Friday, April 04, 2008


poses a question urgently in need of an answer: What is literature?

One of you highbrows ought to be able to help her out.

Update: God. I forgot the link. I meant for you guys to do it at her place.


alaiyo said...

Well, that's not a big question to answer urgently! And any answer given will be subject to all kinds of refutation . . . But here's my stab at it, early in the morning with classes to prepare for:

First, I'm going to limit my answer to written work, though there is a tradition of oral literature, and I am assuming that "literature" is that creative work which lasts over time, usually fiction, poetry, drama, and creative kinds of non-fiction such as the essay, maybe some historical writing and non-fiction on topics of universal and timeless interest.

So. Literature is written work which speaks to us over time and place because it tells us something true about human nature. It embodies universal truths (truths about fallen man as well as truths about the possiblity of redemption) in a way that appeals to the imagination, that delights us with its artistry, that moves us to embrace its truth.

It is universal; thus, I can respond to its truth about human nature even if I have no personal experience of its cultural context (of course, I may need to educate myself to understand other contexts to fully understand the literature). It is timeless; thus, I can respond to its truth even if it was written centuries ago (again, maybe needing some historical education to understand its context). It is true: it shows us something real about human nature, fallen and/or redeemed.

That literature which limits itself to the truth of man's fallen nature can help us to see the horror of life without hope. The greatest literature, however, shows us the horror of man's fallen nature and the hope of redemption. What I would say is not "literature" by this definition is any work which makes no moral comment at all on our condition -- even literature which is not redemptive can show horror at the evil it portrays; it doesn't have to suggest that evil is not really evil or should not be somehow expunged or punished.

Percy Bysshe Shelley's "Defence of Poetry" and Edmund Spenser's "Defense of Poesy" are both very helpful in sorting this out ("poetry" is used in its broadest meaning of "creative literature" in both cases).

Traditionally, the purpose of literature is "to delight and to instruct" -- or, put a slightly different way, to instruct through the medium of delight. Instead of *telling* people what is good and evil, right and wrong, literature embodies these concepts in a form which draws the reader through its artistry and then it *shows* (NOT tells) the reader truth and *draws* him to it. This leaves out the "art for art's sake" movement, which allows aesthetic excellence to be the end all and be all of art, and thus justifies such things as technically "beautiful" pornography. BUT -- it does NOT mean that art must be didactic, either -- didactic writing is usually not artistic enough to qualify as "literature" because it preaches.

Well, that probably opens more questions than answers and it makes me want to keep qualifying and explaining -- but I don't have time! Books, of course, have been written on the subject. But if Terry would like to ask me about anything I've said here, she can email me at alaiyo52 @ (remove spaces) and I'd be glad to try to flesh this out a bit more.

(Credentials: Ph.D. in English and 20+ years teaching literature and composition at the college level, both secular and Christian institutions)

Well, that was a stimulating intellectual exercise to wake me up this morning! Now to finish grading grammar exams . . . :)

alaiyo said...

I see that I have not much addressed the "artistry" part of my definition, but it is vital, of course -- to be "literature" a work must be artistic; it must be aesthetically sound. I guess I tend to take that as a given, but it's not always assumed these days, it seems . . . A work which shows us truth but is poorly written at any level (poor plotting and characterization, or fractured grammar and syntax to force a meter or rhyme, etc.) is not literature by the description I have offered, because artistic excellence is part of what makes something literature. And I could go on about that for another long essay, but will refrain in the interest of getting anything else done today . . . :)


alaiyo said...

Okay, I really am going to stop -- but I meant to note that at Mere Comments there is a thread right now called "Evil in the Ordinary" in which commenters are discussing a movie which holds out no redemption and whether we should accept that as excellent art. Terry may find some of the discussion interesting.

Steven Riddle said...

Dear Mr. Luse,

Literature is an artificial construct devised by the pale p_nile patriarchy to confuse, oppress, and otherwise disenfranchise people of color, women, extraterrestrials, animals, and microbiota. Its sole purpose is a form of intellectual terrorism that will weed out the haves from the have-nots and inculcate and continuing world order of imperialism, capitalist hegemony, and patriarchal condescension. Anyone in disagreement obviously needs to reread their Paul de Man, Jacques Lacan, and Judith Butler.



TS said...

Ha, good to see Steven Riddle's fine sense of humor exhibited.

Richard Beach said...

At its most basic, literature is a juxtaposition of words.

Scrambobber said...

More important than what literature is, is how to pronounce the word. I prefer the British method as it saves a syllable.

William Luse said...

Maybe some of you would be kind enough to copy and paste your comments into Terry's post, following the link provided in the update. Senility coming on, I left it out of the original post.

