Monday, January 21, 2013

What is the Matter that You Read?


Maybe it seems like a moot point to define literature—debates about what literature is, what it includes or excludes in its canon, seem impossible to resolve. Although according to the Oxford English Dictionary (3rd edition) the initial definition of the word “literature” meant simply the use of letters or knowledge gained from reading any written text, “literature” often now indicates only the literary. [...]
That is, literature is what one studies to fulfill a humanities course requirement, or what professors write and argue about; it is a set of works in the “canon” which have somehow proven their (perhaps) intrinsic worth through the ages. Yet that very same canon is constantly being amended, and what counts as masterpieces of Literature versus the everyday New York Times bestsellers in literature can overlap and shift over time.

Defining literature by some inherent qualities within texts is complicated by the fact that the canon (or the list of current bestsellers) is determined by external forces: the academic world for example, whatever vague and amorphous conglomeration of institutions, critics, and universities constitute it, dictates what will be taught as Literature and what will be dismissed as mere popular works. Even within that distinction, individual institutions give different license to what may be studied as literature, including those same popular works like children’s literature, detective novels, science fiction, or graphic novels; these are but a few of the genres which are now incorporated into English programs at places like the University of Michigan and the University of Chicago. Literature is dictated not by form or content of works, despite their importance to literary study, but rather by their valuation by institutions and persons.

Terry Eagleton takes it one step further and defines literature by how each individual reads it: in Literary Theory: An Introduction, he states that
It would not be easy to isolate, from all that has been variously called ‘literature’, some constant set of inherent features...There is no ‘essence’ of literature whatsoever. Any bit of writing may be read ‘non-pragmatically’, if that is what reading a text as literature means, just as any writing may be read ‘poetically’ (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996. 8).
Returning to the idea that literature is simply anything written, Eagleton argues that “literature” refers to a kind of reading rather than to any specific set of texts. Defining literature is dependent then on each individual reader and their approach to a given text.

You might ask: why try to define literature here? How is one blog post by one graduate student a) authoritative in any way and b) going to provide a definitive answer? The answer is that it’s not—what I have to say is not the end-all, be-all that will determine forever how we define literature, nor is it going to be read or acknowledged by almost anyone as such. Instead, the point is to get at what might be at stake in defining literature in different ways.

By framing literature in a particular way, we ascribe value to it: in the case of a literary canon, for example, we esteem a certain set of values which have tended to be those of some Western dead white males. At the same time, by defining literature as certain texts which share inherently aesthetic or formal characteristics, we place a value on the institution of literary study as something which can explain or explicate these qualitatively valuable objects; in doing so, literary study can parallel itself to scientific study in having a certain authoritativeness on intrinsically valuable objects, even if what constitutes those valuable objects is open to debate.

In defining literature as texts determined by bestseller lists we are defining a category of what we read (vs. blogs, magazines, newspapers, screenplays, letters, Twitter feed, or even cereal boxes); this is not necessarily a question of value, but rather of belonging to a shared community in which we are able to find other people who like to read what we like to read, even if those texts are determined by the masses. In other words, defining literature through bestseller lists is a means of sharing a kind of identity through the pursuit of reading the same things, which can then be discussed in person or online.

Eagleton’s definition of literature is the most problematic in terms of value: what value is there in defining literature relative to each individual reader? Besides giving ourselves agency in dictating what is literature, his claim enables us to acknowledge that we read texts in different ways, whether poetically or pragmatically. What is at stake in this definition of literature then, is the value of relativism, which is determined by the worth of each individual’s perception but at the same time is a value which seems to ring somewhat hollowly in terms of societal or institutional import.  

In all of these examples, defining literature is less about teasing out formal characteristics or aesthetic categories, and more about what function literature is called on to serve within society or for an individual. As this blog continues discussing literature, literacy, and the literary, it is important to keep in mind the way in which these things are tied their usefulness (or uselessness) within society. Reading is not a simple matter at all, but one fraught with differing ideologies about knowledge, about functioning with society, and about cultivating the life of the mind. 

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