Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Would someone explain. . .

. . . what either occurrence of the word literary refers to in the following sentence: “Th[e] ability to enlist various kinds of writing not themselves per se ‘literary’ in the creation of literary form is part of what has allowed fiction to retain its vitality. . . .” If both refer to the same thing why is the first handled with quotation marks? And if they refer to different things how do the quotation marks specify the difference? Help me. I’m lost.


S. said...

It seems to me that the first word in quotation marks is simply a poor attempt at mockery. It didn't work out very well because of the negative use of that sentence. Had he said "The ability to enlist various kinds of "literary" writing..." perhaps it would have made more sense. Either way, I'm not a fan of mocking by punctuation.

D. G. Myers said...


I suspect it is not mockery but the printer’s-mark equivalent of a shrug: “You know what I mean by ‘literary.’ I needn’t take the trouble to make myself any clearer.”

See my comment on obscurity and revision under Clearance Items below.

Alan said...

the first use refers to existing literary conventions, the second to actual writing. the first is a cultural defintion, the second formal.

he is saying that the novel has, historically speaking, rejuvenated itself by by drawing on practices of writing that were not at the time considered appropriate for use in novels.

(it was a very good post that I enjoyed reading immensely.)

D. G. Myers said...


I am prepared to accept your claim that Green did not intend to say what he seems to be saying, but it not so clear that this is how his sentence reads. If your revised version accurately represents his meaning, you have to wonder why he did not take the time to rework his sentence to get to it.

But does your revised version accurately represent his meaning? How do you know? For even your distinction is less clear-cut upon a second and a third reading. The “literary” is conventional, but the literary is actual? Or, rather, the “literary” is cultural, but the literary is formal? You got all that from one set of quotation marks?

Until Green unmuddles this tiresome little knot, his essays may be “immensely enjoyable,” but they aren’t very good. They can’t be. They are approximations rather than exact statements.