Or: there's literary literature and then there's non-lit lit. Tolstoy's War and Peace and William Blake's Songs of Innocence and Experience fall into the former category. So does Shakespeare's Hamlet. The menu for a Royal Banquet does not. Neither does the manual for a Ford Focus. Ford may describe their manual as literature, but literary literature not even they would dare to call it.
But what about this from the Mills and Boon range?
She moved closer to him, her eyes intent on his face. "I never imagined such a thing could happen to Jean-Jacques Armentier of all people. Not when you used to laugh with me over the ridiculous claims in the tabloids linking me to this prince and that shipping magnate. Remember?"
Oh yes. I remember. How I wish I didn't. For the love of heaven, Nicole, don't look at me like that.
It was the same way she used to look at him whenever he tried to play hard to get. He did it on purpose to gauge her reaction. Her eyes would glisten over in pain and she'd go all breathless. Every time she responded that way, it would prove that she wanted him as much as he wanted her.
Something dark in his nature had always needed that proof because he couldn't believe that Nicole Giraud, the exquisite brunette men all over Europe fantasized about, the daughter of a family worth billions, would rather be with Jean-Jacques Armentier, a son of the soil who was very good at entertaining her, but could never be her equal.
No matter how many times he tested her, she still came after him, undaunted. In front of his peers her unswerving desire for him fed his inflated ego. In the privacy of night, with the taste of her mouth still on his, he felt his heart soar. Then the morning would come, when the harsh light of day brought reality, dashing every dream.
Have I yet sown the seeds of division among you, I wonder. I think probably not. But if that is not literary, why is it not? Is it just a bit of snobbery creeping in, I wonder? Are we equating literary with intellectual? One of my early English teachers did just that, or so I think now, looking back. Let's leave Mills and Boon for now. Which, if any, of the following do you think might be literary? An Eagle Comic, a Bat Man Annual, John Bunyan's A Pilgrim's Progress. Easy that last one? It's a classic, is it not? So in what way(s) is the following superior as literature to the Mills and Boon extract?
Then Christian fell down at his foot as dead, crying, Wo is me, for I am undone: At the sight of which, Evangelist caught him by the right hand,
saying, All manner of sin and blasphemies shall be forgiven unto men; be not faithless, but believing. Then did Christian again a little revive, and stood up trembling, as at first, before Evangelist. It is an allegory, of course, of the Christian Journey, so it could be said to be more intellectual than the Mills and Boon...
Perhaps it's time to define terms.. The adjective literary implies, as I understand it, some degree of artistic creation, an imaginative construct which can clearly be seen to be related to real life, but is not synonymous with it. It refers to something carved out of words which can only be known through the medium of those words. Furthermore, the track that has been laid is but a single track; it leads to no other reality or truth save the one which has been created by the author using the words of which it is composed.
So that is what it is - unless you disagree. But how do we recognise it when we meet it? By what authority can we say of one text, This is literary and of another, This is not?
One of the tried and tested tests, if I can put it that way, concerns the effect it has upon the reader. The literary text, it is said, will have some beneficial consequence, provide him or her with some additional experience which has not been forthcoming, perhaps could not be forthcoming, in real life. At second-hand, or vicariously acquired, the reader may be introduced to environments, situations or characters that it would not be practical to encounter in reality. Aristotle maintained that drama had a cathartic value, that by arousing terror or disgust in the viewer it purged the soul of such passions. Plato, though, distrusted the mythical aspects of poetry and in The Phaedrus he argued against poetry's use of persuasion as opposed to the pursuit of truth. In The Republic he stressed that in a perfect society the poet would have no educational role to play, not because he thought education to warrant no such power, but because he regarded that power as something of a loose cannon. The weight of opinion now would seem to be on the side of literary works having the possibility to affect the reader, not just at the time of reading, but for an indefinite period thereafter.
Traditionally, though, there are other tests that we might like to apply, two main ones, the first being the degree to which a text succeeds in presenting a truthful image of life. Here again to examine the roots of this belief we must go back to Aristotle. For him poetry was mimesis or imitation of life. The mimetic theory of literature survived, pretty much unchallenged, from his day until the late eighteenth century when it was replaced by the Romantics for whom poetry was very much an expression of the poet's inner world of feelings. Mimesis has made recurrent comebacks, though, and is still very much a force to be reckoned with.
There is still the third and final of my tests, one I have already mentioned in passing: the Intellectual test, my old English teacher's test, as part of which he would have included correct spelling and punctuation, grammar and syntax. Intellectual in this context implied a degree of difficulty and/or ambiguity. The text did not have to be impenetrably difficult, but open to interpretation. He also was very definitely of the opinion that there existed a literary language, a pool of words, phrases expressions and a syntax (for example the reversal of word order) that was permitted the poet and the elevated author, though not the prosaic writer. This literary language was somehow more refined than, and superior to, common usage. Dictionaries, of course, still do tag some words as poetic.
Perhaps there is, though, a specifically, if not exclusively, poetic language: the language of metaphor. It is this, after all, that most often allows the poetic method; allows, for example, the poet to crystallise an image having several facets such that future images may be refracted through them. The methodology of the language structures the poem. The method may not be confined to poetry any more than the metaphor itself can be, but both are found far more frequently there, and though the prose writer may adopt poetic language for this or that purpose, it is rare for it to be sustained throughout a work, if only because of the length of the text and the effort that would entail.
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