I first started this literature blog to run in parallel with my AP students. I had assigned them to blog twice a week and I also posted twice a week to prove to them that it was possible. I then realized that posting twice a week was unsustainable for these students, both in terms of their schedules and the quality of their writing. AP students were failing my class because they were either not blogging or their blog posts were so lackluster that they were losing massive points. This year, I decided to take a step back with my AP students and only have them blog once a week. I have found that a greater percentage of students actually complete each assignment and the quality of these blog posts is much better. I feel like I have found a happy balance with them, but I am still blogging twice a week. Often I don't have anything important to blog about so I find the latest Linebreak poem and compose some contrived, short analysis of it to fill in a slot. So, I am pulling back on my own schedule as well. I will only be blogging once a week. It will either come out on Tuesday or Thursday and I am hoping that they will be of more substance.
What is Literature?
This week we return to this question. If Bob Dylan can be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature than what is literature? I read the article entitled What is Literature by Terry Eagleton, which was cited in the PBS Idea Channel video. It acts as the Introduction to his book Literary Theory. He writes in a very round-about way, and it takes a long time before Eagleton actually comes to any sort of conclusion. But this rhetorical method is necessary because it makes his final point that much more powerful. He takes us on a journey through all of the possible answers to, in the end, strengthens his final answer.
He begins by stating that some define it as "'imaginative' writing in the sense of fiction--writing which is not literally true." But as he goes on to assert, and as I do as well, there are plenty of pieces of writing that are considered "literature" which are not fiction. I doubt that anyone would argue that Martin Luther King Jr. I have a Dream or Letter from Birmingham Jail must be kept out of the literary canon because they are non-fiction rather than fiction. So, "literature" cannot be defined by the genre of writing.
He then goes into a different direction entirely. Eagleton continues, "Perhaps literature is definable not according to whether it is fictional or 'imaginative', but because it uses language in peculiar ways." And he quotes from Russian critic Roman Jakobson, which is a marvelous turn of phrase, "[writing that represents] an organized violence committed on ordinary speech." I absolutely love that idea and in my case, this is probably where I would tend to lean in this whole what is literature question. When I think of "literature" I think of those authors that can spin a sentence in a way so that it become drop dead gorgeous. I'm talking about your Joyce and Fitzgerald and Faulkner and McCarthy and Morrison and the list could go on. These are writers that are such masters of their craft that they can astound us with their writing acrobatics. But you notice that I didn't include Shakespeare in that list and I probably should have. This is the problem in thinking this way; it is totally subjective. I might totally love Faulkner ability to "commit violence on ordinary speech" and another person might not think Faulkner is very good at that--he is simply breaking rules for no reason. Later in the essay he calls this idea "linguistic violence," which I think is a marvelous phrase as well. But, like I said, not solid ground for our definition of "literature."
Eagleton also suggests that maybe "literature" is more about what it demands of the reader, "what people do to [the] writing as of what writing does to them." I have often found that books that I would consider "literary" require more of me as a reader. Shakespeare certainly does. I read Shakespeare differently than I would a George R. R. Martin novel--pen and highlighter at the reader, notes in the margins, looking up words and ideas. To some extent, I agree with this idea too. "Literature" demands more of us. If we are going to get the most out of a difficult text we need to really dig deep and study it. Often these books, the ones that we put the most effort into, become our favorite. But, on the flip side, some people might argue that they could, or have, done the same thing with a Harry Potter novel; something that I would not consider "literature." And thus, we must move on.
In the end, Eagleton, finally comes to the idea "that literature cannot in fact be 'objectively' defined. It leaves the definition of literature up to how somebody decides to read, not the nature of what is written. [...] It is true that many of the works studied as literature in academicinstitutionss were 'constructed' to be read as literature, but it is also true that many of them were not." I can think of many books that were not originally written to be studied in classrooms. John Green's novels come to mind. They have achieved commercial success and now are being thrust into the hands of high schoolers and studied. As Eagleton states, "Some texts are born literary, some achieve literariness, and some have literariness thrust upon them." I would like to add to this, though, just for my own personal definition of "literature." I agree that literature cannot be defined, but I also believe that you know literature when you read it. Now, of course, that means that personal preference must come into play, and I'm okay with that. At the end of the essay Eagleton states, "Anything can be literature." That's right folks, here we are. ANYTHING. And I guess that includes Bob Dylan lyrics. As much as I want to balk at that statement and stick my nose in the air, Bob Dylan can be "literature."