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.

On Unexpectedly Inspiring a WordPress Post

Okay, I just have to post this because it blew my mind.  Yesterday, I was looking through WordPress posts about reading, the love of reading and the like.  I ran across this post about reading and re-reading by a lovely girl named Katie, which not only piqued my interest (because she had such good questions!) but also led me to ask a question of my own:  does what we love to read say something about us?

Which inspired Katie to write another interesting post, this time wondering if the personalities of people she knows are reflected in their reading material and making a connection between this and stereotyping.

Let me just say that while I’m flattered by this brief stint as a muse, I’m more fascinated by this writer.  I think she has the makings of an author, thinking as deeply as she does.

Needless to say, I’m now following her.  And if anyone out there is reading this, I encourage you to do the same.  Seriously, check out Katie vs. Keyboard.