Armchair BEA Day 1: Literature

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Today’s Prompt

What do you think of when you think of literature? Classics, contemporary, genre, or something else entirely? We are leaving this one up to you to come up with and share the literature that you want to chat about the most. Feel free to share a list of your favorites, break down your favorite genre, feature your favorite authors, and be creative about all things literature in general.

Defining literature is probably one of the areas in which bibliophiles struggle most.  In my sophomore year of undergrad, as my American Literature class opened up its copies of the Norton Anthology of Literature, the professor challenged us to look at the table of contents and ask ourselves why some of the texts included were, at least by the Norton editors, considered literature.  A lot of the works, particularly the early ones, were works of nonfiction and not even creative nonfiction: things like the Declaration of Independence.  (Apparently early America was sadly lacking in interesting fiction.)  Ultimately we were asked to write a paragraph or so on why The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass may be considered literature.  I scribbled some thoughts on its eloquence and how “it requires thought on the part of the reader to determine the meaning and full implications of what he/she is reading.”  While I did, and do, believe that, I was somewhat appalled at essentially being asked to define “literature” and never felt I did an adequate job.  I’ve come back to the question again and again on my own (maybe it’s an English major thing), but I have never attempted to put my thoughts into works a second time.  Until now, at the request of Armchair BEA.

I still believe “literature” is a gray area, and we may never be able to come up with a complete definition or a definition that everyone will agree on.  However, I do think there are certain characteristics that books, or works, that are could be considered literature have in common.

Literature is fiction or creative nonfiction.

I know I am excluding texts that the Norton editors clearly consider literature.  However, I generally consider literature to be a narrative of some type, and something that took a bit of creativity to write.   Texts like the Federalist Papers may be deep and well-written, but, perhaps purely for personal reasons (capricious ones), I don’t count them as literature.

Literature has good prose.

Literature should be the full package: good ideas and good writing wrapped into one.  It is hard for a reader to take an author seriously if he or she cannot write well, and it is hard for a book to last and grow an audience if it is not a pleasure to read.

Literature has many layers.  It bears rereading and it needs interpretation.

This, for me, is the most important characteristic of literature.  The other points could be left behind (not every classic author has a great writing style).  But literature must mean something, and it must take a little effort on the part of the reader to get to that meaning.  Literature is more than a quick read or cheap entertainment.  It says something about important human topics, and its thoughts have layers, bear scrutiny, and last generations.

Literature does not exclude genre fiction.

A few pieces of genre fiction have made it into the literary canon: the mysteries of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the science fiction of H. G. Wells, the fantasy of the King Arthur legends.  In general, however, genre fiction is still considered by many (at least many of the keepers of literature (the types of people who compile anthologies and collections of classics) to be “not serious enough” to be “real literature.”  It is clear, however, that a lot of genre fiction possesses the characteristics of literature: skillful writing, layers of meaning, ability to speak to various generations of readers.  It is time for us as readers to realize that books about imaginary worlds have a lot of serious and profound things to say about the real world and officially stamp these books as classic literature.

21 thoughts on “Armchair BEA Day 1: Literature

  1. Lisa LaVergne-Pottgen says:

    I think that for every post about this topic today, there are going to be a ton of differing viewpoints on what literature really is. While I wholeheartedly agree with everything you said, there are others who will think completely differently than we do. I read another post where someone said that most fiction is literature, and I can kind of see where they are coming from. For me, personally, it has to speak to me personally and deeply.

    Lisa @Just Another Rabid Reader


    • Briana says:

      I actually noticed that in my previous comment reply to you, I myself used “literature” with a different definition–when I said something like, “I enjoy YA literature,” by which I meant simply, “I enjoy YA books.” So I can definitely see there being a different, or maybe secondary, definition of literature by which we are just talking about books, probably fiction.

      I love the idea of its speaking to you personally! I think that’s partially where the gray area of defining literature comes in. I basically said literature should be “meaningful,” but who gets to determined what “meaningful” is? A majority vote? An editor at Norton? Or each individual reader?


      • Lisa LaVergne-Pottgen says:

        I think that, as individuals, we each have to find our own way. We have to determine what sings to our souls, what words on a page will form our own Siren’s call. But that really is the beauty of it. It’s a script no one can write but us.


  2. theshabbyrabbit says:

    I really like your ‘bullet list’ definition! Those are all encompassing traits and well described! I sometimes think it’s easier for me to know what’s NOT (in my mind) literature than what is. Literature just has that je ne sais quoi I guess.


    • Briana says:

      That’s true in so many cases; you know when something isn’t something. Or, alternately, there’s a sense of, “I know literature when I see it, but I can’t define it.”


  3. Reno says:

    Hello! I’m browsing through Armchair BEA participating blogs. I’m excited to find one run by two Tolkien lovers🙂 When I saw the topic for today, I thought it would be impossible to define literature but you make some good points here – especially that ‘genre fiction’ does not necessarily need to be precluded from literary fiction.


    • Briana says:

      We always love finding someone who loves Tolkien!

      I have been on and off pondering the definition of literature for a few years now, so that gave me a good starting place, but I’m not sure I’ll ever have a definition I’m completely satisfied with.


  4. DoingDewey says:

    Great job tackling a tough topic! I also wouldn’t consider straight nonfiction, like the Declaration of Independence or most newspaper articles, literature. There needs to be something more nuanced going on for the best writing to be achieved, I think.


    • Briana says:

      I’ve been struggling with the idea that some people (coughnortoneditorscough) apparently do count nonfiction, and I’m wondering why. I know some of it fits my other bullet points (well-written, meaningful), but it just seems…wrong to me. I’ve always had this deep suspicion it’s because early America didn’t produce a lot of fiction. :p


    • Briana says:

      I have yet to read The Last Unicorn (and I feel kind of like a bad fantasy fan), but I’ve only heard great things about it! There’s so much good fantasy that I think deserves the title of “literature” more than some books that are literary fiction.


  5. Alisha (@MyNeedToRead) says:

    Fantastic treatment of the topic! I love that you note that literature does not exclude genre fiction. Totally agree–there are works of genre fic that would meet with any of the other points listed.

    On the matter of literature being rereadable and needing interpretation. I hear ya! I’ve often wondered whether the things scholars (or readers in general) dissect and interpret are the things the author had constructed with those same analyses in mind. Or whether, say, they just liked the way a certain turn of phrase sounded. Or chose randomly. Makes one wonder, eh?


    • Briana says:

      I’ve actually been playing with the idea of doing a post on interpreting literature and what’s “real” or “valid.” I think it’s another area where there are tons of nuances. In some cases, it feels very easy and clear to say, “The author did not mean to say that,” but does that mean the book doesn’t say it? Does that mean it’s not a valid interpretation? I’m still working through my thoughts on it.

      Every once in awhile, in an English class, I would suggest that some detail was not deep or meaningful but simply something the author included because it was effective in the narrative. That always earned me glares and dismissal, but I find it sad we don’t usually consider the process and tools of writing in literature classes. Those are things that authors think about as much as imparting some message or philosophy.


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