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So, somebody says, he reads books, and I read Literature.

I used the capital there deliberately.  All written work is literature, it’s just that some of it is bad.   But what the writer meant by Literature is what I think would have been called in my childhood  Great  Books, and that would definitely leave out various forays into genre madness, although it wouldn’t leave out everything in the genres altogether.

What interests me, though is the implication that some of the writers I mentioned–like Ann Beattie–must qualify as Literature.  I’m not sure what the qualifications of such writers would have to be, but I suspect that the criterion was something like “well written maybe but indescribably boring to read.”

And Mary was quite right, such books are not Literature, but Literary Fiction, which is a much different thing.  There’s a lot of literary fiction out there.  It sells badly, and the people who write it take great pride in the fact that it sells badly.  Some of it is very bad.   Some of it is very good.  All of it is essentially ephemeral.  When Jonathan Franzen’s novel The Corrections was chosen for Oprah’s book club, he complained it didn’t belong there, because he has always written in “the High Art tradition.”  A lot of literary writers think they write in the High  Art tradition.  Most of them–including Mr. Franzen–are wrong.

Look, it makes no sense to judge the inherent merit of a work of fiction by the number of readers it has, whther that number is high or low.  Having lots of readers does not make a book good, or bad.  Having very few readers does not make a book good, or bad.  Whether or not a book offers insights into the human condition that will remain pertinent for the next five or six hundred years–well, have that, and a book is good, and in the High Art tradition, even if it fails on every other criterion.

First, let’s look at the book I am reading, Thackeray’s Vanity Fair. If I were more awake this morning, I would try to work out this system my friend Richard constructed for me that would let me link you to the book on Amazon in a way that, if you bought it, I’d get a little kickback for having sent you there.  If you decide at the end of this that you want to read Vanity Fair, use the Amazon link on your right, which will do the same thing but be less efficient for you, as it won’t get you directly to the book.

Anyway, Vanity Fair is not  Literature in the way that word was implicitly defined by the poster who said he didn’t read it–because that particular definition of Literature requires that a book be Heavy, and  Ponderous, and Meaningful, and damned near impossible to read.  Silas Marner is usually the exemplar of this category of writing.  I don’t know if the animus is deserved, since I’ve never read it, but it’s the one most people bring up when they complain about being forced to read Great Books.

Vanity  Fair is a great, big, enormous soap opera of a novel about a poor girl named Becky Sharp and her attempts to get herself settled with a title and a fortune, in the pursuit of which she makes Scarlett O’Hara look like Mother Teresa.  Of course, Scarlett came later, and might easily have been based on  Becky.   Some people have said she was.  But Vanity Fair is like Gone with the Wind in another way, and that is that it is structured around a war.  In Vanity Fair, those wars are the Napoleonic, specifically the last gasp of them, so that the book contains a scene of the Battle of Waterloo, but not from any kind of perspective that Tolstoy would have found sensible.

That is, Tolstory in War and Peace gives you the battleground much as Homer did, in an attempt to write about war.  Vanity Fair, like Gone with the Wind, uses battle to provide backdrop to a larger story.   And I know there are readers of this blog who thing battle is the Most Important Thing–which makes me wonder why they mind Hemingway so much, because he definitely thought that battle was the defining experience of every man’s life–but I think that, in this case, both Vanity  Fair and Gone with the Wind are closer to having it right.  War is punctuation.

Vanity Fair presents the Battle of Waterloo from the point of view of the highborn ladies who rode out to the battlefield to witness the action as if they were going to the Saturday night fights.  I first read this book when  I was about ten or eleven years old, and for many years afterwards it was that scene–the ladies in their carriages, commenting on the action as if they were at the opera–that stuck so well in my brain that I had a hard time really remembering the rest of the book at all.   Of course, at the end of that scene, reality intrudes with a bang, so to speak, and the ladies scatter. 

What I’m trying to say here is that there is nothing about this novel that would make anyone reading it compare it to castor oil–something unpleasant that we have to endure for a while because it’s good for us.   Most of the tuly great novels in the world are nothing like this.  Think of Bleak House and Sense and  Sensibility and even Jane Eyre.  Think of David Copperfield, and The Brothers Karamazov  and Anna Karenina.  Hell, go look at The Last Temptation of  Christ, which is a spectacularly wonderful piece of work even if it does make many American readers (especially women) want to beat Nikos Kazantzakis’s head in with a bloody big stick. 

There are, of course, books out there that are  Great Books that are difficult to read, but the difficulty almost never comes from lack of anything inherently interesting happening in the plot.  Paradise Lost is difficult because of its language and because of the density of its references, but I’m willing to bet anything that if a first rate filmmaker decided to make it into a movie, you wouldn’t be bored.  A war in Heaven?   The betrayal of mankind and the coming of death into the world?  You wouldn’t be bored.

