Friday, April 4, 2008

Li - tra - cha . . . or . . . lit tah rare eeee . . . what is it?

By Lonnie Cruse

There is usually an ongoing discussion (or war of words) by readers on book discussion lists as to what constitutes literature or makes a book "literary. " Works by Jane Austin, and, of course, our literary "father," E. A. Poe, are generally considered to be great writers of literature. But what about modern day books? With so many types of books, mystery, romance, western, general fiction, etc, not to mention all the sub-genres (just in mystery there is hard boiled, cozy, etc, and cozy is broken down into lots of sub-sub categories like gardening, sewing, cooking, sigh) what constitutes literature? And who writes it?

Frankly I don't have a clue. Do you? But I would think it would be books that could stand the test of time. Books so well written that they stay with us for a very long time, shelved where we can behold them with our eyes as we dust, or remember the stories in our minds.

Shirley Jackson is one of those authors for me. Dead and buried in the mid-Sixties, Jackson's short story, THE LOTTERY is still taught in colleges across the country as an example of how it's done. Done well. I read her book, WE HAVE ALWAYS LIVED IN THE CASTLE, twice just to be sure I didn't miss anything. Wow.

Jackson "apparently" had mental and/or emotional problems and I sometimes wonder if those supposed problems allowed her to write as bravely as she did, ALWAYS surprising me at the end, no matter how well I thought I'd come to know her style, because she seemed to have no self-imposed barriers. No, she didn't write graphic sex, violence, or language. I mean barriers to what happened to her characters or where she took them . . . and took the reader.

So, what's your idea of great literature? What constitutes literary for you? For me it's a book that is still loved and read whether it's decades or centuries after it was first written. Or months.

Modern day? ANY author whose story sticks with me after I've read the words THE END, put the book away, and I find myself thinking about the story and the characters while I make the bed or stir supper. Wondering if there will be another in the series, and where the characters will go from there. Wondering if I can wait that long or if I should go camp on the author's door step until she/he passes me a print-out through the door to read. A REAL advance reader's copy. Hmmm, wonder if Barbara D'Amato is at home today? Bill Crider? Donna Andrews? Just three of my all-time faves. Tony Hillerman? Nah, he'd likely call the Tribal Police on me. Hmmm. Anne Perry lives in England and I don't have enough frequent flyer miles. Newbie Tasha Alexander is just south of me in Nashville.

'Scuse me, I've gotta go pack. Thanks for stopping by. Think I'll just peek out my living room window and see if anyone is sitting on MY front porch.


Anonymous said...

You pose the question: What is great literature? Instead of giving my opinion of what does fall into that category, I will say what I think does not. That would be all of the "graphic novels" that are now coming onto library bookshelves, particularly in the juvenile and young adult sections. They are focused at this age group to get them interested in reading. I occasionally substitute in our local junior high's resource center (library), and I am amazed to see classics by Shakespeare and other authors who have stood the test of time converted into a graphic novel. Each month more of these tomes, which resemble comic books, appear on the shelves because the students like them and will read them. I have always encouraged my two teens from an early age to read all types of books, including comics. However, I think we are wrong to try to replace a true literary classic with a copy that has graphic illustrations and conversations in bubbles coming out of the characters' mouths...just for the sake of being able to say that after reading it a student now knows the content of a classic. Might as well give them a copy of Cliff Notes!
And now I will step off my soap box.
Mary Beth

Darlene Ryan said...

The word "literature" makes me think Dead Author. I think of books like To Kill a Mockingbird, wonderful books that are still being enjoyed so many years after they were first published. I can think of several authors whose books I can't wait to read when they come out, but I'm going to have to get a lot grayer and wrinkly before I can deem them "literature."

Bill Crider said...

I have a Ph. D. in English, and I'm not sure what literature is.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

I remember how puzzled I was when I first began to notice bookstores labeling separate shelves "fiction" and "literature." I think it's an artificial distinction, as is "novel" and "literary novel," a term that if I'm not mistaken was invented for the use of rapidly proliferating MFA programs. These distinctions academize (if that wasn't a word, I've just created it)the telling of stories in writing, which imho ought to be tough, immediate, and genuine.

Anonymous said...

So much great literature exists. I agree with Mary Beth as a former librarian and teacher, there is a definite dumbing down in what teens are reading these days both for school as well as for pleasure, and that is depressing. They read what they have to read for schoolwork but few read anything complex for enjoyment.

Jacqueline Seewald
Five Star/Gale