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The Meaning of Literature

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The Meaning of Literature

Postby Gabrielwelter » Sat Feb 04, 2006 5:36 pm

I've been thinking about the meaning of literature for quite some time now, and I ran into this paragraph on wikipedia:

Furthermore, people may perceive a difference between "literature" and some popular forms of written work. The terms "literary fiction" and "literary merit" often serve to distinguish between individual works. For example, almost all literate people perceive the works of Charles Dickens as "literature", whereas many tend to look down on the works of Jeffrey Archer as unworthy of inclusion under the general heading of "English literature". Critics may exclude works from the classification "literature", for example, on the grounds of a poor standard of grammar and syntax, of an unbelievable or disjointed story-line, or of inconsistent or unconvincing characters. Genre fiction (for example: romance, crime, or science fiction) may also become excluded from consideration as "literature".


How much do you agree with this definition of literature? Do you think Vergil and Stephen King(I'm giving an extreme example :) ) belong to utterly different kinds of art, or rather, that of both, only Vergil can be considered as real art?And genre literature? I personally dislike detective stories but love science-fiction. Couldn't we just divide literature between 'good' and 'bad'? Or there are things so despicable they are not worth being put on the same ground as, let us say, shakespeare or homer?

My own view ist that there is such a difference, but it's a blurry one, i.e. there is plenty of space for a margin of error in our judgment of what is and what is not literature for, after all, there is a lot of subjectivity involved in its appreciation. Or not? Sometimes I'm in doubt.

If any of you could share a more enlightened thought on the subject that would help.
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Postby GlottalGreekGeek » Sat Feb 04, 2006 7:49 pm

For me, literature means very different things in different contexts. For example, 'statistical literature' is probably a use of the word outside most people's definitions, but it is a legitimate (in my opinion) use of the word (by the way, statistical literature is the records of various observational studies and statistical analysis results which are remarkable enough to be useful for helping present-day statisticians perfect their craft).

I suppose for me literature means anything which has as much innate value for future generations as for the present day audience. For example, the Elsie Dinsmore books and Little Women written by Louisa May Alcott came from the same period and were both very popular among girls when they were first published. However, Little Women is still a very popular book with young girls, whereas most people have not heard of Elsie Dinsmore. I myself have not read any of the Elsie Dinsmore books, but what I have heard they would fall outside most people's definitions of "literature" (though some Amazon reviews refute this). However, if I were to ever read an Elise Dinsmore book, it would be for its historical value, not because I expect it to be a good book.

Books from genre fiction from a long time ago which still have a strong appeal for today's audiences should be classified in literature. Sometimes one can recognize in a book that it has something which will draw future audiences again and again, and classify it as literature right off the bat, but this classification can only be tentative at best.
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Postby Gabrielwelter » Sat Feb 04, 2006 9:20 pm

For me, literature means very different things in different contexts.


Yes, no book can offer you everything, so it is like meeting different people in different occasions I guess.

Books from genre fiction from a long time ago which still have a strong appeal for today's audiences should be classified in literature. Sometimes one can recognize in a book that it has something which will draw future audiences again and again, and classify it as literature right off the bat, but this classification can only be tentative at best.


That's the point, for me great literature will always stand the test of time and hold appeal for generations to come. Sometimes I ask myself why read old books, but almost immediately I remember they have something which I cannot classify which is beyond time. If people ask me why I study greek and latin, I answer them that although these books are so "old", they are new to me because I've been here on earth for just a bit more than a couple of decades, so they are new to me. Even if I had been reading Ovid since he was made an exile, I could be drawing new inspiration because time changes...et nos mutamur in illi. I also think that great art is virtually infinite in providing inspiration; that's one of its most important characteristics. People will read it time after time and, as in good music, always find something new. Times will come when lack of inspiration arrives, but it's most of the times our fault or we are not reading the right book for the right mood or occasion.

