does not meet the institutionalized parameters of “good” work. I’m not saying, by the way, that fiction as a form doesn’t have “institutionalized ideals”. I’m just noting that out of all the narrative forms today, it seems to be the most popular no matter how “good” or “bad” it is. (I also note that the most popular narrative essays tend to bend a little towards the “fictional”, whether the authors intended them to or not.)

        Meanwhile, it’s not wrong to assume that we’re recognizing the authority in the process of assembly when we budge to annoyance in this context. But the way I see it, the recognition doesn’t mean acknowledgement; nor does it mean a complete rejection of the work the “aspiring authority” suggested.

        I also think you have a point when you said (typed?) that a huge part of this discussion involves moralization – at the end of the day, I just admit to being mostly annoyed by the snobbery because people in general are typically alienated enough to completely reject a perfectly good piece of work* because some “better than thou” people are using “literature” for social exclusion than as a potential equalizer. And here’s the rub – what is literature or art, or what have you but an attempt to distill some universal human experience?

        PS: I acknowledge that, I have also just described a flipside sort of snobbery that causes some people to write off or even disdain “high lit”, judging people for reading “the hoity-toity stuff”. That’s just as dangerous, and perhaps merits discussion at a different time.

        PPS: I will read that post you linked to, as soon as my brain starts to wake up. Yes, I’m still a little bit asleep; it’s why some parts of this reply may seem incoherent.

      5. What a great way of labeling it: secular narrative: at the other side, religious (!) narrative, à la Vatican in snobbery! But we must let go of that distinction in the end. I also think some people would just call it the New, challenging tradition (and possibly become tradition later on).

        Aaand no one needs to be academic—I guess it just helps in being critical. And while the academic in me would ramble on and on, the reader in me would say “what the hell”. I’m just glad to have dragged this conversation out, so thank you, it was great. XD

      6. Extinction to that distinction indeed!

        And thanks for the discussion 🙂 Really, it’s weirdly good to engage in things like this every so often (just so I don’t forget what I studied in college XD).

    1. It’s an honor to know that you liked this post, and I’m glad to have somehow helped in spreading the word. (I hope that you don’t think I’m a gibbering fan right now, but I guess it’s too late)

      I think it really is something worth talking about, and I’m happy to see all the people joining the conversation. 🙂

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