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Tuesday, 13 January 2009

It's Literature, Jim, but not as we know it.

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.


Dominic Rivron said...

What struck me most reading first the Bunyan and then the Mills and Boon was that the Bunyan was far more sonorous: I'd only scanned a few words before I wanted to read it out loud. Not so the Mills and Boon.

There are other interesting examples. Sherlock Holmes stories are often held up as good examples of "good-bad" literature. I actually think those stories are quite remarkable. A lot of our judgements about literature are based, I think, on the contemporary ideas of what a novel should be like - in much the same way judgements about classical music are often based on ideas about what a symphony or "symphonic music" should be like.

Dave King said...


Certainly the Bunyan is more sonorous than the Mills and Boon. I also take the wanting to read aloud remark - an interesting point in this context, I think.

With regard to your remaining point, the interesting point for debate might be where these contamporary ideas come from.

Louise said...

I'm not a Leavisite, but a good start in trying to define literature in the 20th century was FR Leavis in The Great Tradition, which looked at the novel (rather than poetry). Leavis basically defined English studies in the UK, linking the quality of literature (specifically the novel) with its author's interest in moral life, and the author's ability in conveying this interest through literature. The greater that interest, the better the literature. He laid down a list of 'great' writers that were worthy of study, including George Eliot, Dckens, Lawrence, Conrad, Hawthorne...Any help?

Dave King said...

Thanks for that. I know ofLeavis, but have not read him. Your comment has made me want to rectify that. Very grateful.

The Weaver of Grass said...

Not sure this is not going to get too Highbrow, Dave. I agree with all you have written and with the comments above. But, providing the text is grammatically correct I would read anything I enjoyed - and it would not necessarily be what you or anyone else enjoyed. Certainly the books Dominic reads on the whole I find unreadable!!
I do think an element of snobbery also kicks in - for example - would you read a Mills and Boon on the train (would you read a Mills and Boon anyway - I never have although I know one or two people who make a tidy living writing them!) As a retired teacher of slow learners I am grateful for any written word which attracts the attention and holds the interest. Maybe I suffer from inverted snobbery. Interesting blog Dave and a lot of food for thought - it will keep me going all day!

Plutarch said...

The Mills and Boon extract grabs my attention for its use of clichés. It consists almost entirely of a string of them - pre-cooked, factory-made recepticles for prescribed emotions. That's probably the most important feature that excludes it from the canon of literature.

Derrick said...

Hi Dave,

Your piece takes me back to my school days and English Literature lessons! I was actually put off reading for years because I preferred to read for enjoyment rather than to dissect and analyse the text.

I'm a simple soul and can appreciate and enjoy literature as long as I find it intelligible.

Linda Sue said...

You say "snobbery" like it's a bad thing...

Rachel Fox said...

I think a lot of the time a book is quite literally judged by its cover (and publisher) these days. If you put a novel in a black cover with a knife on the front it's 'crime/thriller genre' if you put it in an alternative non-black cover with a bit of a painting on it or something else fancy it's literary fiction. No matter what the contents our critical faculties have made those assumptions before we read a word (for the most part). Likewise if it has a quote from 'the Sun' on the cover we presume it's one kind of book - a quote from Salman Rushdie and we might expect something else.
All this makes it very hard to take each book for what it is (and not what it appears to be). I try to judge each book as I read it but I don't know if I'm always as fair as I should be. I suppose I tend to think of something as 'literary' if it is not completely predictable, if it has something to say or a way of saying that is the author's own and has not been done many times before in exactly the same way (I know some people like to read books that are almost identical to ones they have read before but to me that is where the divide appears between lit and non-lit). Basically if a computer could have written a book (from a programme called 'romantic 21st century novel' or something) then I don't want to read it really (unless I'm very under the weather and my brain is only half on). Of course this guide will only work for now...once the computers overtake us this method will be out of date and I'll need a new way of describing what I mean!

Barry said...

This discussion, and all of the comments, are a pleasure to read.
Your three tests are a reasonable way to distinguish that which is literary from what is not.

My own tests are similar but less rigorously defined: did I enjoy it, did I learn from it, have I benefited from having read it.

But the greatest of these is enjoyment.

Cloudia said...

Very illuminatning, Professor!

"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." aloha & thanks!

Leon Basin said...

Hey, how are you doing? Hope everything is great! I really like your blog...

Dave King said...

Weaver of Grass
I had the same worry, writing the post. This highbrow thingy does get in the way at times!
I must admit to having judged the Mills and Boon offering without having read any of them - though on the grounds of them not being my thing - i.e. content, not style. (Still, I'm not convinced by me!)
As another retired teach of slow learners I understand the standpoint of your concluding sentences. I must say I never thought of using Mills and Boon books with my pupils. I may have missed a trump card there!

Welcome. Nothing there I'd disagree with. Thanks for the contribution.

Linda Sue
Welcome. Guess I did, but I'm open to persuasion. Thanks for commenting.

