What Is Literature

In last week’s review of The Second Apocalypse, I made the claim that these books are not just entertaining, but also great works of literature. Literature is a fuzzy term with all sort of different possible definitions, so let me explain what I meant by the term and how something as supposedly lowbrow as a series of fantasy novels falls under that lofty label.

There are two primary ways of enjoying written fiction. The first is the pleasure of experiencing a good story, of cheering on your favourite characters, trying to guess where the story will go, being surprised about plot twists, and so on. The second is the pleasure derived from thinking about a story, analysing its plot, characters, setting, and themes, considering the philosophical, political, and ideological statements made implicitly or explicitly in the text, and asking ourselves what we can learn from it. In short, how much you enjoy reading a text versus how much you enjoy having read it. I propose that literature should be regarded as those works of fiction that score high in the second category.

Literature is books that you still think about many years after you’ve first read them. Great literature is books you feel compelled to re-read several times and where you discover many new things on each re-read. Note that this definition is subjective: books that you like to think about and re-read may not be the same books that I like to think about and re-read. I think this is a feature, not a bug. Any discussion about aesthetics has to be ultimately grounded in personal preferences.

Unlike many other attempts to define literature, my definition doesn’t say anything about language. While it is true that great works of literature often distinguish themselves by their beautiful prose, I think it would be wrong to consider that a defining feature. After all, elegance of style often does not survive translation, but the great works of literature are frequently consumed in translated form. Nor do very many people care to read a book simply to enjoy aesthetically pleasing sentences. They read for the two reasons described above, and aesthetically pleasing prose is just one of many factors that make a book enjoyable to read and to having been read.

An important aspect of a literary work is the plot, the characters, and the setting being believable and consistent. This is a necessary condition for meaningful discussion and deep thought about the work. In The Scarlet Letter, it makes sense to ask why Hester Prynne does not leave New England for Virginia, Britain, or anywhere else where she isn’t known as an adulteress. The text gives us some indication for why she remains and we can come up with plausible theories to explain her behaviour. In the Harry Potter series, on the other hand, it does not make sense to ask why no one exploits the fixed exchange rates between copper, silver, and gold offered by Gringotts Wizarding Bank to become rich through arbitrage. The answer simply is that the author hadn’t considered that possibility.

The Scarlet Letter is a good example of a book that scores high on enjoyment from heaving read it. Not only does it offer us an unfamiliar but believable and consistent setting, it also explores many important themes and invites readers to think about the story long after they’ve finished the novel. Harry Potter may be more enjoyable while you’re reading it, but once you put the books down and think about the plot or the setting, things quickly fall apart. Why haven’t all wizards who lack moral scruples become fantastically wealthy by robbing unsuspecting muggles? Why do pupils from all over Britain travel to London to take a train to a school in Scotland instead of just teleporting? Why did Dumbledore, who’s supposed to be the greatest wizard alive, hire Quirrell as a teacher without realising that he’s possessed by Voldemort, even though he literally has Voldemort’s face on the back of his head? So many questions, and no sensible answers in sight.

But do not let these examples fool you into thinking that “genre fiction” cannot be literary. In the fantasy genre in particular, there are undoubtedly many works which are little more than mindless fun with little literary meat to it (not that there’s anything wrong with that – I have enjoyed a number of such books, including the Harry Potter books mentioned above). However, especially over the last two decades, many fantasy works of serious literary merit have been produced. Aside from Bakker’s The Second Apocalypse mentioned above, examples include George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen, Joe Abercrombie’s The First Law, and Jacqueline Carey’s The Sundering.

Nor should it surprise us that there are many literary works of fantasy. After all, such great classics of world literature as Homer’s Iliad, Dante’s Divine Comedy, Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Goethe’s Faust would be classified as fantasy, were they to appear today. And of course there is no reason at all why fantastical settings should be unsuitable to serious literature. While a realistic setting is more relatable and facilitates sociological and political observations and commentary, fantasy can more easily isolate certain factors and set up the literary equivalent of controlled experiments. Fantasy is much more suitable to asking questions like: What if Hell is real? Exploring a question like this in a realistic setting is bound to be hampered by the beliefs of non-religious readers (or more precisely, readers who do not believe in Hell), who may empathise with a character who fears eternal damnation, but will probably regard those fears as nothing but superstition.

If fantasy is suitable for literature in the sense I’m using the term here, science fiction is made for it. Most science fiction stories are about working out the possible implications of some future technology or social, economic, or political development, which naturally lends itself to considering weighty questions. And indeed, some SF works, such as George Orwell’s 1984 and Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five are widely considered part of the literary canon. However, these are books by “literary writers,” not by writers who saw themselves or were widely perceived as being SF writers. And while much science fiction essentially consists of an adventure story with explosions in space, set against a backdrop of sci-fi tropes, there are many SF writers who have produced what I would consider serious literature. Take for example Robert A. Heinlein, who in novels like Stranger in a Strange Land, Starship Troopers, and The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress takes on a multitude of serious moral, political, social, and economic questions. Nor is this limited to Heinlein or the “Golden Age of Science Fiction“. I challenge anyone to read a novel like Dan Simmons’ Hyperion and tell me it has not literary value.

The same exercise can no doubt be performed for other “lowbrow” genres such as thrillers or romance novels, but I am not familar enough with those genres to select suitable examples. My point is that serious literature need not be about a woman looking out the window and thinking about her childhood and her difficult relationship with her father. Serious literature does not need to be obscure and complicated to the point where you need secondary literature to understand it. If your definition of serious literature excludes works with a fun and exciting plot, or works that are popular with the masses, then I would suggest that there’s something wrong with your definition. Unless, that is, you are also willing to exclude such popular writers as Dante, Shakespeare, and Goethe from the literary canon.

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