Here’s my brief contribution to a symposium on “What is Literature?” Nothing too surprising, but still…

What is Literature?

Literature can be considered from two perspectives: as part of a system of cultural distinctions; and as a tendency that resists all systematization. These definitions are antagonistic, but their conflictive tension indicates literature’s interest and importance.

good literatureThe notion that literature is part of a larger cultural system is familiar. Literature is one mode of writing opposed to others, and defined by its difference from (say) expository or documentary prose; and also from work that lacks quality or texture. Hence James Estes, Douglas Demaster, and Daniel Doak’s Whales, Whaling, and Ocean Ecosystems, which features chapters such as “Industrial Whaling in the North Pacific Ocean 1952-1978: Spatial Patterns of Harvest and Decline,” is not literature; while Herman Melville’s Moby Dick is. Equally, it would be hard to argue that David A. Carter’s The 12 Bugs of Christmas: A Pop-up Christmas Counting Book is literature; yet Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol is generally accepted as part of the canon.

This first definition describes a system that organizes texts according to genre and canonicity. It’s a system that’s generally accepted: I can enter a bookstore and ask for contemporary literature, and expect to be understood, that the bookseller and I are using the term similarly. There are marginal cases (say, Dylan Thomas’s A Child’s Christmas in Wales), and there are ways of reading literature that ignore generic or canonical differences (researching nineteenth-century maritime culture via Moby Dick, for instance). But on the whole these distinctions are established as common sense, and turn around the way in which literature (as genre and canon) treats language. Literature spotlights language itself, subordinating the uses to which language can be put, above all referentiality. Literature, in other words, pays particular attention to form.

But here things become complicated. For just as literature cannot divorce itself from content altogether, so other texts also are linguistic products (and we could generalize to visual language in the analogous cases of, say, film or visual art) that necessarily employ formal strategies. There is something literary in all texts. And a careful reading (a literary reading) of any text demonstrates the ways in which literary form, language itself, tends to subvert non-literary use, the drive to referentiality and transparency, and undoes attempts to impose order on culture. This is literature in its second definition.

There is much to say about the first definition: literature as system, as a canonical genre that promotes form at the expense of content, which is (for me) best analyzed by sociologists such as Pierre Bourdieu on the one hand, and formalist critics such as Victor Shklovsky on the other.

Yet it is the second, which reveals a rebellious, resolutely anti-utilitarian literariness in all texts, that most interests me. Here the prominent theorists are deconstructionists such as Jacques Derrida, but also (if in rather different ways) post-structuralists such as Roland Barthes and Gilles Deleuze. And the challenge that these critics pose is how to actualize the literariness of a range of texts, in the teeth and against the grain of a cultural system that would corral the literary within a relatively restricted cultural domain. And all this without, however, losing sight of the practical and pragmatic effects of accepted distinctions between what is literature and what is not.

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