April 23, 2010

Mr. Popular's Empty Dance Card

It’s a popular pastime among writers and academics to sit around and argue over the definition of Literature. It’s sort of our version of sports banter: everyone gets a bit hot when they’re talking about their team, but most of us don’t forget that it’s just a game. So with that in mind:

I love the wonderful snobbishness of the term “literary.” Like most snobbery, “literary” suggests superiority without specifically referencing any credentials. The word, popularly compounded with “journal” or “fiction,” typically infers:

1. The writer has read an undisclosed number of “literary” works, and produces work that emulates those works in some manner
2. The language is difficult or self-conscious, and sometimes referred to as “experimental”
3. The work is good, and its goodness will endure, and will be more appreciated once the people of the future receive the sparkling artifact

The term “literary” is used because it is a more politic and succinct than saying, “educated, obtuse, good writing which will be more popular with the unborn.” More ridiculous is how “literary” has come to be use as an antonym of “popular.”

This is ridiculous because Literature is, as I understand it, a product of reflective consensus; “Literature” is the laurel we bestow upon those works whose popularity has endured. So, we might say that literature is “really popular.”* We can argue that a work of Literature has endured because of merit, content, form, context, observer, academic/political agenda, or aesthetic, but all of these affect the consensus, not the work itself. The consensus is always evolving. Put simply, in defining Literature, it doesn’t really matter why these works are popular; sustained popularity equals Literature.

“Literature” is often misapplied as an objective evaluation: Literature is good; the best of what’s past. But we generally accept the fact that the most popular things are not necessarily the best, objectivity is often the ego in drag, and not all things from the past are good. Or, to state it more directly, there is some terrible Literature out there.

Functionally, a work of Literature offers a point of reference, a touchstone; it exists because it provides a useful common ground. Hamlet, for example, is Literature not because it is excellent; it is Literature because it is often visited, revisited, and discussed (that is, popular). One day, all traces of the play may disappear from the shelves, which will not make Hamlet any less excellent, but which will mean it’s no longer Literature. "Literature" is a state, not an innate quality.

Which brings us to the oft-repeated counterpoint that if Literature is the result of popularity, then Twilight, for example, is Literature. The answer to that is, we’ll have to wait and see. I don’t think the indicators are good. But maybe. Sorry.

Back to my original point: the term “literary” distances a work from the very thing that defines Literature. Essentially, when we say something contemporary is “literary” we are predicting the future: we are betting that a work will endure. Perhaps saddest of all is the fact that “literary” works often attempt to speak to the future from the past, entirely neglecting the present.

*Academia often tries to stuff the ballot box of Literature by arguing for the relevance, superiority, or usefulness of a certain text. Academia certainly does influence what is popular, and so what is Literature, but academia often forgets that academia is fickle (influenced by fad and context) and influential, not instrumental. This last point is a bitter pill; academics often behave as if they own Literature and are its only portal. Because they commit their lives to the preservation, study, and enjoyment of Literature, their role is often exaggerated. But we must remember, the park ranger does not own the park.

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