Once the computers overtake us they will be the literary authors, I am sure! You make some telling points, though, particularly on the originality theme. Another valid test, I would say, and one that I neglected to explore. Thanks for that.

Maybe the tests benefit from losing a little rigor. We don't live in the study situation, after all. At least, I don't!

You are very welcome. Good to have you visiting.

Welcome and much thanks for that.

soulbrush said...

i wouldn't touch a 'mills and boon' with a barge pole. i agree with barry though. what i enjy nowadays is audio books. for some reason the spoken word is very evocative.

Dave King said...


The interesting bit might lie in why you wouldn't touch a Mills and Boon.

Elizabeth said...

This is a very vexed question.......
I'm the omnivore of the reading world.
Will read pretty much anything and am quite indiscriminate.
As a teacher of writing, if I had to comment on the Mills and Boone , I would suggest that it is a bit vague. The writer could have used actual conversation and been tighter and more specific.
One of my favorite writers is W.G Sebald whom some people find quite unreadable......
So lots of opportunity for an endless discussion....

watermaid said...

I'll try to heed the warning against getting too highbrow. There are too many books I still want to read for me to have ever opened a Mills & Boon so thanks Dave for giving me a taste of what they are like. An earlier poster mentioned Leavis, who was very much in vogue when I studied Literature in the '80s. The problem with Leavis, and T.S.Eliot, who was also very influential, was that their a canon favoured some authors to the detriment of others. Any canon depends on somebody's selection.

Since then a lot of literary theory has come along, and with the growth of such things as media and film studies, more popular works. I decided to do a course on C20th Literature with the Open University. At the end of the course we had to choose criteria for judging literature and then use them to decide which of 6 novels would win a fictional prize. The novels were: 'The Ghost Road' by Pat Barker; 'Paradise' by Abdulrazak Gurnah; 'Rebecca' by Daphne du Maurier; 'Do Androids Dream of Electric Sleep?' (filmed as 'Blade Runner') and 'Kiss of the Spider Woman' by Manuel Puig. Both the Barker and Gurnah novels are Booker nominees and were probably chosen by many students for that reason alone. 'Rebecca' was popular with the females apart from me (I preferred to watch it as a film). I chose 'Paradise' because I enjoyed reading it, it was beautifully written and had something new to say. My runner up was 'Do Androids Dream of Electric Sleep?' (superior to the film). Again, I enjoyed reading it, there was a Brechtian defamiliarization, and I think Dick was a visionary far ahead of his time. The novel is beautifully structured, but it lost out because Dick's prose (particularly his use of adverbs) at times makes me wince. In the end, personal taste and fashion must come into it. My tutor said that by choosing the right criteria I could have chosen any of those books as the 'best'. Would it have been possible to devise criteria to make a Mills & Boon the winner? Possibly not on the grounds of being clichéd but many people obviously enjoy them.

Fool that I am, I'm thinking of using my retirement to do an M.A. One of the set books is Milton's 'Paradise Lost'. Milton hasn't been in vogue since T.S.Eliot dropped him from the canon.

Conda V. Douglas said...

One of my own personal ruler that I measure for literarture is simply: does it have a powerful impact on me as a reader? Do I remember the book, even specific passages or sentences, weeks, months and years later? When reading, do I go over a sentence or passage more than once, simply to re-experience it again? If so, then that work stands higher in my lexicon than others.

Art Durkee said...

What you call literary literature (a redundant and tautological definition) I have called "fine art literature." Some critics used to call it HIgh Art, placing it in opposition to low or popular art. Fine Art or High Art has the motivation of being Art, capital letters always implied—and sometimes failing merely because it's pretentious, not because it's bad art.

Your point about mimesis vs. romantic self-expression gets at motivation. Without getting into the mindfield that is the whole issue of ascribing motivation to artists (many of whom couldn't tell you all or any of their motivations), sometimes the only difference between High Art and pop art is that someone says it is, puts it in a frame, and hangs it on the wall of a museum. A lot of art critics missed that what Andy Warhol was really doing was pointing in his sly way how arbitrary it is to call one thing "fine art" and another thing "not art." When we get into "fine art literature" sometimes the only reason I can see for some critic calling it that was because it's ambition in that direction, and is published by a house known to publish fine art literature, rather than a house that publishes textbooks. Sometimes the only thing that makes it fine art literature is because the author wants to think of herself or himself as a fine art literary writer.

For me, if a writer is trying to force mimesis on the reader (rather than sharing their own experience), they are being coercive. That's fairly easy to spot. You can see it when the writer demands that you get some specific meaning from their work; you can also see it in those poets who try to present their work as entirely meaningless and arbitrary.

At the same time, if a writer is all about "self expression," that's also easy to spot, because it tends to drip with inflated ego, self-concern, self-regard, and a self-centered refusal to see other people as equal to the artist. Both the archetype of the special artist and the sensitive artist reinforce these assumptions.

