January 09, 2005

What is Literature?

Writing about web page http://www.artbabyart.com/foa/bella/donna.htm

Alert: Long entry with italic paragraphs hence destructive nature to both this blog as well to your time management.

I'm not a language student, nor do I claim to be literary educated – if that exists – though I have done my Creative Writing and Journalism courses. At one point the lecturer involved told me he didn't regard Tolkien's work as literature – subjectively speaking that was. Still, I was shocked, being in the heydays of my fascination for Middle Earth.

The other day I met up with Tim and Susi, the latter being an English literature student in Edinburgh, which triggered a discussion about literature, and again I was shocked that someone did not regard one of my favorite books as literature. This time it was Nick Hornby's High Fidelity – a bridge too far! To find out what is literature, let me take a detour.
Note: All of this is subjective, hence open for discussion.

Now, I did do some art courses and remember the discussions during the Modern Art lectures about a toilet bowl being art as it is not in its function of a toilet bowl etcetera (won't go into details). A nice description of what art is can be found if you follow the link, though it's not the one I want to use. The author of the website basically regards anything ever reproduced by mankind to reflect reality is art. Interesting, but news reports and building plans and maps of england would be art then as well.

First, let me be snobby, and dismiss all decorative arts and crafts, and as I don't care about most of the fine arts, I'll focus on painting. The last refinement concerns the time frame – although beautiful works of art were created before modern times, most of these were commissioned (by church, state, or nobility), hence restricted the artist's freedom of expression. Finally, I don't want to include paintings from the 18th and 19th centuries as either the previous objection still counts, or art was heavily monitored by institutions (Salon). For me, the discussion starts with Van Gogh, Cezanne, and Gauguin.
Note: I just realize I restrict myself to 'Western Art' as well - apologies for this small minded vision.

Now that we've just removed 99,9% of what Belladonna (author of the website) calls art, let's change the definition as well. Art should be thought provoking, in the sense that it stirrs emotions in the people, even if it is of disgust or confusion. Art should be innovative in the sense that it fits in a somewhat natural course of development (e.g. from cubism to collage to pop art), and it should be inspiring and motivating for others to be creative. Oh, and it should be contemporary! In the sense that if I'd paint a beautiful scene of Amsterdam set in the 17th century in the style of Rembrandt or his contemporaries, it would just be silly and adds nothing to the current course of art.
Note: Again my apologies, for part of these definitions are blatantly though not literally copied from sources I discussed in my art classes. I'll try and find the source asap.

It has hard to criticize contemporary art, but I just want to say it might well be that nominees for the Turner Prize do not fall under this definition. Or maybe even Damien Hirst (shock! horror!). Anyway – art might not be art when it is young; sometimes it needs time to be appreciated. Back to literature.

I have no idea how to copy the definition for art to literature. I have no sense of literary history and have no idea how to even devise a universal definition when there are so many languages covered by literature. Even focusing on English/American literature won't help me having only read 10 books that would probably be considered literature in similar sense we just discussed art. And Nick Hornby.

The idea we (Tim, Susi, and me) came up with was to consider something literature, when it is written in such a way that it is all that what art is. I haven't read it (yet), but I believe the Da Vinci Code wouldn't be covered by this definition. Nor would most detectives or thrillers – they are nice stories and often very exciting and fun to read, but are they thought inspiring and moving and do they stir any emotions other than a thrill (such as a painting might just be beautiful and that's it).

In the Netherlands we have an author who has been hoping to win the Nobel Prize for literature for years now (Harry Mulisch). I haven't read most of his books, but so far only one would be literature (De Aanslag). In his other books he tries so hard to include wisdom and to create 9-page-long sentences that it is almost impossible to read, let alone to give you a chance to think for yourself.

Nick Hornby is literature. He can make the seemingly casual life of some bloke from somewhere in London sound interesting, inspiring, moving. I cannot say it is innovative, as I don't know if anyone else wrote such a book in our time before him, but it certainly was contemporary. We can all recognize London the way he describes it, at least if we've been there. Someone from the 1920s would have no idea what he's talking about, nor would most certainly someone from the 2030s.

Another friend told me to read Tony Parsons, seeing it's a similar kind of story. Now, I've read Man and Boy, and just finished Man and Wife, and it just doesn't seem literature to me. They're great stories and I would tell anyone to read it, but it seems too familiar to me now. It's like reading Virgil after having read Homer. But then Tony Parsons does not improve on Nick Hornby.

Dilemma. What is literature? And how can I define it such that Nick Hornby is literature and Tony Parsons isn't (no offense to him or his work - I do love it). For the record, I haven't read any James Joyce, but I'm sure it's literature. To me, the most literary piece of English/American literature I've read is The Great Gatsby by Fitzgerald. The most horrible piece of literature that I'd rather not call literature is Snows of Kilimanjaro by Hemingway. Let me know what you think, or tell me your worst piece of literature or best piece of non-literature. Oh and I agree Tolkien's work on Middle Earth isn't literature, though I'm positive he has written literature according to our undefined definition though I can't remember what it was.

- 4 comments by 1 or more people Not publicly viewable

  1. Hey! Take it from a literature student – literature is hard to define! I would not consider kiosk-novels as high quality literature, but in Norwegian it is classified as kiosklitteratur – so it is some sort of literature.

    I have studied some of the great classics of German literature (German students are forced to!), and if I was a publisher I would not have published some of these because they do not read well, have weak plots, etc; but someone classified them as high literature and classics… Hm…

    My personal definition of literature is anything that can be read. However, there is a destinction between good and bad literature. Good literature being thought-provoking, engaging and somehow relevant to the reader. It can be set way back in time, or in the future, or on another planet – but it should have some aspects to which we can relate to, or at least recognise in our world… If that makes sense…

    Go on reading! Don't get discouraged! I still read children's books and other books not caring whether other people think of it as good literature or not. I read what I like and in my world what I like is good literature =D

    See you in Rev!


    11 Jan 2005, 15:33

  2. Thanks for your comment Kari! Best 'literature' I read in German were plays (Durrenmatt, Brecht). I once was ambitious and started Die Blechtrommel but I thought I didn't understand it when I read about a dwarf under some woman's skirt peeling potatoes…

    Don't worry I won't stop reading! I was mainly just wondering what general definitions of Literature (with capital L) exist and whether they would include Nick Hornby's work.

    11 Jan 2005, 16:15

  3. Hm… according to dictionary.com , literature is basically "creative writing of recognized artistic value"... Whatever recognised artistic value is supposed to be… I have only read "Boy" by Nick Hornby, and that is definately literature!


    12 Jan 2005, 21:58

  4. Nikki

    Die Blechtrommel…? Is that 'The Tin Drum'? OMG, how weird is that book?!! And fun… I read it all, although maybe never again – it messed with my mind so much! I reiterate, we-ird!

    08 Dec 2005, 13:54

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