Thinking About Literature
Over the past week or so, Brian Murphy over at Black Gate’s website has explored rather or not Tolkien’s work can be considered literature. Personally, I consider the whole matter closed. Obviously Tolkien’s work is literature. But, of course the real question is whether or not it is Literature, a member of that not so illustrious shibboleth called the Canon. In that too, I would have to say, for better or worse, that it is a member (maybe of the red headed step child variety). To me, the whole concept of Literature is both silly and outdated.
For me, literature is any form of written communication, from Omeros to the side of the cereal box. If it is words and letters printed on paper, stone, clay, etc., it is literature. The argument, however, lies in differentiating the great works from the rubbish and middling works in literature for entertainment.
So, why is there a distinction? The rise of a print culture, the increase in reading, and the formation of a critical class whose only occupation is to separate literature into categories. As more books are printed, more stories published, and more people read; critics take it upon themselves to educate the public as to what they should read and what they should not (not that readers always follow their advice).
Genre (namely fantasy and science fiction) come into this as being one/two of the genres that are by and large historically unacceptable. Since the beginning of the mass reading culture, the literature that has been most favored critically has been those works depicting the lives of the middle classes, the dominant cultural force in the nineteenth century. What is realism but explorations into the lives of middle class folk (or the wealthy and occasionally the lower classes)? This is the favored form because it so often reflects their values.
While that form of literature has been favored and promoted, often times only the best examples remain. It is more likely that avant garde works (though still within that framework of realism) become those that are remembered. Of course, this describes what one should be reading, not necessarily what people do read.
Since the postmoderns, things have changed. Genre works are becoming more popular with the gate keepers because the scholarly focus is on what most people of the period have read rather than what critics believe they should read. Now, this leads to some wonderful works of literature like Lady Audley’s Secret and some real terrors like The Bondswoman’s Narrative or Margery Kemp. This also leads to a greater appreciation for genre as the inherent bias within the critic, either popular or scholarly, recognizes and struggles to drop it.
All of this, however, does not touch upon quality. What is meant by quality: the skill of the writing, the perfection of imagery? I would say one knows it when one sees it. However, it is also true that no work is ever perfect, not Tolkien, not Howard, not Smith, and not Shakespeare.
Whether or not a work stands the test of time is uncertain. It depends on a number of factors that may or may not depend upon the quality of the work itself. Often times works that we today consider part of the Canon were forgotten in their time (think Moby Dick). Some works in the Canon of previous eras have fallen out or lowered in the standings. Believe it or not, at one point T.S. Eliot was the paramount American poet of the early twentieth century, but William Carlos Williams has effectively usurped his position for several decades now.
All of this is just to show that the whole notion of a Canon of the Great Works of Literature is mutable and subject to the whims of chance, spite, and changing cultural mores. Who gets in and who doesn’t is determined not by the quality but by factors that can be seen as cultural and political. Does Tolkien have a place? Yes, he does. Will he keep it? Who knows. Does Howard have a place? Yes, he does. Will he keep it? Who knows. I can go on and on.
As I postscript, Ursula K. LeGuin has a great post dealing with the Great American Novel over at Book Cafe.