What Do We Mean by “Literary”?
Here’s a question that comes up all the time: How do you know a work is “literary;” or, the even more common, “what is literature”?
As someone who has a difficult time narrowing things down to a “favorite” book, I admit that I find this question about defining or explaining the “literary” genre a bit difficult! But, thinking about the question in relation to a particular example might help.
I first have to expand on my own definition of literary, as it is something that comes up on my blog/twitter often, with the argument often being that “literary” or reading “literature” applies to anyone who reads lots of books. This is just not the case. I am sorry if that sounds snobbish, but it’s true. One who reads hundreds of books a year might rightly be considered bookish, but if these books are mainly* YA-Level, romance novels, erotica, etc., then, no, that, in my opinion, is not literary reading.
I would define a work of literature, in general, as something that has lasting or permanent literary and social/political/theological, etc. impact. It could be works, like those of Edgar Allan Poe and Wilkie Collins, that revolutionized a genre (here, the detective story and the mystery genre, respectively). It could be a stand-alone work, like Vanity Fair which, read now, might make one wonder “hm..this is a classic because…?” but which, upon deeper contextual study, is discovered to have been a landmark in terms of prose, execution, or other groundbreaking change to the elements of fiction. The point is, a literary work must have a larger impact on the “literary” world, and it must stand the test of time. Books that have been published within the last 10 years might qualify as literary, because we anticipate that they will last for generations to come and because they are, in some way, a “first” for literature (like Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides).
So, all that being said, which novel can I pick in order to discuss this idea of “literary merits”? Well, I think I must go with Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables. Hugo wrote Les Miserables following the French Revolution, and after his exile to Guernsey (after calling Napoleon a traitor to France). The novel itself spans 20 years in the life of its unusual protagonist, Jean Valjean, but it tells, through flashbacks and historical segues, much more of French history and culture than could be contained in 20 years.
The novel is lengthy, though this has nothing to do with literary merit (some say it is more difficult to write a perfect short book than a perfect long one); however, in this case, it certainly helps that the book is hefty, because it tackles so much: politics and war, religion, and the nature of “family.” Hugo also expounds on elements of moral philosophy; how is a thief a thief, if he thieves only to feed his family? How does a policeman arrest the man responsible for saving his life? These complex morality arguments and the historical nature of the book are what make it socially and academically significant, and thereby will likely seal a place for this book in literary discussion for all time. It is an interesting and sometimes exciting story, but that on its own does not qualify the book as literature. What makes it literature are the many deeper elements that touch upon human nature and that ask the reader to take a look at life and his/her place in it, then ask, “what shall I do with this information?”
From my original (short) review of the book:
Victor Hugo’s achievement with Les Miserables is stunning and breath-taking. Not only is the story superb, realistic, and moving, but it is complemented by aspects of French philosophy, history, and politics. When beginning this novel, I had no idea that I would be exposed to, and learn so much about, French history and culture. Napoleon Bonaparte, Waterloo, Louis VIII, the Guillotine, European relations, the gamins, prisons, crime and punishment, religion, morality; all of this is examined with a literary microscope. Meanwhile, love, poetry, song, revolution, family, and society are all exposed to the scrutiny of an expelled patriot. The story of Jean Valjean is heartbreaking and vindicating. Cosette and Marius, lovers despite the odds. Javert, the intensely dutiful (to a fault) inspector, and his tragic revelations. Gavroche, the beautiful underprivileged. Fantine, the lost and compromised woman, taken advantage of while trying to care for her daughter. Eponine, Fauchelevent, the Nuns, the Gillenormands, all minor but telling characters that are described incredibly and delicately by Hugo. What most impressed me is how Hugo described the history and purpose of each detail, to demonstrate it’s importance. Chapters of the novel are devoted to explaining seemingly insignificant points of detail, such as the prisons, the chain gangs, the slang language, all of which come into play during the story, but become active and live characters on their own merits because of Hugo’s attention to them. I cannot say enough about this novel – it is truly a masterpiece.
So, what about you? Do you select your reading according to type or genre? Do you tend to read mostly from one particular style? Do you find a distinction between literary and non-literary works? And, if so, do you have a preference for one or the other? What do you think compels you toward the books you do read?
*Note: I think reading widely and eclectically, whatever the type and genre, also has its benefits. I’m not knocking any particular reading choice — I think that’s a rather silly thing to do. My argument is simply that, when we use the term “literary” or “literature,” we should be thinking about context. I might want something from my romance reading, and something else from my comics, and still something else from my horror. I don’t particularly look for the “literary” in those texts, but that doesn’t mean they’re not fun, interesting, and valuable experiences.