Monday, January 05, 2004

Know what books qualify as Literature

Statesman Journal
January 4, 2004

What is Literature?

Yes, Literature is a purposefully capitalized word. That capital “L” sets it aside from other meanings of the word. You have, for example, the literature of quarks. And you have English Literature.

So Literature is the written heritage of a language or an ethnic group, right? Well — here’s a good question to help you begin to understand: Is J. K. Rowling Literature?


Literature is the complex, meaningful writing of a language or of an ethnic group. While it entertains and instructs, its primary purpose is to enrich lives, to foster and encourage speculation and thought. It reveals the truth about an era in the history of its creators. Its primary purpose is artistry.

By that standard, Raymond Chandler’s mystery stories are Literature — they make a statement about American society in his time. But the roughly contemporaneous mysteries of Ellery Queen aren’t literature because they do not make such an analysis or statement.

This is not to say you cannot read Chandler for fun — but you will get something more from Chandler than you will from Mickey Spillane. Spillane is fun — probably much more fun than Chandler (as is Queen). But he does not have anything much to say about American society and doesn’t claim he ever did.

Queen and Spillane have a place in the literature of America’s 20th century, but they are not Literature.

Neither is Rowling. “Harry Potter” has nothing to say about England or the rest of the world in the end of the 20th century or the first of the 21st century.

Now look at Stephen King.

Recently, a lot of people resented the fact that he received a lifetime achievement award at the National Book Awards. They know those awards are reserved for Literature, not popular literature.

King felt receiving the award was important enough to risk his health. He went and gave his speech even though he was getting pneumonia. He was that determined to let people know that Literature sometimes is something different than they think it is.

When the analysis of King’s work is made after he no longer is with us, there are several of his books that will make the Literature list — even though they made a lot of money. A couple of those include “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption” and “Bag of Bones.” Their depth of expression and classic themes put them in the Literature class.

Being literature instead of Literature is not a bad thing. It’s just a different thing.

Let’s face it: Danielle Steele and Anne Rice never will be the likes of Joyce Carol Oates or Margaret Atwood. They outsell them, but they will not outlast them. Because Literature lasts.

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