And that's when another argument comes to mind. Many great artists are inspired by "minor works", like Vergil being acused of being too 'rusticus'in his vocabulary, classical musicians inspired by popular music or Mike Portnoy - in my opinion the best rock drumer ever - who likes so many music and movies I despise.

I think there are many good ideas, but you need someone to execute them with perfection to create eternal art.
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Postby mraig » Mon Feb 06, 2006 5:48 pm

I think the bias against 'genre' literature is that much of it is written in sort of a cookie cutter fashion. If you want to write a romance novel, you will find that there is a very strict set of guidelines you must follow as to what the plot and characters and outcome can be, which tends to make any individual work less unique. So when you go to a section of a bookstore (like romance or detective or sci-fi or fantasy) and see hundreds of identically formatted paperbacks staring at you from the shelf, and you know that you will get a more or less similar experience from any one of them, even if that experience is comforting, it's not literature any more than McDonalds is cuisine.

But I don't think there is anything limiting about any particular genre. I would argue that, for example, in the sci-fi genre, "Fahrenheit 451" and "The Martian Chronicles" are literature (as well as many others), and so forth in the other genres. Literature (to me) means that the work has something to say that people throughout the ages will find interesting and valuable, rather than being diverted for a short time and moving on with their lives.
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Postby Carola » Wed Feb 08, 2006 10:18 pm

Unfortunately it seems that the best test is to wait about 50 years and see if the book stands the "time test". Not a good method if the author has died in poverty in the process!

Perhaps any book which appeals to a wide age group, which stays in peoples' minds long after they have read it. It should appeal to the widely read and well educated reader, but perhaps also be understood easily by the less literate. Thinking about some of the most popular and long lasting books like various works of Dickens, Tolkein, "The Wind in the Willows", they would all fit that definition. However, there are other works (Plato, Vergil. various philisophical works) which last because they were ground-breaking or summed up their times very effectively.

It is often hard to make decisions about contemporary literature, widely praised books of even 30 years ago now seem stupid and dated, others (like Farenheit 451) still seem relevant. I still enjoy reading John Le Carre's spy stories decades after the Cold War because they still grab me. The spy part is less important than the characters, the atmosphere.
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Postby Gabrielwelter » Mon Feb 27, 2006 10:00 pm

others (like Farenheit 451) still seem relevant.


Yes, farenheit 451 is a book I really enjoyed.

I still enjoy reading John Le Carre's spy stories decades after the Cold War because they still grab me. The spy part is less important than the characters, the atmosphere.


I don't know Le Carre, but I also like some books which have great atmosphere despíte not being considered mainstream. I even enjoy a naive mood if it reminds you of books you read in teenagehood like space-opera or golden age sci-fi,or a weird atmosphere just for the sake of strangeness :) Speaking of it......I'm reading the Book of the New Sun, by Gene Wolfe...and it was some time since I had delighted myself with such dark and bizarre atmosphere.
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Postby GlottalGreekGeek » Wed Mar 15, 2006 6:27 am

Hey, one of my favorite writers, Lois McMaster Bujold, writes plenty of space opera (indeed her space operas are my favorites of her works).

Though the evidence is limited, it's apparent that Homer was a genre composer of words - the heroic genre. The formulated phrases, the plots, the characters were there before Homer became an aoidos (or so we presume ... who knows when our theories will be burst) but Homer used all those formulas to assemble two of the most enduring pieces of literature in the world.
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Postby Gabrielwelter » Sun Apr 09, 2006 6:39 pm

the formulated phrases, the plots, the characters were there before Homer became an aoidos (or so we presume ... who knows when our theories will be burst) but Homer used all those formulas to assemble two of the most enduring pieces of literature in the world.


yeah...that sheds a whole new light on the importance and value of the so called "lesser forms" of literature. It is relieving.

And john le carre....I discovered who he is, there's a good movie out there based in one of his books, The constant gardener, I enjoyed it a lot.
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