February 11, 2007

What is Literary?

No Great Mischief

I know that a lot of us often walk by the top-ten bestseller lists in supermarkets and cringe. We roll our eyes at stories of sordid affairs between wealthy octogenarians and well-muscled pool boys, thumb our noses at yet another supernatural thriller about demon possession. Of course, from time to time when no one is looking, we’ll grab one of these little brain-candy pieces and read them while we hide downstairs in the den with a flashlight held between our teeth and a blanket over our heads. But we would prefer to be known for our exquisite taste in literature (like the Macleod book pictured here... absolutely brilliant), our wealth of knowledge about Steinbeck, Faulkner, Thoreau and the multitude of other greats Oprah has unfortunately claimed as her own. We consider them to be “literary” greats, genius scribes in a kingdom of hacks. But what does it mean for an author's writing to be “literary”?

This question gets asked all the time and the answer is more difficult to come to than you would think. I attended a seminar at a writing conference a few years ago that posed this question of literary value and everyone seemed to have their own opinion. For some, it was an indication of something that had stood the test of time, a classic like
Crime and Punishment or The Age of Innocence. For others, it was word choice: the author’s painstaking measures to craft the perfect sentence. Still others said it was those books that garnered critical acclaim.

It’s perplexing that such a simple word has such a complicated definition, maybe no clear definition at all. I discussed this with a poet friend of mine once and she made the rather intelligent observation that the term had become ambiguous. It may not have started out that way historically, but now the word is used in so many different scenarios it cannot possibly retain a clear, decisive meaning.
She may be right. The definitions mentioned before cannot stand on their own accord. We cannot place all classics along the same gradient. Clearly what Dostoevsky did was monumentally different from Dickens, or Edgar Allen Poe. Likewise, some authors have different skills at morphing words into images (compare
Alistair Macleod to Rohinton Mistry). And, of course we all know that critical acclaim is in the eye of the beholder. There are enough awards to go around for everyone, and what one considers prestigious, another may find laughable. And yet these authors have a vast number of readers, and their books are almost sacrosanct.

So, what then do we use as our barometer for literary value? In my mind it is likely a combination of all the mentioned definitions plus some personal taste. I’ve always said that our approach to literature, film, painting, illustrations etc. is similar to wine tasting. When starting off, you go for what is sweet, what tastes good to you. But as time goes by, and your palette develops you begin to notice complexities to what you drink, subtle flavours or influences. Art, in kind, also grows to become something more than sweet entertainment. Embedded in its subtleties lie truths about human nature, relationships, the earth and how everything interacts. In other words, the term “literary” is a blend of certain poetic qualities and nuances but also a reflection of someone’s own artistic journey, the ability to empirically detect more than what appears at the surface and to feel the weight of words.

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