Monday, August 8, 2011

Does Literature Exist? Part 1

Is there such a thing as literature, a thing distinct from the writing and telling of stories? Is it a degree of interest, of quality, of complexity, or the role that a story has, which converts it into literature? Is it simply the fact that someone is moved to study it in a way that was not originally intended, that makes it literature? Is there a thing which we can call literature and whose analysis is worth turning into an object of intellectual study? And paying people to do it? And taking seriously what they say?

If we look at the origins of story-telling...

Story-telling is common to all human societies. All human beings, everywhere in the world, even the most primitive, un-contacted hunter-gatherers, live in a conceptual world entirely of their own making. Our social behaviour is not instinctive, like that of monkeys, but has been created by us, and by generations of our forebears. We make it collectively, through stories, and we understand it and transmit it through stories. Stories are used by all societies to explain their origins and their structure, to justify their beliefs and their hierarchies, their moral codes and manners, to entertain and to reinforce the authority of the teller, to control the thoughts and acts of the listener, to strengthen their sense of their place in the world, and to reduce their fear of their weakness and mortality. In all societies, there are authorised story-tellers, who must be listened to, and the unauthorised, who are seen as liars.

These things are done in different ways in different societies and within different sub-groups of larger or more complex societies, but the reasons, the motivations are the same. The right to tell stories is an important one. It is the right to create truths about the society itself.

In this sense literature is just another word for story, or perhaps for a culture of stories, and has no useful meaning of its own.


Vincent said...

Your question is redundant. As Wittgenstein observed, the meaning of a word is its use in the language. The word "literature" has many meanings, according to context, and I am not aware of any issue with those meanings.

Ask at any bookshop what is the difference between literary fiction and other genres of fiction. they won't even bother with a definition. They will show your their shelves of literary fiction, such as Martin Amis, Saul Bellow, John Updike, Iris Murdoch & so on.

In like manner I have on my shelves an eclectic variety of books, both fiction and non-fiction. If you asked me to, I would quickly be able to classify them into literature and something else (trash, pulp, pot-boilers? I don't have a word, I don't need it).

Literature is what I want to write and what I want to read. I could give my own definition, and my criteria for inclusion and exclusion would differ from yours or the next person.

But there's no need. The word is useful, no doubt about it. Perhaps not to everyone, but that doesn't matter.

CIngram said...

I know what literature means to me. This little series (it will be a series) of posts is an enquiry as to what it means in a variety of contexts. In the specific context of the story-telling instinct I don't think it is a useful distinction, or one that is even made. If 'literature' means anything in that context it refers to tribal legends that have lasted long enough to be written down by someone. In that sense it can be a useful term, but an academic one, and I wasn't looking at the situation academically.