Friday, January 23, 2009

Reduction versus expansion

Here is a test. How you answer will clarify whether your view of literature is reductive or expansive. On November 13, 1913, the New York Times ran an article listing the “Hundred Best Books of the Year.” To make the test easier, I shall confine the list to the fiction titles:

( 1.) Edith Wharton, The Custom of the Country
( 2.) Arnold Bennett, The Old Adam
( 3.) Willa Cather, O Pioneers!
( 4.) Winston Churchill, The Inside of the Cup
( 5.) Frank Danby, Concert Pitch
( 6.) Conigsby Dawson, The Garden without Walls
( 7.) John Galsworthy, The Dark Flower
( 8.) Ellen Glasgow, Virginia
( 9.) Thomas Hardy, A Changed Man and Other Tales
(10.) William Dean Howells, New Leaf Mills
(11.) Henry Sydnor Harrison, V. V.’s Eyes
(12.) William J. Locke, Stella Maris
(13.) Jack London, John Barleycorn
(14.) Charles Marriott, The Catfish
(15.) Meredith Nicholson, Otherwise Phyllis
(16.) Mary S. Watts, Van Cleve

These sixteen were chosen from among a larger lot of novels published in 1913, including:

• Eleanor Hallowell Abbott, White Linen Nurse
• Miriam Alexander, Ripple
• Mary Austin, Green Bough: A Tale of the Resurrection
• Rex Beach, Iron Trail: An Alaskan Romance
• E. C. Bentley, Woman in Black
• Joseph Conrad, Chance
• Frank Barkley Copley, The Impeachment of President Israels
• Mary Stewart Cutting, Refractory Husbands
• Richard Harding Davis, Soldiers of Fortune
• Ellen Douglas Deland, Country Cousins
• Thomas Dixon, The Southerner: A Romance of the Real Lincoln
• Arthur Conan Doyle, The Poison Belt
• Jeffrey Farnol, The Amateur Gentleman
• Edna Ferber, Roast Beef, Medium: The Business Adventures of Emma McChesney
• Justus Miles Forman, The Opening Door: A Story of the Woman’s Movement
• L. P. Gratacap, Benjamin the Jew
• David Hennessey, The Outlaw (“Second prize in Hodder & Stoughton’s £1,000 Novel Competition”)
• D. H. Lawrence, Sons and Lovers
• Jack London, The Valley of the Moon
• Ivan Morgan Merlinjones, The Reclamation of Wales: A Patriotic Romance Founded on Facts
• Oscar Micheaux, The Conquest: The Story of a Negro Pioneer
• L. M. Montgomery, The Golden Road
• George Moore, Elizabeth Cooper
• Samuel W. Odell, The Princess Athura: A Romance of Iran
• Thomas Nelson Page, The Land of the Spirit
• Albert Bigelow Paine, “Peanut”: The Story of a Boy
• Eleanor H. Porter, Pollyanna
• Sax Rohmer, The Insidious Dr. Fu Manchu
• Hugh Walpole, Fortitude: Being a True and Faithful Account of the Education of an Explorer
• Hawley Williams, Five Yards to Go!
• P. G. Wodehouse, The Little Nugget
• Leonard Woolf, The Village in the Jungle
• Harold Bell Wright, The Winning of Barbara Worth

I will not hide from you that I enjoy book lists. The Guardian’s music blogger may be right when he says that “List-makers mummify their subject matter. Everything they touch calcifies and turns to dust.” Or lists may be a necessary prelude to judgment, organizing the materials for closer examination. Or they may only be a harmless waste of time.

At all events, the above is a fairly thorough list of the fiction published in English in 1913. What on it is literature, and what is not?

I would suggest, again, that there are only two possible answers. Some of it is literature, or all of it is. If the former then “literature” is an award for prestige and belongs to criticism; if the latter then it is “Everything written in c” where c is a category that more or less arbitrarily reduces everything written to manageable proportions (even “fiction published in English in 1913” is such a category), and then literature belongs to philology. Literature is a vacuous term unless its meaning is narrowly—reductively—specified.