Mormon LitCrit: Literary Standards

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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.

Purpose

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.

Complexity

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.

Language

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.

Depth

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.

Universality

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?

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9 Responses to Mormon LitCrit: Literary Standards

  1. Th. says:

    .

    I’m pretty satisfied with your description, so perhaps the place to go next is defining the literary via negativa. For instance, a story that is ONLY about plot is not "literary"; nor, I would argue, is a story concerned ONLY with its language (though it will likely be labeled as such). In my mind, the truly "literary" is well-rounded writing.

  2. Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

    This is an excellent definitional piece. But I have to say, it often seems to me there are political bends (mostly to the left) among the fiction editorial staffs of many journals. I think this can make it difficult for right-leaning writers. So I’m not entirely convinced that politics is as far-removed from lit writing in the broader market as you assert when you say "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." I agree that the politics is not necessarily what is "primarily valued", but I suspect its easier to get published if you have the more liberal perspective.

    Keeping it MoLit, I think of Ryan McIlvain’s "Keep It Bible" from [i]Paris Review [/i](spring 2008). Its a very political piece and the lean is hardly conservative. Yet–and admitting it has been a while since I read it–I didn’t think it was all that well-constructed and I’ve wondered if it would’ve been published at all if it a) hadn’t leaned toward a view of America as imperialist during this era of war; and b) involved an American religion that had fallen out of favor w. the left on another political issue, namely gay marriage. For those who haven’t read it, an American LDS missionary serving in Brazil (I believe) realizes his religion and his country aren’t so great.

    Again, I wouldn’t accuse McIlvain of writing the story only to persuade readers to his political view, nor would I say it misses any of the marks listed herein for lit fiction. But I would assert that his political way of looking at the world influenced his fiction in a deeper way than this post implies. And probably its acceptance at [i]Paris Review[/i].

  3. Jonathan Langford says:

    Interesting thoughts. I hope you won’t take it amiss if I use this as a starting point for questioning some of the assumptions I think you’re making, or at least how they might play out in a discussion of genre today (which is what many people, including myself, mean when they talk about literary fiction).

    In thinking about genre, there are two broad trends: to define in terms of inherent formal characteristics (e.g., Frye’s typologies), or to define in terms of social and community considerations (who reads, who writes). I generally tend toward the latter, but will concede that there is often value and interest in examinations of the former. That said, I have to wonder: how well does the set of characteristics outlined here work to explain the differences between literary fiction (which is unquestionably a genre in the sociological sense) and other genres of fiction, such as science fiction and fantasy? The answer, as best I can tell, is: not at all well. Indeed, on the grounds of universality, I’d say that sf&f probably has a stronger claim to universality (partly because of its willingness to engage with traditional archetypes) than much of what is considered literary fiction nowadays, which in many cases is noteworthy for its failure to appeal to anyone outside a very narrow social and educational range. I’m left, then, with a sense that while these may be a good set of standards, they don’t actually work terribly well in defining–or describing–literary fiction and what sets it apart from other forms of writing. Which is fine, if that’s the purpose, but doesn’t (for example) help to explain what kinds of stories one is likely to find in [i]Irreantum[/i] (which is now, I would say, an unabashedly literary journal, though that wasn’t its original goal), versus what we might find in [i]Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine[/i].

    If we do want to expand from these standards to a more specific consideration of genre, I think we need to consider that many of these standards have different flavors that apply to the different genres. For example, in the area of language, I would argue that good sf&f writers (the genre I’m most familiar with, so that’s where I’m drawing my examples from) have just as great a concern for using the right word as writers of literary fiction. However, the definition of what "the right word" means may be quite different in sf&f than it is in literary fiction, because of varying audience expectations, themes, etc. Similarly, when it comes to depth, sf (notice my exclusion of the "&f" here) is the genre, bar none, that deals in most depth and complexity with the question of what humanity means along the dimension of distinguishing humans from their environments and the tools they create (or so I would argue). That is, perhaps, a different kind of depth from what one gets in literary fiction.

    The area where the contrast is perhaps clearest pertains to literary conversation. To a great degree, it seems to me that literary conversations take place largely within genres. Any decent sf&f story is part of an ongoing, quite vigorous conversation–but it’s a different conversation from the one that a work of realistic fiction is engaged in. This is one reason, by the way, why realistic writers do not always do well when they attempt to write sf&f: they are not embedded in the tradition and don’t know the conversation, let alone the conventions.

    Finally, I have to challenge the characterization of literary fiction as primarily aesthetic, not didactic, not only on the grounds that there is a politic to literary fiction (as Lisa points out) but also on historical grounds. What say you of Dante? Vergil? Milton? The author of Piers the Plowman? The authors of the Psalms? Job? It is, I would argue, a perversion of modernity that even attempts to disassociate the aesthetic from the didactic. Moreover, I tend to think that even when we say we’re merely trying to tell a story, not persuade someone to a particular point of view, we’re probably fooling ourselves: even if our agenda is little more than to create sympathy for a particular kind of experience. Within Mormon literature, I think we need look no further than the work of Darius Gray and Margaret Blair Young to see how highly praised "literary" work can have a highly didactic purpose. I mean this as no insult; however, I’m guessing that if it had not been for important issues related to past and continued racism among Latter-day Saints, neither of these individuals would have felt it was worth their while to chop out years of their lives in the effort to write those books. And yeah, authors can have purposes that aren’t necessarily reflected in their works… but that’s getting awfully muddy, if what we’re looking for is a defining principle.