Sometimes I get maybe unnecessarily touchy about that word “bored.”  My students use it a lot, usually to mean “you can’t get me to take an interest in anything I’m not already interested in.”  It’s the ultimate defensive wall.  Their goal is to make it through four years of college while imbibing the least possible knowledge of anything, anywhere.  This principle often applies to the courses they take in their majors as well as to their distribution requirements.   They don’t watch the news or read newspapers or books or listen to music that isn’t playing on MTV.  It “bores” them.  Or they declare it “stupid.” 

I had an interesting discussion with one student the other day who admitted that she called things “stupid” in order to appear smart–that’s stupid, I’m much too intelligent to like it.  I pointed out that this ploy was not having its intended effect when what she was declaring “stupid” was, say, King Lear.

Literary fiction is not Literature, or at least not usually.  It is a late twentieth century genre whose patron saint seems to be J.D. Salinger, except that Salinger was a better writer and actually had something to say.  Most of literary fiction these days has nothing much to say except “I’m miserable and life is meaningless” or “the world is full of people who are too stupid to realize that life is meaningless, and they’re making me feel alienated.”

Assuming any reason is given for the alientaion at all.   Thoreau said that most men live lives of quiet desperation.   The writers of literary fiction have taken him at his word and run with it.  I’m coming more and more to conclude that in this case, at any rate, Thoreau was wrong.

And then there was the thing with the pond.

I guess what this is is a roundabout way of saying that I’m not asking that more Americans read small, tightly written novels about how life sucks and spending your time on an elite college campus renders everything meaningless.  Most writers of literary fiction cannot make a living writing what they want to write, which means that most of them spend a lot of time as writers in residence on one campus or another.  In a very significant way, they never leave school.  You can yell at Hemingway all you want, but he knew better than that.

What I am asking is that people stretch themselves when they read, that they not expect to just sit passively in front of books and “just get it” right away, with no need to work at all.  Of course, if you’ve done enough reading in your life, in a wide enough range of work, you’ll get to a point where you’l even managed to “just get” Paradise Lost, but most of us never quite make it all that far and yet we can still have a good time with books that aren’t just printed versions of Paris Hilton’s My New BFF or Leave it to  Beaver.

My students would have trouble understanding Gone with the Wind. because they don’t know anything about the  Civil War, because they’re completely clueless about the fact that in other times and places men and women behaved differently to each other, having children out of wedlock was a big deal and really bad for both the mother and the child, that a woman could be “ruined” (meaning rendered outcast and untouchable by her closest friends) in any sense at all. 

But  I think that if they put the effort into it, the effort they needed to put in would grow less over time.  And as it grew less, the effort they needed to read other things, other Great Books, would grow less, too.  And a whole world of people and places and things, “imaginary” but parallel to this one, would make their lives better.

Vanity Fair is a good book.  It’s not castor oil, and it’s really not literary fiction.

Written by janeh

November 16th, 2008 at 8:32 am

Posted in Uncategorized

9 Responses to 'Literature'

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  1. But I LOVED Silas Marner! Or I did when I read it years ago. Couldn’t get into Vanity Fair, for some reason.

    I don’t think I said I didn’t read Literature here, but I’ve certainly said it elsewhere, and I wouldn’t include Classics (anything written before, say, 1900) in the catergory. I don’t think most of what’s been recommended to me and disliked and condemned to the ‘Literature’ category has been about elite college campuses, but it probably is literary fiction. It tends to have really precious and irritating descriptive passages, boring characters who don’t actually do very much, and (naturally, I suppose) little plot. I can’t think of many examples because I’ve been avoiding the stuff for years.


    16 Nov 08 at 9:08 am

  2. We read “Vanity Fair” in high school. I read it several times then and several times since, although not for many years now. I still have a copy somewhere. It’s definitely not castor oil. We also read Silas Marner, but I don’t remember it as being dense and boring either. Nor do I remember it at all, so that probably says more about me than about the book.

    But, no matter how many times I’ve read it, I can still pick up Bleak House at any time and reread it with immense pleasure, and it is one of the books that I currently have “on the go” for the umpteenth time.

    Good books are like the old Scotsman’s porridge. They stick to your sides.


    16 Nov 08 at 9:22 am

  3. I finally got around to reading Gone with the Wind a few weeks ago. I ended up skipping large sections of adolescent angst but I did think the book did a good job of describing the life style of rich planters and the social mores of a society woman being “ruined”.

    It also did a good job of explaining why the South lost (the Union blockade, few factories, few railroads) and showed the evils of Reconstruction and the origin of the Klu Klux Klan.

    Jane says her students don’t know enough history to understand it. That’s interesting. Its the type of book that sparked my interest in history.

    Now about war books. I’m currently rereading a novel by John Ringo called “Unto the Breach”. Lots of blood and guts and sex. Not recommended for the faint hearted! Ringo was a combat soldier in Vietnam and that shows in the book.