I think of poetry as heightened and compressed and condensed speech. Certainly it can be metaphor, but sometimes it's not metaphor but rather evocation. metaphors can become too removed from experience, and therefore rather dry and disconnected.

Sometimes it's easier to define poetry by what it's not: it's not prose, and doesn't have to follow the prose rules of grammar and syntax. I have also heard poetry called exalted speech: somehow made to burn brighter than the everyday blandness of prose. Of course, poetic prose and prose-poem form sort of destroy all these safe little definitions.

Jim Murdoch said...

I've always taken a rather simplistic view of what divides fiction and literary fiction and that is that literary fiction is less interested in telling a story than it is in how that story is told.

Dave King said...

Welcome and thanks for commenting. Interesting comment on Mills and Boon. I am right there with you on the Sebald front.

To my mind a canon should be the result of a long process of selection by a large number of knowledgeable people. Someone will take issue with me on the word knowledgeable, I know.
I would have chosen Rebecca, I am sure, and that is on the basis of no criteria other than personal choice. Time for a Milton resurgence, me thinks! Go, do it lass!

Will I want to read it again? - Even do I? are good tests for me, I find. Individual passages or scenes last longer in the mind even than a schema of the work, so if the latter sticks, that says a lot for it as a work of literary lit' - for me, that is.

Your point re coercian is both interesting and valid, I think. Ditto "self-expression".
I agree that not all poetry is metaphor, though I suspect that much that is not is often read as such. Yeah, well, there's always the where-to-draw-the-line conundrum!

That sounds like an excellent rule of thumb to me. It certainly cuts out a lot of beating around the bush.

High Desert Diva said...

Your posts always get me thinking.

Love this post's title and the inclusion of the Star Trek photo by the way!

McGuire said...

Edifying as ever.

Literature is that which we read with the feeling or thought that it is somehow the embodiment of Truth, certianly, the closest thing resembling truth (honesty) in written form.

But what is literature? Why by and large, literature is defined by the top memebers of the literati.

Art Durkee said...

I like Jim's rule-of-thumb very much. It certainly cuts through a lot of crap.

I think there are probably some examples I could cite where it might fail, as a rule of thumb, but overall, I think it could very useful for most literature, most of the time.

It also answers the age-old prejudice that "fine art literature" has against "genre fiction," even when some writing in science fiction is demonstrably more literary, or artful, than most of what's published in the fiction mainstream. One thinks of Samuel R. Delany, Kate Wilhelm, Roger Zelazny, to name only a very few.

Leslie Avon Miller said...

I love metaphor and poetic language (and art). but I can't abide being bogged down by an author using a style that makes the reading difficult. So while you state that effort entailed to use poetic language throughout a work would be too arduous, I would point out the reading of it would be as well. I like my metaphors to hit home, and leave me with an ah-ha. Great blog. Thanks!

Dave King said...

High Desert Diva
Thanks for that. Your comments are much appreciated.

Thanks. I am certainly with you in what you say in the middle paragraph. not sure about the final one, though: isn't that a tautology?

After I'd replied to Jim I wished I'd said that it cut a lot of crap, but now you've said it, so that's fine. I certainly agree.
Your third para makes an excellent point, I think.

That, too, is a most excellent point. My thanks for it.

Rachel Fox said...

I like the omnivore reader up there. Lovely image.

Dave King said...

Thanks for that.

Lucy said...

These discussions make me feel something of a numpty...

Probably the M&B is less familiar to many that come here, so possibly more interesting! I'm interested to note where the cliches come from - it's a kind of ghastly blancmange made from Hello magazine, (with a strong flavour of the Carla Bruni story), Joanna Harris and 'Where do you go to my lovely', isn't it?

I remember reading a few M&B as a teenager, when contemporaries were doing so, out of curiosity, for a laugh, a little mild titillation, because I read many things quite avidly; they've grown up a bit since then evidently! But in the end they left me feeling unsatisfied, I didn't have any razor sharp critical instincts, at that point I hadn't read Leavis or any other theory, and had probably only just grown out of reading Biggles, but I knew I wanted more out of the experience of reading.

In recent years I've read the odd trashy thing, 'The Da Vinci Code' out of curiosity, and I can enjoy a certain amount of formulaic stuff on TV, like 'Poirot' and other detective things if they're well acted and amusing, but really I feel life's too short to waste valuable reading time on things I don't get much out of, whether they're considered high literature or not. Which begs the question, what do I want to get out of it? I hate the ever-popular meme type question, 'which books have changed your life?', and can never answer it, many or none, I don't know. But I do need to feel something has moved, I suppose...

Anyway, fine thought-provoking writing as ever, Dave.

Dave King said...

Thanks for that, Lucy.
I understand that M&B have grown up even a jot more of lateand are thinking of "branching out" - Shock! Horror!
I didn't know the word numpty, though it sounds self-evident - and you are not!

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