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. 

21 thoughts on “What Do We Mean by “Literary”?

  1. My immediate thought when I think of “literary” is anything classic, which is the genre that I tend to read the most of nowadays due to my uni coursework. This is a really interesting post!!

  2. I agree, something literary is not just engaging reading. There’s a timelessness to it even though it’s set in a certain time. You can read literature over and over and continue to gain from it, rather than just getting the plot and then being done. Les Mis is tied with A Tale of Two Cities for my favorite novel.

      1. Not really – it’s incidental that they both happen to be French. I had tried Tale of Two Cities a number of times and set it aside before I finally persevered and finished it, but when I did, I immediately reread it. There’s such depth and humanness and so many layers in both stories.

  3. I’ve always struggled with trying to categorize which books are “literary” and which are not. Usually I just ask myself if my coworker Jenny would like a book and, if so, it must be literary. But your definition is probably much more useful 🙂 I read a wide variety: classics, YA, romance, horror, nonfiction, and I agree that we get different things out of different kinds of books. As much as I admire people who only read one category – and read it deeply and thoroughly and are experts on it – I think it would drive me mad. I love the great variety of books out there!

  4. I am a fantasy, classic, and mystery reader. I have this thing with classics: read them in a limited amount of time: that gives me the motivation to never keep and actually finish them.

    Classics may be challenging, but worth it. So far, I have read Tale of Two Cities, Great Expectations, Oliver Twist, Don Quixote, and Les Misérables. Now reading Hunchback of Notre Dame. Planning to read more in the future.

    As for mysteries, love Agatha Christie.

    Fantasy love books like the Harry Potter series, Narnia series, Lord of the Rings series and stand alone books.

  5. Just the other day, in response to the question ‘What do you read?”, I answered, rather hesitantly, “literature”. It can sound pompous I guess but it sort of covers what I read. I don’t follow genres although I may read isolated books that are considered genre writing. I’m not really sure how to classify literature but I would put the emphasis on ‘substance’ which should include most of what I consider literature even the more humorous works.

    I don’t like the emphasis put on timelessness as it gives more weight to a book just because of its age. Consider a book that was written two hundred years ago that was covering serious, weighty subjects relevant to its time but is unread (maybe even unreadable) today; it is surely not timeless but it sounds like literature to me. I don’t see why a work of literature necessarily has to be relevant to, and liked by, different generations.

      1. Yes, sometimes books get called a classic, usually by the publisher, when they really just mean it’s old.

        I wonder what we should call a new book that we suspect will be considered a classic in years to come?

      2. This is pretty much the idea behind my website: “classics” are overrated. There are innumerable old books that are amazing for no other reason than they evoke a completely different time and place; why read a 19th century history of France (Michelet), or a 18th century musical travelogue (Burney)? Is it a classic? No, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t incredibly interesting.

  6. I hate to be the “I know it when I read it” person, but well…

    No, the truth is literary fiction, for me, tends to be more character-driven and use more poetic prose (for lack of a better way to put it). I mostly read YA and many of my favorite YA novels are literary fiction, especially stuff by Sara Zarr or Rainbow Rowell or John Green. And, of course, just because something is considered genre fiction doesn’t mean it isn’t also literary. N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season comes to mind.

    I know what you mean about impact, but I often think of it more stylistically than anything else.

    1. Yes, style can definitely play a part. I don’t know that style alone would do it for me, though. Style without substance seems like a fun exercise in artistic creation, but I also want the expression. What does it mean AND how well is it delivered.

  7. Another part of the definition of literature is that you can get something out of it each time you read it. There’s really no such thing as a “spoiler” for literature–the pleasure is still there, and you’re a slightly different person each time you read it, so you get something more out of it.

    1. Absolutely. I think I re-read 12 books this year, and those I would call “literature” and/or “classic” certainly felt more substantial (worth the time?). I think this is what helps me argue that the Harry Potter series is a contemporary classic. 🙂

  8. For me literary works are those which tend to be more character based than plot driven ( hence like you I wouldn’t include romance or crime). But that distinction isn’t enough – a literary work I think has to have something to say – about society or human nature for example – and to do so in a way that makes you pause and reflect. The example you give does all three things extremely well.

  9. I agree with what’s been said. I think it’s useful to contrast, say, “scientific history” from the 19th century “picturesque” historians: the former is focused on an objective recitation of the facts, whereas the latter seeks to advance arguments about historical personages and places, treating them almost like literary characters. I think the literary writer always has an agenda, an effect they are trying to achieve, however well they mask it.

  10. I agree with you and even though I love mysteries a ton, I try to mix as much literary novels as I can in between the lighter reads. I don’t have a definition per se, but I’ve found that books from the Man Booker reading list satisfy my need for something thought-provoking and substantial.

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