    He spends a lot of time developing the character of a 17 year old girl. She is part of the crew of a helicopter which is doing resupply. I recall a scene where she is struggling to get a large rubber ball out of the helicopter. It contains the drinking water the fighting troops need for the next 24 hours.

    A few pages later, she is killed.

    Ringo knows that combat troops need food and water and ammunition. He knows that supply is critical and that people get killed in war. He doesn’t glorify it or pretty it up. I can learn something about logistics from his book.

    In contrast, consider Hurricane Katrina a few years ago. I’ve mentioned that Jane and Cheryl and I all participate in a usenet group. It was full of Bush haters screaming PEOPLE ARE DYING! HELP NEW ORLEANS NOW!

    Yes, if a major hurricane hits a city of 500,000, people will die. And if the hurricane destroys roads and bridges and airfields, it simply will not be possible to get aid in NOW NOW NOW!

    Where was the understanding of logistics? One of my friends lives in Mobile, Alabama which was badly hit. She commented that everyone on the Gulf Coast is aware of the standard advise about disaster preparedness. Plan on being without outside help for at least 72 hours.


    16 Nov 08 at 3:41 pm

  4. I’m a litte wary of demanding five or six centuries of endurance. After all, we’ve only been writing book-length prose fiction in English for something around 300 years. Check with me again in two or three centuries.

    But yes I use “Literature” only with malicious intent, and if “Heavy, and Ponderous, and Meaningful, and damned near impossible to read” wasn’t what my English teachers meant by the word, you’d be hard-pressed to prove it by what they selected or praised. No one EVER tells me something is good for me if they think there’s even an outside chance I might enjoy it. A book identified as “Literature” is presumed to be castor oil until proven otherwise.

    And it’s a defensive thing, because every English and Literature teacher (almost) until I escaped the process hated what I loved EVEN WHEN IT WAS THE SAME THING THEY LOVED. By any sane look at story, Joseph Conrad and Ralph Peters belong in the same pile. So do Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer, and possibly Jennifer Crusie. So do Leo Tolstoy and Herman Wouk, PARADISE LOST and the SILMARILION, Homer and Robert E. Howard. Mind you, many of these are categories I likely won’t try again, but if I’ll read the “Great Book” I’ll read the “popular fiction” and the other way around. But the “Literary” response is to put Austen and Homer in one stack, and despise Heyer and Howard in another as “popular” or “genre” fiction, which is insane.

    With Dr. Venkman, I’m “a little hazy on the whole good-bad thing” and try not to use the terms in this forum. (One thing I am sure of is that “older” and “better” are not necessarily the same.)
    You can, no question, write bad fiction by not meeting the criteria–a detective novel in which it’s never clear that only this person could–or would–have committed this crime is a bad detective novel, and a romance novel in which you don’t believe the characters will stay together for six months has serious troubles.

    But more often, it’s a matter of taste, and “densely written” and “reference heavy,” while reasonably objective states, aren’t virtues of themselves. Sometimes simple and clear is the best way to tell the story. And references as nuts on top the ice cream are one thing. If your story depends on your readers understanding the references, your story, however pertinent and clever, will be shorter-lived.
    Poyntz Tyler wrote one novel, variously published as A GARDEN OF CUCUMBERS, TAKE IT EASY, BUT TAKE IT, and FITZWILLY. I recommend it to everyone I know who was born no later than 1952. My son would never make it through. He’d miss too many references to understand the story.

    SILAS MARNER was Sophomore high school, I think. Dense, no. Boring, yes. What I remember most clearly was the passivity, and that was what it had in common with pretty much everything else post-Shakespeare I was assigned. People get into messes and wait for disaster to strike. They’re poor, and they wait for someone to drop money on them. There are days I can’t believe that Dickens lived within walking distance of Brunnel, Babbage and Rhodes–or even Bill Britains and Marx of Marks (Sic) and Spenser’s.

    And that may be part of the problem with Hemingway–academic selection. I didn’t get FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS. I got some more or less male trying to talk his girlfriend into an abortion. Hemingway wasn’t the only one. Faulkner wrote about Pickett’s Charge, but I got something about a pony.

    But if Hemingway thought battle was the defining part of his life, he died undefined–never closer than Ambulance Corps duty and writing pro-Red propaganda in Spain. He had plenty of close contemporaries who fought in three or four wars. Perhaps the disparity is relevant?

    And if you want romance entwined with the Napoleonic Wars, one side or the other of VANITY FAIR, take a look at Georgette Heyer’s AN INFAMOUS ARMY or THE SPANISH BRIDE. Heyer was a professional, and she did her homework. Naturally, I was never assigned her, either.


