Thursday, January 22, 2009

Literature and status

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:

I really can’t imagine a more reductive and, especially for a literary scholar who professes to love literature, a more implicitly dismissive view of the value of literature and literary study. It’s all about choosing up sides and announcing that your “criteria” are better than the other side’s?A selection is a reduction; so I suppose my view is reductive. Green assumes that he and I mean the same thing when we say “literature,” but we don’t. He believes in literariness, the Loch Ness Monster of criticism, a mythical creature who lives beneath the surface of literary texts, endowing them with special significance. The idea derives from Roman Jakobson, who introduced the term in an essay written in 1933 to describe (and reinforce) “the autonomy of the aesthetic function.” “Literariness,” he explained years later, is “the transformation of a verbal act into a poetic work and the system of devices that bring about such a transformation. . . .”[1]

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.”[2] 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:Either literature is defined by traits that someone stipulates, in which case literature can be defined as one pleases; or literature is what the authorities call “literature,” in which case The Origin of Species is literature.[3]Green stipulates that literature must be art. In his Reading Experience, he flogs the same merchandise again and again, and still it refuses to move. Thus on May 5, 2008, he wrote: “The important distinction to be made is . . . between those works whose authors think of fiction as primarily an aesthetic form and those who think of it as a form of commentary. . . .” Or on April 24: “One loves Paradise Lost precisely because it is such an aesthetically powerful work despite its rather repellent ‘idea’ of Christianity. It’s the first work I think of when challenged to provide an example of a work of literature in which art trumps content.” Literature is simply Green’s word for written art.

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:Within the ranks of the rich . . . there inevitably developed an inner circle known as Society. Such groups always believed themselves to be graced with “status honor,” as [Max] Weber called it. Status honor existed quite apart from such gross matters as raw wealth and power. Family background, education, manners, dress, cultivation, style of life—these, the ineffable things, were what granted you your exalted place in Society.My claim is that literature (or, rather, Literature) is the writing that has been graced, by critics and scholars and editors, with “status honor.” What grants it its exalted place may be called literariness or art (or any number of other names), but whatever these are, they are, finally, ineffable things.

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.

[1] Roman Jakobson, “A Postscript to the Discussion on Grammar of Poetry,” Diacritics 10 (1980): 22–35.

[2] J. V. Cunningham, “How Shall the Poem be Written?” (1967), in The Collected Essays (Chicago: Swallow, 1976), pp. 256, 258. Emphasis added.

[3] E. D. Hirsch Jr., “Response to Richard M. Coe,” College English 37 (October 1975): 205–06.


Peter said...

I see it as a difference between thinking mainly as a writer or as a reader (though of course one can be both). To an academic/writer, trying to define literature, and tracing its history, and so on, is the interesting part. And yeah, I like that stuff too. But what I really care about, as a reader, is: will this book be worth reading? Because I don't have vast amounts of time to spend on minor works. I don't want to spend my time -exclusively- on canonical works, but I'm willing to bet that they're usually a better investment.

Anonymous said...

'Literature' is simply too vague and amorphous a concept to nail down in a couple blog posts. It can be expanded to encompass, arguably, everything from, say, Nietzsche's shopping list to the Rig Veda. Or, it can be restricted to such lists as Bloom's Canon. Much depends on the particular context in which the term is sought to be used, the point being made.

Still, it's fun to watch you guys slug it out.

To correct one slangy metaphor you casually throw in there, Dr. Myers: flogging a dead horse has nothing to do with a whip or scourge or cane or shovel. Though the term 'to flog' can mean "to beat or whip", in the context of that particular metaphor it carries another of its meanings: "to sell". The phrase is a common language restatement of a reasonably precise common law concept having to do with the fraudulent act of trying to peddle a deceased equine (or parrot, for that matter) while representing it as, say, sleeping or pining for the fjords. You can't do it legally; whereas, if you own a dead horse, you can beat the hell out of it all you want with whatever implement you choose. (I think, here, too, of the hilarious punning episode in Beckett's Malone Dies, where the farmer, Lambert, takes his dead mule out and throws it in a too-shallow grave and then has to beat its stiffened legs down with a shovel to get it to fit, an episode echoed to riproarious effect in National Lampoon's "Animal House", only this time with a chain saw.) Of course, you can legally flog a dead horse to maybe a glue or shoe factory or a dog food company, but in such case you're not representing the beast as living. If we're going to quibble over terms, let's.

Jim H.

D. G. Myers said...


It is at least “vague and amorphous.” That’s why my definition is most serviceable.

Many thanks for shaming me into correcting my use of “flog.”

Anonymous said...

"This pleases him, but it does not please me. And it need please no one else."

This is true, although I think I can in specific cases show some readers why a particular work should please them. But I get the sense you'd never settle for that "it need please no one else." I sense you want to pin Literature down to your own particular tastes and to have those tastes recognized as the authoritative source of "status."

D. G. Myers said...

Sure. That’s exactly what follows from the claim that literature can be defined as one pleases.

As the Jews say, Al tikrei—do not read—“one,” read me!

Gotta run.