Monday, February 7, 2011
Monday Musings #1 - What is Literature?
This week's topic is "What is the definition of 'literature'? Is there a difference between 'L' and 'l'? Lastly, would you classify young adult novels as 'literature'?"
I wanted to start out this series with gray area questions. In my Literary and Cultural Theory course this semester the first class we had discussed this idea. Some of you that follow me on twitter may have seen some of my disgruntled comments about literary snobs - which I'll get to in this post. But first I want to focus on the first question "What is the definition of literature?"
According to the Free Merriam-Webster Dictionary "literature" is defined as the follows: Writings in prose or verse; especially writings having excellence of form or expression and expressing ideas of permanent or universal interest. To continue this definition, WordNet at Princeton defines "literature" as creative writing of recognized artistic value, and published writings in a particular style on a particular subject. Then according to the ever reliable Wikipedia, "literature" is the art of written works, specifically the word literature means "acquaintance with letters". The last two definitions I want to tie in are from pbs.org and christianfantasy.net - the former states that literature is a "term used to show if the item has been published in a book, catalog raisonne, museum exhibition or newsletter, ect. This can also add to the importance of the piece." The latter defines it as "books, magazines, articles, plays, short stories, poems - anything that utilizes the written word."
When I look at these different definitions, the common thread is the fact that literature uses words. Well, that's great - if that was the basic definition, what I'm writing right now could be considered literature. Would you consider this literature? No? I didn't think so. So lets look at the next common thread: the writing has to have value of some sort. Depending on which definition you look at the concept of "value" changes. With Webster the idea has to "express ideas of permanent or universal interest" - I think this definition is the most important, but not "complete".
Webster's definition of "literature" I would say is the most accurate - it states what literature is, and the importance that the text should have. If we were to follow this train of thought, then perhaps the definitions provided from pbs.org and christianfantasy.net are not completely accurate, though I think they hold a bit of truth as well. Their definition is much more loose in its interpretation of "literature", and while I'm not strict with mine, I wouldn't go as far as to include magazine articles or a newsletter as literature (unless there is a very good argument otherwise - if you have one, please share).
So what is my definition of literature then? My definition is that literature can be fiction or nonfiction (some people don't necessarily agree with the nonfiction part) and that it can be novels, short stories, plays, poetry, and other sorts of creative writing. In this definition I wouldn't include journalistic writing - again, if someone has a good argument against this, I'm all ears (or eyes as it is).
The definition of literature causes some debate - in my Literary Theory class I was having problems with a lot of my peer's opinions... hence my "Literary Snob" commentary. By my classes definition, literature mainly stays among the classics - they believe they are classics for a reason. My first argument against this is that while, yes, I absolutely love the classics at the time of their conceptions a lot of them were viewed as lesser texts (as a lot of my classmates view today's fiction). They became important because people continued to read them throughout the years. There was even one girl who said (tentatively, I'll give her that at least) that to be considered literature, the piece should have to taken a long time to write - many years. And then there was a boy in my class that decided there had to be one definition for literature or we wouldn't know what to preserve for the future.
So, yes, I deem those people to be "Literary Snobs" - you may not find this title kind, and I hope not to offend anyone, but I'm hoping since you're taking the time to read this on a young adult literature review site you're not too surprised. Of course I can agree that the classics are literature, that doesn't upset me at all. What frustrates me is the apparent exclusion of today's literature.
A comment made in class said that to be literature there had to be "something more" a "bigger idea" that makes the reader think - such as mortality for example. Followed by this was a quote from Shakespeare's Hamlet: To be, or not to be, that is the question. Now, it's great that the classics can make you think of such things, but there is a lot of text today that can do the very same thing. I'm going to use this as a segue to another question I posed: Are young adult novels "literature"? By my definition, and the general definitions of the five sources I listed earlier, I would say yes, they are. If we're going by my classmates definition, no they are not - they are pleasure reads, nothing more. Here is my argument on this specific thought:
If we use the comment that literature makes the reader think, and we continue with the idea of mortality, here is a list of novels I would say sincerely covers this idea, and can make the reader think: The Sky is Everywhere, The Everafter, If I Stay, Looking for Alaska, 13 Reasons Why, Infinite Days, Evermore, Shade, and The Truth About Forever. This is just a handful - I know there are even more than this. They all deal with death, grieving, life, and mortality. I know that when I read these I definitely considered the different layers of the text - there is more to the novel than young characters growing up. There are serious undertones that a reader can take away from the stories.
Now that I've written the equivalent to an essay, I'm going to wrap up with answering the last question I asked, "Is there a difference between a 'l' and a 'L' when saying 'Literature'". I argue in the end that there really isn't, but if someone wants to make a distinction, I'm okay with giving the classics a big "L". Why am I okay with this when I've clearly been fighting the concept of "elitism" when it comes to literature? I'm okay with it because I'm okay with bringing attention to the fact that some of these texts have survived centuries. The fact that we still read them today is amazing. Are they better than all of today's works? I'd say probably not, and that hundreds of years in the future people will probably (hopefully) look back and see the texts of today as "Literature". That's the thing about it all though - it takes time.
The one thing I take away from all of this is that defining what is and isn't literature is subjective. It's open to interpretation - different from person to person. It's all gray space, and I'm (for the most part) okay with this. If I want to advocate anything, it's to be more open and liberal with your definition. If you limit yourself to one thing, you'll miss all the other great things out there.
To finish this up, I need to give a shout out and a thank you to my friend Terri over at Read & Riot. She helped me come up with the list of young adult books you see up there that deal with the idea of death and mortality. She's awesome, and her blog is awesome too, so you should probably go check it out.
So, what say you - I'd love to hear your opinions on these questions.