    16 Nov 08 at 3:43 pm

  5. Dickens didn’t write Silas Marner, that was George Elliot. And you know, it’s been a long, long time since I read it, but I didn’t get anything of the passivity and waiting form money you describe. I remember Silas, so betrayed and hurt by betrayal that he thought he couldn’t trust again – and yet, when he had the chance to help someone even worse off than he was, no, he couldn’t let the child go to a workhouse. The mother died trying to find care for the child, the neighbour chips in with help and advice…the whole story is about the opposite of passivity – everyone trys to the limits of their ability to deal with the disasters that hit them – although Silas’s strength wasn’t sufficient to face out a wrongful accusation and – I’ve forgotten his name, Hepzibah’s father – takes years and years to find the guts and strength to deal with his past, but they all do eventually try to solve their problems. Well, except for the guy who ended up drowned in the quarry (I think that was in there too). I think I might find the way it was done rather sentimental today – the old miser substituting the golden curls of the helpless child for the gold coins that were all he had left after exiling himself from the group that betrayed him etc. But I’ve always been a sucker for stories about poor people struggling against the odds – morally as well as financially.

    I think I tried to read at least one of Elliot’s more famous books after Silas Marner, but didn’t like it so much. I can’t remember which one. Maybe I should try again.

    I hated Hemingway, totally on the basis of ‘The Old Man and the Sea’. I didn’t get all that stuff about the solitary manly struggle against nature at all. I took (and still take) a strictly utilitarian view of fishing. You fish to eat, or to sell the fish to buy things to eat. Getting in battles of the will with fish is just silly.

    I don’t think I ever managed to get all the way through Moby Dick either, but at least that wasn’t assigned in school.


    16 Nov 08 at 5:07 pm

  6. High school was so long ago that I can’t remember what we read. I do remember reading the Illiad and Oedipus Rex iu university and enjoying them. But I can’t remember a single english poem or novel!

    Why was I left to discover Kipling and Nark Twain by myself? And I still haven’t read the Canterbury Tales or the Bocasion (However its spelled?)


    16 Nov 08 at 6:07 pm

  7. “But I can’t remember a single english poem or novel!”

    I can’t always remember what I read where. I’m pretty sure I didn’t do Twain in school, although I was certainly familiar with Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn at school age. We didn’t to the Illiad, although I got scraps and bits over the years in children’s retellings of the exciting bits. I’m not sure about Oedipus Rex. We definitely did ‘Antigone’, I remember that one, but I don’t think we did another Greek play. We did one Kipling poem – the one with ‘the captains and the kings depart’ – but I remember that because I was puzzling over one bit of it, suddenly figured it out and annnounced the fact, to the annoyance of the teacher who must have been trying to get that across half an hour earlier, while I’d been daydreaming!

    But they can’t put everything in the high school curriculum; just a judicious selection to get you started.


    16 Nov 08 at 6:48 pm

  8. I hope I’ll be fogiven for 3 posts on one topic.

    Cheryl, the Illaid and Oedipus Rex were in a compulsory literature course in University.

    But I want to comment on Jane “My students would have trouble understanding Gone with the Wind. because they don’t know anything about the Civil War, because they’re completely clueless about the fact that in other times and places men and women behaved differently to each other, having children out of wedlock was a big deal and really bad for both the mother and the child, that a woman could be “ruined” (meaning rendered outcast and untouchable by her closest friends) in any sense at all.”

    That is interesting becuase I’m the complete opposite. I enjoyed Mary Renault’s novels about ancient Greece because they taught me about the times.

    I liked the Cadfael mysteis by Ellis Peters for their history (and the DVDs are very good).

    The Linsey Davis detective novels set in ancient Rome are also good history.

    But it doesn’t even have to be historical fiction, Sherlock Holmes tells us a lot about England at the end of the 19th century.

    So why is my reaction to a unfamiliar society so different from Jane’s students?


    16 Nov 08 at 7:24 pm

  9. I did very little English literature at a post-secondary level – just a required-for-everyone first year course, and a Theatre & Religion one which intrigued me and turned out to be very handy when I needed a second English credit because I changed my major. I think I did another Greek play or two then, but Antigone was definitely in high school – we had a good teacher, and I remember him explaining Antigone’s moral dilemna.

    I’ve always shared your fascination with books as portrayals of other ways of life. It works with TV, too – TV movie on Catherine the Great sent me to the library to find a biography of the lady although I’d never before had the slightest interest in Russian history.

    I don’t know why Jane’s students don’t have this curiosity, or why I do (and as far as I can remember, always did have). I’ve met other people who don’t have much interest in books, and they aren’t all struggling through upgrading, either. Some of them got through university quite successfully, got their good job, and say quite openly and even with a sigh of relief that they haven’t read a book since they left university. They don’t seem to very interested in other cultures, either, since they don’t read and the most exotic place they visit is Florida for a few weeks in the winter.


    16 Nov 08 at 8:18 pm

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