Friday, January 23, 2009

Working definition of literature

Jim H., author of Wisdom of the West, says in a comment to an earlier post: “ ‘Literature’ is simply too vague and amorphous a concept to nail down in a couple [of] blog posts.” If I agreed with that, I’d give up blogging.

Here then is my working definition. It consists of two disjunctive claims, the second of which was copyrighted by E. D. Hirsch. Literature is either everything written or only some of it. If it is the former, and if it is to be studied, then it must be reduced to manageable proportions by means of some arbitrary category—arbitrary to avoid the introduction of value—such as a language, a country, or a historical period (these examples do not exhaust the possible categories). If it is the latter then either it is what someone stipulates, in which case it can be whatever one pleases, or it is what authorities have called “literature” (that is, it has a historical definition).

The former is literature according to philology; the latter, according to criticism.

Speaking as a critic, then—conceiving of literature as only some of what has been written—I stipulate that “Literature is simply good writing—where ‘good’ has, by definition, no fixed definition.” But this definition is not the same as my saying elsewhere that “Literature just is a selection of masterpieces.” This later statement is another way of observing that, when literature is no longer everything that has ever been written, it is what pleases one to dignify with the name and status of literature. It is a selection of masterpieces.

Right now, late on a Friday afternoon, with my sons clamoring for me to play with them, I cannot think of an exception. For modesty’ sake, though, I shall continue to speak of it as a working definition.


Anonymous said...

You assert: "Literature is simply good writing—where ‘good’ has, by definition, no fixed definition.”

Okay, then, let's subject the following words to your standard: "Be nice to other people." Simple (= declarative statement in the active voice). Good (= nice).

That is, therefore, by your lights, "literature".

Am I wrong? Or, is Hirsch?

To keep the conversation going, though, let's assume you qualify, or backtrack, or amplify, or otherwise amend your definition. Now, ask: What distinguishes those words, in that sequence, from something you might more readily agree to call "Literature"? Must they be more literary?

Well, I can easily claim I intended my words to be literary, therefore, on one model, they are literature. And who are you, or anyone else, to gainsay my contention?

I suspect you would adhere to a broader definition than the mere intentional—am I misreading Dan Green to place him in this camp? Most likely, you would expect for an utterance to be considered 'literature' that it conform to some conventional expectations, n'est pas?

Yet, those expectations are culturally determined. That is to say, the standards change over space and time. Literary forms emerge (say, the novel after Don Quixote), the proem, flash fiction, icky meta-fiction. Take heart, though, because they also fade away over time. The point being, as I mentioned in my previous comment, the context in which the words are given and taken determine whether they will count as literary and, therefore, as literature.

In sum, I think it is no easy thing to determine what is or is not 'literature'. Such things as authorial intentions, critical appreciation, genre criteria, and cultural context, at a minimum, must come into play. And these norms are not fixed. "Good" is merely one aspect of one part of the analysis. It's a lot harder than determining, say, whether a spider is or is not an insect.

Have a nice weekend with your boys.

Jim H.

D. G. Myers said...

Sorry about the delay in publishing your comment, Jim. First time I’ve hit the computer since Shabbes. Reply to come.

D. G. Myers said...

I can easily claim I intended my words to be literary, therefore, on one model, they are literature. And who are you, or anyone else, to gainsay my contention?

Why should I wish to gainsay it? What would be in it for me? Clearly I have been unclear in laying out my definition.

My definition is intended to be descriptive and pragmatic, not prescriptive and theoretical. That is, I am trying to describe how critics use the term literature in practice. As far as I understand them, they use the term as a warrant for the attention that they pay to certain texts.

Thus I categorize Democracy in America and A. J. Liebling’s boxing writing as masterpieces of American literature. (Not only I, of course. So does the Library of America.) Daniel Green would object, asserting that fiction and only fiction (in the old sense of make-believe) qualifies as literature.

But any prescriptive definition of literature will fail the historical test. Critics have frequently declined to restrict literature to fiction. Edmund Wilson, for example, included Lincoln, Grant, Sherman, Mary Chesnut, and many other writers of various non-fictional kinds in Patriotic Gore, his 1962 study of the “Literature of the American Civil War” (his subtitle).

What I am trying is to describe what critics actually do when they speak of literature. My hypothesis is that either they use it in neutral objective fashion, to distinguish a culture’s writing from its other debris, or they use it as a value term.

As Hirsch points out elsewhere, “[A] true class requires a set of distinguishing features which are inclusive within the class and exclusive outside it. . . . But, in fact, nobody has ever so defined literature or any important genre within it.” They merely stipulate distinguishing features. These are the features that, for them, distinguish the literary from the non-literary. Which is why Green ended up chasing his tail when I pressed him to clarify his thought on the question. In the end, all such prescriptive definitions are inevitably circular. When it comes to that, in fact, Green’s is the best I’ve ever read, because at least it is open and honest about its circularity.

What then are critics doing when they use the term literature? My guess—still a guess at this point, although I have yet to find an exception—is that they are singling out a text or texts for praise, preservation, or passing on. My categorical description of the value they are finding in those texts—the column heading under which all their stipulations will fit, I hope—is “good.”

So, Jim, if you want to claim that the sentence Be nice to other people is literature, the real question is whether you want to praise this sentence, preserve it for all time, pass it on to later generations as a model of the good.

