Monday, 26 May 2014

Armchair BEA - What Do I Call Literature?

Today's BEA topic of conversation is 'literature'. Hop over to the website, to see Suey's (from It's All About Books) response. 

What do you think of when you think of literature? Classics, contemporary, genre, or something else entirely?

When I think of the term 'literature' I can't help but compare it to how the word 'genre' is often used. On the one hand we use 'genre' to divide books into categories like Gothic, Paranormal, Romance etc. However, there is also the idea of genre fiction. This is usually used for "popular fiction", itself a questionable term, which are plot-driven and want to fit into a certain genre. For example, Twilight would be considered genre fiction because its plot very clear pushes it into the Paranormal Romance genre. However, rather than just being a classification, 'genre fiction' is often used as a judgement on a book as well. Although I'm not a very big Twilight fan, not at all really, I wouldn't go as far as to call it trash because it is still a book that can be enjoyed by others. The reason I've gone on this slight tangent is because I feel it will explain the opinion I'm about to give on the term 'literature'.

I quite honestly admit I am at times a terrible culture snub. In many ways I can't help it that I've been raised to appreciate classic literature and classical music. However, I also very much enjoy going out dancing to Kesha's 'Timber'. Where the snobism comes in, unfortunately and often accidentally, is that I'll say that obviously Mozart is better than Kesha. I do the same thing to books. I call books 'literature' when they have, in my eyes, reached a certain level of proficiency and have made an impression. Other books I call 'fiction'. To stick with the example made above, I would not call Twilight literature but fiction. Yes, the books have proven to be very popular but I doubt they'll survive the years. Already they're being pushed aside by new series, although this of course doesn't mean it hasn't got very dedicated and loyal fans. Besides this I think there are serious plot and character development issues which, for me, prevent it from being literature.

However, I don't just apply the term 'literature' to books I like. I would call Dickens' novels literature even though I find them terribly hard to deal with. I have only read Hard Times and afterwards decided to avoid all the modules at university that want to make me read more of his works. The reason I would call them 'literature', then, is because his novels have managed to capture a certain time spirit, a cultural change in England, and still resonate with a lot of people. And it can't be said that, at times, he writes very beautifully. His characters have become stereotypes and England would be different without his novels.

If in fifty years we're still talking about Twilight, I guess I might have to change my opinion on what makes 'literature', but I have a feeling we won't. But there are a lot of authors and books that tend to get forgotten until someone picks them of a library shelf and is sucked into a whole new world. I also do think the term is very much up to the reader. Everyone has their own classics and their own list of hits that they think everyone should read. And to be honest, that is one of the things I love about books, that they are so personal while being available to everyone! I also want to add to a caveat that I never insult books or say that they are terrible. I believe every book is loved by someone and because I know how much books matter to me, I'd never insult something they love that much.

What are your thoughts on literature?


  1. I think literature is such a vast spectrum it's hard to pin-point what it is exactly. Some literature is just better than others is all.

  2. Indeed, methinks it's easier to define literature once there's a long passage of time, some distance. If it's still powerful, arresting, relevant, then the moniker fits quite easily. So tough to evaluate current work.

    I would love to read some more works from decades and centuries past that were considered dreck back then, and aren't necessarily celebrated today.

  3. I'm pretty much on board with your definition of literature and I LOVE the Mozart/Ke$ha anaology! (cuz I have a deep appreciation for both for WAY different reasons!).

    I also think a literature litmus test would be.. would I stencil quotes from this book on my living room wall.... hmmmm

  4. Did you just say you don't like Dickens?!? I know, that's a total book snob moment but I love Dickens! Great Expectations is my favorite! Oh well, to each their own. I didn't like other popular stories like Twilight or 50 Shades.

    So great to connect with you during BEA!

    Ashley (Closed the Cover)

  5. That's a great definition of literature. I think a lot of what i read is great fiction, but I think of Tolkien, Austen, and others like those as literature.

  6. I wouldn't be surprised to see Twilight end up a a classic like Pride and Prejudice, because let's be honest: Pride and Prejudice may have turned into a classic, it's basically the Twilight of its time. (waits for the clobbering to start)

    1. I try to prevent all kinds of clobbering on my blog ;) I do think there is a significant difference between the books. Stephenie Meyers didn't attempt societal criticism or satire, whereas Austen most definitely did both of those, but covered under a perfect veneer of charm and artificiality!

  7. I like your distinction between "literature" and "fiction." Maybe some might consider me a cultural snob as well, but I do think "literature" ought to be very well-written, have depth and layers, stand the test of time, & have an important message. Not all novels can meet those criteria--which isn't to say that they aren't worthy reads. But to me, yeah, that makes those books "fiction" more than "literature."