Defining Literature

Marilyn Monroe reading Ulysses. Cover image for James Joyce: A Critical Guide, image for Defining Literature post by Malin James

Marilyn Monroe reading Ulysses. Cover image for James Joyce: A Critical Guide

Tuesday was April 1st, which means that no one on the internet could be trusted, including Sparky Sweets, PhD., one of the awesome minds behind Thug Notes, a weekly series on YouTube in which Dr. Sweets systematically breaks down the Western Canon, 4 minutes at a time, in a gangsta version of Cliff’s Notes.

At some point, I’m going to do a post on why I love Thug Notes, because the show is doing something incredibly important, but for today I’m going to focus on Tuesday’s installment – Summary and Analysis for Stephanie Meyers’ Twilight… APRIL FOOL’S! It was actually Huck Finn masquerading as Twilight. I laughed my ass off – they got me 🙂

Anyway, a friend posted the link to my Facebook wall and there followed a short thread in which people enjoyed the joke. One commenter also mentioned that it’s important to get kids to read “real literature”, (I’m paraphrasing). The thread ended when another commenter posted that she had greatly enjoyed the Twilight series, and felt that the definition of “literature” is “in the eye of the reader.” This, of course, got me to thinking..

This small disagreement points to a larger scale dispute in Western publishing, education and culture. Why do people read? Are certain books more valuable than others? How, in fact, should we define “literature”?

While I don’t think that the definition of literature is in the eye of the beholder, I do think that the value of a book is. The commenter who had enjoyed Twilight did something that is perfectly reasonable – she enjoyed Twilight. That series was not designed with any greater purpose than to be enjoyed. As a result, it’s value lies in how well the reader enjoys it. This reader enjoyed it a great deal, so Twilight is legitimately valuable to her – just as valuable as Anna Karenina or Huck Finn is to someone else.

The value placed on a book is personal, and it has to do with two things – the reader and the book’s intended purpose. The Firm, Cuckoo’s Calling and the entire Danielle Steel catalog were written to be enjoyed and consumed, and there is great value in that. Vehicles for escapism are, actually, valuable. It does not, however, make them literature, and here’s why:

Literature is a specific kind of fiction. Literature can, and often does, entertain, but it has a twin purpose –  to examine something in some way. This examination can be anything from the American dream (The Great Gatsby) to the nature of sexual submission, (The Story of O). Literature doesn’t want you to escape, it wants you to engage, and therein lies the difference.

The problem comes when people assign judgements to these two different purposes by devaluing a fun read, like Twilight, while falsely elevating “literature”, like Ulysses. In fact, what I like about Thug Notes is that it topples the ivory tower that literature is placed on so often – literature can, and should, be enjoyed. It just also asks you to think, or analyze, or ponder, or consider.

If you’d prefer to get lost in a story and escape, read an awesome book – that’s great. If you prefer cultural commentary with your enjoyment, read literature. Better yet, read both. Enjoy both. And find the value in both. Really, when it comes down to it, just read. That’s the most important thing.

4 thoughts on “Defining Literature

  1. I enjoy having my mind stretched and thoughts provoked by a good book. I also enjoy mindless brain candy. Years ago, I gave up the battle between what was literature and what was pulp fiction because of two men’s thoughts. The first one was S.R. Ranganathan, the father of Library Science. In 1931, he wrote the Five Laws of Library Science. These are:
    Books are for use
    Every reader his book
    Every book its reader
    Save the time of the reader
    A library is a growing organism

    In 1995, Michael Gorman wrote a contemporary set:
    Libraries serve humanity
    Respect all forms by which knowledge is communicated
    Use technology intelligently to enhance service
    Protect Free Access to Knowledge
    Honor the past and create the future

    What’s important is reading what you enjoy. Hopefully it is intellectually stimulating. Best of all, it takes you to another world. Some of my favourite quotes about books…

    (A library is a place of learning, not a den of informers).” – Henry Beard

    Henry Wadsworth Longfellow… “The love of learning, the sequestered nooks, and all the
    sweet serenity of books”

    I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library. — Jorge
    Luis Borges

  2. I can’t tell you how tickled I am that you quoted Ranganathan! I had his laws hammered into me while I was getting my MLIS and I completely agree with him. The value of the book to the reader is the main thing – it all depends on that the reader wants, likes and is looking for at any given time!

  3. Once again I learned something new from reading your post. In the past, reading has been somewhat of a chore in that I would get disinterested and my mind would wonder a bit while reading. Sometimes I would start critiquing the writing style and become annoyed while trying to absorb the story. Not with Malin James. I find myself engaged and intently reading each word you write no matter what you write about.

    Your critical thoughts are respectful and you back them up. Your erotic fiction is descriptive but has enough vagueness for the reader to have their own thoughts about the scenes you are describing. Not sure how I stumbled into the Malin zone but I am glad I did.

    Thank you.

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