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.

Please Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood: On Writers & Intent

I have always feared misinterpretation. Whether the gap between my intended meaning and the received meaning is the result of poor communication on my part, or poor comprehension on the part of the reader is, for me, secondary to the fact of the gap exists at all. As a writer, I have a dedicated responsibility to clarity of thought and expression. If I cannot come as close as possible to accurately saying what I want to say, then I’m failing to do my job. This is fine to a point. But what about situations wherein the topic is so charged that no amount of care and clarity can prevent the message from disintegrating in the reception?

Recently, the media has been covering the rise of what is being called “rape culture” on high school and college campuses – that is, the prevalence of young women drinking to incapacitation and young men engaging in (often) nonconsensual sex acts with them. Steubenville, Marysville and other similar cases have opened up the discussion of how rape is treated by everyone from a Montana judge to frat bros.

In the middle of this, Emily Yoffe, a writer at Slate, published an article suggesting that young women take steps to protect themselves by not drinking to excess at parties. Her tone was measured and her message fairly clear. But while the story was met with support by some, the majority of responses were vitriolic in their mis/interpretation. In the face of varied and vocal criticism, Yoffe then wrote a follow-up article, attempting clarify her message and acknowledge the situation while not backing down. Again, her tone was measured, but it was too late – her message had already been mis/interpreted and appropriated. No amount of follow-on could retrieve her original intent.

The merits and / or flaws in Yoffe’s position aren’t what interest me here. What interests me is that Yoffe’s attempts to control her message didn’t work. Not at all. And so, what I’m curious about is this: at what point does a writer’s ability to control her message end?

The answer, I suspect, is one I don’t particularly like. I suspect that it ends the moment the article, opinion, editorial, post, story, text, tweet or email gets read. After that, a writer can attempt to do damage control, but if a message is derailed, it’s nearly impossibly to get it back on the tracks, (as evidenced by Yoffe).

The bottom line is that readers are free to respond to a writer’s work in any way they like, through the lens of any experience, bias or ideology. The reader has the power to misinterpret, appropriate or spin anything you say. It’s like a game of telephone. So then, what’s the point? If words are essentially a Rorschach test, why do we bother stringing them together to communicate at all?

The answer to that question. and the value of the effort, is in the attempt at communication. The thing to do, whether you’re writing an email or a tweet, is craft your thoughts as consciously as you can. Be clear. Be concise. Write with the reader in mind. Compel, argue, debate and cajole. And then let it go. It’s ok. If people read your words, and misunderstand, it may be a personal frustration for you, but culturally speaking, those words will still have had an impact and prompted discussion. They will have stirred emotions and triggered thoughts.

It’s the discussion that leads to progress, as incremental as progress is. Ultimately, you cannot control your message any more than you can control how people think, but you can communicate clearly and well, and hopefully then, your thoughts will be heard, and prompt discussions of their own.