Literature is simply good writing—where “good” has, by definition, no fixed definition. What follows from this conclusion?
First of all, literature is human discourse that is distinguished, not by its historical relevance, nor by its truth or falsity, but by its good qualities. A piece of bad writing may provide evidence of the past or may even state a truth. These are not “good qualities”; they are necessary and sufficient conditions. History is defined by judging things to be evidence of the past; philosophy is defined by judging things to be true or false. From which it follows, next, that literature is not a body of poems, stories, novels, plays, memoirs, etc., but the act of judgment by which such things come to be named as literature. Literature is the worry of literary criticism.
I am not sure this really gets us very far. On this showing, literature is either anything at all that anyone at all pleases to call literature, or it is what the delegated and properly credentialed authorities call literature. That is, it is either personal preference or the history of taste. But “in the history of taste,” as Northrop Frye famously said, “there are no facts.”
Hence the turn to theory in academic literary study. The postwar confidence that literature could best be studied As Literature (to slap on the contemporary bumpersticker) had given way to a rising skepticism and confusion by the late 1960’s. If literary study is, as Yvor Winters’s student Wesley Trimpi conservatively defined it in 1970, “[t]he understanding and preservation of literary texts,” what becomes of study when no one is sure any longer what constitutes a literary text? A return to criticism—a return to the cultural work of sorting through published materials to determine what merited preservation—might have been welcome. By the late 1960’s, though, criticism had almost exclusively devolved into interpretation (Trimpi’s “understanding”). Sick of it, the poets retreated into creative writing.
Some of the best critical minds grasped the central problem. E. D. Hirsch Jr., who understood perhaps better than anyone the utter arbitrariness at the heart of literature’s mystery, wrote Validity in Interpretation (1967) to bring some order out of the confusion that academic literary interpretation had become. He characterized his book as a “contribution to general hermeneutic theory,” shifting attention from the object of critical judgment to the act. He sought to raise the discussion to the next level. But that may have been a mistake. The discussion needed to be broadened. Interpretation needed to be reassigned to a subordinate role in acquiring literary knowledge (something that Hirsch himself came to accept by the time he wrote Cultural Literacy twenty years later).
Others, like Frank Lentricchia, writing in 1970, insisted that literary study required a “whole new epistemology.” And in short order several substitutes were proposed. Ultimately, the winning view would hold that there is no interpretation without a theory of some kind—an epistemology—that is given shelter by a structure of power. The trouble was that, if such a view were true, the theory wasn’t. It was a handmaiden of power. To avoid thinking about the crux, the “whole new epistemology” became a received, top-down methodology: a new method, but merely a method, of interpretation.
So personal preference ended in the arms of authority. Still others hoped, not perhaps to solve the central problem, but at least to turn it into a historical curiosity. Already in 1969, George Watson noticed “scattered signs that the anti-historical mood of literary theory in the earlier twentieth century [was] approaching its close.” Not in any idiom that he would have recognized, however. Fredric Jameson’s slogan “Always historicize!” really meant always place the literary text in the context of power relations, with the author forever on the side of power.
Far more promising was the influence of cultural relativism, although its consequences were widely misunderstood. The prooftext had been written nearly three generations earlier by Langston Hughes: “One of the most promising of the young Negro poets said to me once, ‘I want to be a poet—not a Negro poet,’ meaning, I believe, ‘I want to write like a white poet.’ ” That is, there is no such animal as a poet without an identity. Back in April, the novelist Junot Diaz dilated on the principle for Newsweek:
And only recently has the defectiveness of the concept come to be widely accepted. Even now, though, the correction has been misprized. If there are no writers without identities it does not follow that writers’ only identities are their race and sex. Jewish writers are not Jewish writers by virtue of their race or sex. Yes, yes: go ahead and substitute ethnicity for race. But a poet of the classical tradition, as Adam Zagajewski describes Zbigniew Herbert (“He took classicism to mean: Don’t complain”), is not such by virtue of ethnicity or sex. On Zagajewski’s testimony, in fact, Herbert was a poet of the classical tradition by choice.
And perhaps that is the key. Perhaps every writer’s identity is a choice, because you choose with whom to identify yourself. (You can choose to be a Jew, after all; choose to pass as “white”; choose to write under the first name George; choose classical restraint over confessional excess.) Perhaps you see at last what I am driving at. The definition of literature has been the central problem in literary study for too long, because it has always been treated as a universalism: “All literature is P.” To teach and study literature As Literature is to teach and study under the aspect of eternity.
But there is no such thing as Universal Literature. There are only literatures, with different prefixes. We teach and study “the best that has been thought and said”; that has not changed; but it is the best that has been thought and said by African Americans, in English, in translation, belonging to such-and-such a tradition, in metrical language, written in the American South since the Second World War, by the Bloomsbury group, or whatever. What follows is not that the word literature is an intellectual error or the mystification of the will to dominate. What follows is that, like the word testament without the superaddition of “old” or “new,” the word is misleading where it is not meaningless.