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A few weeks ago, a family member asked me a question. “Okay,” she said, “tell me one more time … what you mean when you say literary?” She admitted that she’d once thought the word was only used by certain people to assert their superiority over others. “Are there actual standards?” she asked.
How would you have answered?
Her question started a conversation that I’ve continued with others over the past few weeks. And the following ideas have emerged from those discussions.
First of all, I think it’s important to distinguish between “popular” and “literary” writings. Popular literature is primarily judged by one standard—number of units sold. It’s a quantitative measurement. And there’s nothing wrong with that. A book at the top of the New York Times bestseller list is “good” because it sells more than others books. The popular standard is very convenient: sales equals value.
Can a work be popular and literary? I think so. Which brings us back to the original question: “What does it mean to say a work is literary?” I’m sure there are many answers. Mine involves six characteristics—purpose, complexity, language, depth, universality, and the work’s part in the literary conversation.
Literary works are primarily written and read for aesthetic value. They are not primarily valued for informative or didactic purposes, nor are they written to persuade readers to embrace a certain political, social, or commercial agenda. When a work of literature does teach or persuade, it does so indirectly. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with teaching or informing. We need computer manuals and church lessons. And there’s nothing wrong with commercials or politically partisan writings. But these things, by definition, aren’t literature, because literary writing evidences its aesthetic value beyond its didactic or informative content.
A literary work bears multiple readings. While a newspaper article or cake recipe can be read many times, the meaning of the work doesn’t deepen with further readings. But a literary work can be read again and again to reveal insights and meaning not found the first time through, surprising and satisfying the reader each time the text is revisited.
A literary work also bears multiple interpretations, including those brought out by any number of interpretive critical lenses. A pamphlet from the doctor’s office can be carefully read and understood, but can it be reread to yield multiple interpretations suggested by the text? Probably not. Many texts are designed for one, straightforward meaning. In fact, certain texts, like contracts and other legal documents, work hard to avoid multiple interpretations. By contrast, literary writing can bear—and even invites—multiple interpretations. Furthermore, literary works can be read through various interpretive lenses (feminism, reader response, biographical, Marxist, etc.) to yield a host of reasonable, text-based interpretations.
Literary works pay very close attention to diction, le mot juste, “the right word.” Literary works move beyond utilitarian uses of language and strive for the artful. Mark Twain said, “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between the lightning bug and lightning.” Literary works also draw on devices like metaphor, symbol, sound, and structure to enhance their aesthetic qualities.
John Gardner says that good fiction is “implicitly philosophical.” I think this is true of all literature. Literary works address profound questions about humanity, the complexities of life, and the nature of our existence. Great writing reveals us to ourselves. Great writers say things we’ve long sensed about ourselves, but weren’t able to say for ourselves.
Literary works transcend boundaries of culture and time and comment on the human condition. Shakespeare wrote in England 400 years ago, yet his works can be translated into other languages and deeply move audiences today. Good literature doesn’t feel like yesterday’s news. It is fresh and meaningful to every new reader in each generation.
The Literary Conversation
Finally, literary works are aware of, and are part of, a great conversation humanity has carried on since the ancients. (See T.S. Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent.”) Each work of literature today is shaped by every other work that came before—even if the writer hasn’t read those works! I just started reading Brady Udall’s The Lonely Polygamist. In a sense, that book is a response to Sorensen’s A Little Lower Than the Angels and Whipple’s The Giant Joshua, just as it’s a response to every other story ever written. After a writer reads Udall, whatever he or she writes will be, in part, a response to Udall. No one writes in a vacuum. Each writer is affected by every other writer. That’s the nature of the literary conversation.
So, that’s my list. What’s on you list of literary standards?