Daniel Green has harsh words for my assertion that “Literature is just a selection of masterpieces.” (If I had it to write over again, I’d start the proposition with an indefinite article, but otherwise, upon reflection, I’d change nothing. Literature is created by critics in the activity of selecting works to prize, preserve, and pass on. It is what remains of everything that is written.) “There is no getting around this obstacle,” I had said. “The problem is what criteria of selection you are going to use.”
Without pausing to consider what I mean by the word literature, Green is contemptuous of my view:
What is poetry on this definition, however, but a selection of verbal acts? Try to specify the system of devices that bring about the transformation of mere words into poetry. Here is the single best attempt that I know. “How shall the poem be written?” J. V. Cunningham asked. “I answer, In metrical language.” But any such specification will exclude many works that some people consider poetry and include other works that they do not. (Elizabeth Alexander is out, Ella Wheeler Wilcox is in.) Cunningham is aware of the problem: “[I]t is clear from what is being published as poetry, approved of and commented on, that there is not only uncertainty with respect to the old tradition but also a widely felt need for some system of meter other than the traditional, and that none has been agreed on and established.” The only thing that has changed in the four decades since Cunningham first wrote these words is that the felt need for a non-traditional prosody has disappeared. Contemporary poets are happy, by and large, to write without system. The old tradition no longer provides an exhaustive store of devices to bring about a transformation of a verbal act into poetry, but nothing has emerged to replace it. Literariness will not do.
Green is shocked—shocked—to read such views from a “literary scholar who professes to love literature.” But I am afraid that I must shock him even more deeply, because I cannot remember professing to “love literature” (not at least since I have grown up), and cannot imagine what it would mean to do so. I love some books and cannot abide others. I cannot abide many of the books that Green professes to love, and some of the books that I love he would not even acknowledge as literature. I love Democracy in America, for example, and Haim Kaplan’s Holocaust diary; Michael Wyschogrod’s Body of Faith, a theology of Judaism, and Mark Bowden’s Black Hawk Down; A. J. Liebling’s boxing reports and Karen Horney’s studies of neurosis; Michael Oakeshott’s philosophical essays and Ronald Knox’s history of Enthusiasm. Each of these is a literary masterpiece, I would argue. And I should very much like to hear Green’s argument to the contrary.
My view was stated with admirable definitiveness by E. D. Hirsch Jr., who similarly held that Darwin’s Origin of Species was a literary masterpiece. Although a scornful critic had said that he was “clearly capable of distinguishing” The Origin of Species from literature, Hirsch said he was not at all capable—and neither were writers like Stanley Edgar Hyman, who classified Darwin as literature in The Tangled Bank, or editors who included Darwin in anthologies of Victorian literature:
This pleases him, but it does not please me. And it need please no one else. Much that other people accept as literature is not art, and many written works are “artistic” without being literature. By coincidence, while preparing to teach Edith Wharton’s Custom of the Country earlier today, while searching for the clearest definition of Society, I came upon the following passage from Tom Wolfe’s 2006 Jefferson Lecture:
Update [January 23]: Daniel Green has clarified himself: “[E]verything written in the forms of fiction, poetry, or drama is literature, if the author intends it to be taken as literature. Many writers of popular fiction, for one, don’t.”
But if everything written as fiction is literature, except for that which isn’t, then literature refers to something in addition to its fiction, although Green has still not said what that thing might be. It remains ineffable.
 Roman Jakobson, “A Postscript to the Discussion on Grammar of Poetry,” Diacritics 10 (1980): 22–35.
 J. V. Cunningham, “How Shall the Poem be Written?” (1967), in The Collected Essays (Chicago: Swallow, 1976), pp. 256, 258. Emphasis added.
 E. D. Hirsch Jr., “Response to Richard M. Coe,” College English 37 (October 1975): 205–06.