At its most basic, literature is a juxtaposition of words.

So is text-messaging. TSO, set our friend straight on this.

And I see Steven Riddle's been reading the enemy. That's good, because we need to know him. the pale p_nile patriarchy. I'm going to steal that one for future use.

Alaiyo proves that the question cannot be answered briefly, but this: Literature is written work which speaks to us over time and place because it tells us something true about human nature. It embodies universal truths (truths about fallen man as well as truths about the possiblity of redemption) in a way that appeals to the imagination, that delights us with its artistry, that moves us to embrace its truth is what I would have written if I'd written it.

didactic writing is usually not artistic enough to qualify as "literature" because it preaches. So would you exclude, say, the sermons of Newman, Donne, etc.?

to be "literature" a work must be artistic; it must be aesthetically sound. This is the hardest part to talk about, what we call the craft. I could say plenty about it but don't have time.

Of interest would be an explication of why "technically beautiful pornography" does not meet the definition in the above- quoted paragraph. But I don't think I have time for that either. I'll leave it to Beth for now.

Lydia McGrew said...

I put my rather unintellectual comment over there.

TS said...

Bill, I'm impressed you remembered Richard Beach as "Ham of Bone" of Social Engineering fame. Any encroaching senility must be greatly exaggerated.

"Pale p_nile patriarchy" is indeed one for the ages. It precisely pegs the patronizing progressivism displayed by a plentitude of professors on this post-modern planet.

(An aside: Bone said that Alaiyo cut & pasted her reply from a dissertation she'd already written. I report, you decide.)

William Luse said...

How could I forget Ham? He liked my attempt at "literature", so I like him.

re all your p words: pretty appropos, without being petty or ponderous. In my opinion.

Alaiyo can cut and paste all she wants if it's that good.

Excuse me, I have to go read Lydia's unintellectual comment.

TS said...

I prefer that I'd used "paraded" instead of "displayed" in my p-fest.

William Luse said...

Paraded would certainly have proven to be preferable, even superior. In my personal opinion. Yours, precisely, since you profferred it prior to mine.

alaiyo said...

Since my dissertation was on classical and contemporary rhetoric, that's not really possible. Just for the record, I wrote the above in 15 or 20 minutes before starting my day of student conferences, without reference to anything except what I have been mulling over with colleagues and students for years. That, I would like to think, takes care of inconsistencies, infelicities, and not-fully-logical thoughts. When I write the book I'll have it all perfectly worked through and it will be the definitive word on literature. :)

But also for the record, who is Bone and how would he or she know if I *had* cut and pasted from my dissertation or anything else, since I have not revealed my full name here? I would be glad to do so if anyone wishes to email me at the address I gave above.

William Luse said...

Well, I certainly didn't think you'd cut and pasted. I could tell it had been written in 15 minutes or less. Hey, just kidding.

Don't worry about Bone. He's a friend of TSO's, as am I, which probably says something about us, but I figure he was just jealous that, after your comment, he had nothing to add.

alaiyo said...

Hmm, Bill, that's the kind of comment I get from my colleagues here . . . :) If I can find some time reasonably soon, I'll try to respond to a couple of your comments about what I wrote -- but I now have a set of those pesky research papers on my desk and students beginning to look at me a bit restively when I get to class . . .

I'll take the dissertation comment as a compliment, then. :) Though I hope my committee wouldn't have let me get away with some of that logic!

Mama_T said...

Wow! I've never been a headline before!

Thanks, Bill! And all the rest of you, too.

Oh, Steven, you made me spit diet Coke out of my mouth. Bad, bad boy!

Erik Keilholtz said...

"Literature" is a synonym for "what the cat leaves behind" in the following usage (you must supply the correct tone):

"No, you may not leave me your 'literature' and try not to trip over the attack crocodile on your way back to the sidewalk."


"Mormons, you say? I'll have you know that when I hear the word "literature" I undo the safety on my revolver."

Richard Beach said...

The dissertation comment was not intended as a compliment though it should certainly be taken as one (considering the relative merits of the complimentor and complimentee), but let me hasten to add: it was not intended as an insult. Instead, it was a subconscious admission made by me to a friend, motivated by the knowledge that I had nothing of value to add, in which the comparison of my submission, a paltry sentence arrived at by at least thirty minutes of painful effort, was lacking in both quality and quantity with respect to alaiyo's.

William Luse said...

Don't let the headline go to your head, Terry. It's like being buried in the classifieds of a metropolitan newspaper.

Keilholtz reminds of what a malleable word it is, often used to elevate what amounts to false advertising.

Richard, not only are you a friend of TSO's, sometimes you sound like him.