Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Does Literature Exist? Part 2

The telling of stories has enormously important effects on the society they are told to, and for this reason, a society which has reached a certain level of sophistication will produce people who will consciously analyse the stories, the people who tell them, the processes by which those people are chosen and the effects that their stories have. This is an important part of understanding our selves, and literate societies with a leisured class have tended to produce people to analyse them.

But is that what European and US teachers of literature do? What is the object of their study?

If we look at the motives of those who analyse stories and the telling...

Teachers of literature, literary critics and the like, the analysers of stories, do not take as the object of their study the stories whose purpose is overtly social, the religious texts, creation myths, foundation legends, campfire tales, newspaper articles. All of these are studied, but not by those who claim to deal with literature. Professors of English or European literature are almost exclusively concerned with stories that were not told for any of the important social reasons, and which might have had important social effects, but with texts written for money and as exercises in language. This suggests that the people who make it their business to study a thing they call literature think of it as a very specific kind of storytelling, done for personal, not social reasons, with limited social impact and with a form and a complexity that raise them above the simpler stories. I think to be considered literature a story must satisfy certain criteria for being considered art.

It is not unreasonable that these analysts should be attracted to the better crafted, more difficult tales, and, although the motivation for literature as they study it is not social, they usually like the teller to be socially interesting, and the story to have social complexity. It appears, therefore, that we may tentatively conclude that those who study literature consider literature to be those stories which are non-trivial comments on a society, rather than a part of that society. In that sense, there is such a thing as literature, because it can be defined in a way that makes sense.


Vincent said...

This post (as opposed to Part 3, which I read first) does make a lot of sense, though I may not agree with all of it.

Speaking as devil's advocate for the teachers of literature etc, I'd say that their objective is to open the eyes of others (1) to literature as an art form in which it is necessary to point out excellence (its presence and absence) (2) to literature's role in today's society.

Setting aside the historical roots of literatures (e.g. Epic of Gilgamesh, Beowulf, Sire Gawain & the Green Knight) I think it is right that literature courses should be pruned. Should Mark Twain or George Eliot be taught? It depends if they have to say anything to us today. When I was at school I read Sir Walter Scott's Quentin Durward as a set book; much of Tennyson too, and Milton's Samson Agonistes (at A-level). I think these may have gone off the horizon today, except for more advanced and specialised students.

There has to be a relevance filter, don't you think?

CIngram said...

As a description of what teachers of literature should be doing (and often do do- a good friend of mine is Professor of Spanish Literature at the University here, and that is precisely how he understands his role, but he has to argue regularly with colleagues who see it differently, and I have to deal with the work of many so-called literary theorists who are only interested in articulating their own prejudices*) I think you are quite right.

The Odyssey, the Mahabharata and Beowulf are collections of founding legends, but they are also undoubtedly literature, in that they are beautifully crafted, both metrically and narratively; but is the same true of the Tale of Sinhue, or Gilgamesh, or the Old Testament, which are studied more for their social impact than for their artistic quality?

You mention Mark Twain. His importance to the history of literature is that he was one of the first authentically American voices (that's the way it's told, anyway) but the later Tom Sawyer books, a Connecticut Yankee and a few others, are just tales told to make money, and are not literary novels by any standard.

Dickens is considered by many (though not by either of us, as we established recently) to be the greatest English novelist, yet he wrote for money at so many thousand words per month and structured many of his works according to the space the editor required him to fill. The results may be good but he was not primarily concerned with doing art through the written word.

*In part 4 I sort of address this.