Anonymous said...

"asserting that fiction and only fiction"

DGM: I do wish you'd stop mischaracterizing what I've said. In a comment on my blog responding to your previous assertion that this was my position, I said that I consider fiction as part of what at one time was considered "poetry," which prior to the 18th century was the blanket term that we've replaced with "literature." If you want to say that I consider *poetry* in this inclusive sense to be literature (and anything outside it to be something else), I would accept that.

D. G. Myers said...

I am not mischaracterizing your position, merely trying to keep it from being more “ineffable” than it already is.

Fiction in the sense in which I am using it is the oldest sense of the word. From the OED.

Fiction. That which, or something that, is imaginatively invented; feigned existence, event, or state of things; invention as opposed to fact.

“1398 TREVISA Barth. De P.R. I. (1495) 3 They wysely..vse poetes in their ficcions. 1509 HAWES Past. Pleas. Proem v, Whose [i.e. Lydgate's] fatall fictions are yet permanent, Grounded on reason. 1589 WARNER Alb. Eng. II. Prose Add. (1612) 332 The waues sollicited (a Poeticall fiction) by the wife of Iupiter. 1601 SHAKES. Twel. N. III. iv. 141 If this were plaid vpon a stage now, I could condemne it as an improbable fiction. 1612 T. WILSON Chr. Dict. 375 The popish Priest-hood is an immaginary and blasphemous fixion. 1798 FERRIAR Illustr. Sterne, Eng. Hist. 251 Fiction is always more feeble than truth. 1847 EMERSON Repr. Men, Shaks. Wks. (Bohn) I. 362 Few real men have left such distinct characters as these fictions. 1855 H. SPENCER Princ. Psychol. (1872) II. VIII. iii. 536 Until fact..has become clearly distinguished from fiction. 1876 GLADSTONE Homeric Syncr. 34 The fictions of the Virgilian age establish no presumption adverse to it.”

Fiction is the class of discourse to which prose fiction, composition in lines as well as sentences (“poetry”), and drama all belong.

Johnson’s eighteenth-century definition of poetry was this: “The essence of poetry is invention; such invention as, by producing something unexpected, surprises and delights.” That is, poetry is fiction plus something valued.

Anonymous said...

Well, I can take care of its ineffability myself.

What we call fiction, or, if you prefer, the novel, was once called narrative poetry. What we call drama was once called dramatic poetry. A writer was called a "poet," not a fiction writer. I don't think writers who specialized in lyric poetry, say the Metaphysicals, would have at all thought of what they wrote as "fiction."

However, if you want to call "fiction" everything that could otherwise be called fiction, poetry, or drama, what is loosely called "imaginative" writing, I can accept that as well.

"The essence of poetry is invention." Yes, and fiction, in its modern usage, is one kind of such invention.

D. G. Myers said...

To be fair, your definition is not far different from Johnson’s. No more valid or useful, but in the same ballpark.

For you, literature is all fiction/poetry/drama which is literary.

For Johnson, poetry is all invention which is poetic.

We need a new definition.

Jim H. said...

DGM: There's nothing really controversial in your assertion: "they [i.e., critics] are singling out a text or texts for praise, preservation, or passing on. My categorical description of the value they are finding in those texts—the column heading under which all their stipulations will fit, I hope—is “good.”" In fact, it's rather innocuous.

That's all fine: the function of the critic is to single out and praise. Yes, but critics do so much more than canonize writing. Many critics single out 'bad writing' in order to tamp it down—criticize in the pejorative sense. Yet such works are still 'literature'; they are not 'not literature'. And a critic's (or multiple critics') belief that a work is 'not literature' because it has 'bad writing' cannot be the final say so. There are simply too many assumptions, or rather presumptions, built into such a position.

Many critics make it their business to analyze what it means to be 'good writing', rather than assume their, let's call them, 'tastes' have universal applicability. It would seem the critic should be able to unpack the cultural assumptions their tastes assume and, in fact, embody.

Moreover, vaunting the role of critic as impressario or ultimate arbiter of all things 'literature', though useful, seems a bit self-serving (I assume you yourself are a critic). There is so much that is literature that never receives critical recognition. It's as if there's a citadel in which critics sit waiting for the 'good writing' to knock at the gates seeking acceptance. And only that which comes to their attention and they subsequently designate as such is 'literature'.

But these are critiques of the critic. We are, if I haven't lost the thread entirely, trying to get at a cogent, working definition of 'literature'.

I'm making no claim that such works as Lincoln's Second Inaugural or any number of Learned Hand's legal decisions or Hammurabi's law codes or the Book of Revelation (which, if you read it in Greek, is really bad writing by any stretch of the imagination) or Augustine's Confessions (which is exquisite writing) or Wittgenstein's Investigations (ditto) or Johnson's Dictionary or, even, Pater's criticism, should not be considered 'literature' (of the prose variety). I think the class is broad enough to include at least these.

What is 'good', when it comes to writing, changes over time and across cultures. Is it your contention that anytime any critic anywhere claims that a bit of 'writing' (a problematic term in its own right we've yet to really pin down) is 'good writing' then it is 'literature'? Does that hold even if Critic ABC says it is 'good' and Critic DGM says it is 'bad' writing?

Sorry if this post is a bit rambling.

Jim H.

1:16 PM