  4. Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

    Interesting thoughts, Jonathan. FTR, I’ve come to see much of SF&F as literary fiction to the degree it can be read/understood/interpreted w. multiplicity. So what do we do when genre fiction crosses borders? I think its a good thing.

    And some works that are considered literary fiction–like the [i]Standing [/i][i]on the Promises[/i]–really strike me as genre fiction (religious). In fact, [i]SotP [/i]doesn’t work at all for me as lit fic. The history of the author’s publication are the only outward indication that the trilogy is literary. I think it could’ve been literay, but at the conclusion, I knew exactly what the author wanted me to think. Slam dunk–[i]not[/i] literary.

    You say [i]Irreantum[/i] has become solely a literary journal, by which I think you mean it doesn’t publish genre fiction. The sentiment is both true and untrue. As long as I’ve been involved (and that’s a couple years only), the editorial staff leans toward SF&F that stand as literary work; in other words, stories that fit many of the perameters listed in this initial post. But to imply that [i]Irreantum[/i] doesn’t publish anything but mainstream lit fiction does the journal and its staff a disservice. We look for it.

  5. Jonathan Langford says:

    Lisa,

    I agree that sf&f can also qualify as literary fiction. It’s an interesting phenomenon that some writers, such as Ursula Le Guin and Ray Bradbury, get anthologized and taught in "regular" literature courses, while other writers equally respected within sf&f circles, such as Isaac Asimov, generally don’t.

    I didn’t say that [i]Irreantum[/i] is now "solely" a literary journal, but rather that it is "unabashedly" a literary journal. Your phrase "sf&f that stand as literary work" more or less proves my point, or at any rate the point I intended to make (sorry if it didn’t come through clearly before): that [i]Irreantum[/i] now focuses through a lens of publishing literary fiction as its core identity.

    Actually, though, my thoughts about the shift in [i]Irreantum[/i]‘s identity have less to do with its selection of fiction and more to do with how the publication as a whole has come to center on the publication of literary fiction. Originally, the vision that was being discussed for [i]Irreantum[/i] was much broader than that. We (some of us at least) had hoped that it might be a kind of umbrella journal covering news of LDS publishing, developments in Mormon literary criticism, and basically the full range of writing "by, for, and about Mormons." And the early years tried very hard to do that.

    In retrospect, it was probably an unworkable vision. Covering so many different things meant that there wasn’t an easily understood core identity. It turned out (for example) that readers and writers of Mormon romances weren’t particularly inclined to subscribe to a magazine that might publish a few things that interested them, but that would never focus mostly on their interests. In a way, the failure of the original version of [i]Irreantum[/i] to achieve wide success may attest that there really isn’t a single "community of Mormon letters," but rather many smaller communities that aren’t necessarily very interested in talking to each other. (Sorry if that’s overly pessimistic, but it reflects what I think I see.) The current [i]Irreantum[/i] has a clearer vision, and accomplishes good things–but not the [i]same[/i] things that some of us had originally hoped for.

  6. Yeah, I’ll agree that during the first five years of Irreantum, the unifying thing was Mormonism, not literariness. "Literary" was just another genre. I saw the mag as a smorgasbord of everything Mormon and also as a way to cross-pollinate among the genres within Mormonism. So you could have Anita Stansfield on the cover one month followed by Brady Udall the next. While the magazine didn’t get over 500 in circulation, I like to think it had some influence and helped build some bridges and encourage such things as the Whitney Awards.

    Personally, I do read lots of mainstream "literary" fiction but don’t like the more rarefied stuff. I read mostly for pleasure and for insight into humanity and life, not as a mental workout related to things like language. I’ll admit that the magazine generally went a little too esoterically literary for my taste under Laraine Wilkins (RIP) and I don’t remember reading much of it, but the way it is now, I’m reading a lot more of each issue. But it’s still a literary magazine, not an all-inclusive Mormon literature magazine like we originally tried to do.

  7. Jonathan Langford says:

    One more comment…

    Lisa wrote: "SotP doesn’t work at all for me as lit fic. The history of the author’s publication are the only outward indication that the trilogy is literary. I think it could’ve been literay, but at the conclusion, I knew exactly what the author wanted me to think. Slam dunk–not literary."

    I think this is an excellent illustration of one of the values of literary fiction as a genre that doesn’t necessary equate to a standard for what qualifies as high-quality literature generally. (And I don’t think Lisa’s saying that it’s a general standard for high-quality literature.) Some types of literature–and some readers–value this kind of ambiguity highly. Others come to literature for a different kind of emotional experience.

    I would add that thematic complexity is not the same thing as ambiguity. The Lord of the Rings includes some pretty thematically complex and challenging stuff about the nature of power and right and wrong. But I don’t think it’s ambiguous in the way Lisa describes.

  8. Jonathan Langford says:

    Lisa,

    Thanks for your clarification of your opinion about SotP (which I haven’t yet read, though it’s on my very long to-read list…) For what it’s worth, I didn’t get the impression that you were devaluing SotP, but rather explaining why it belongs to one genre rather than another.

    It seems to me that you and I are both agreeing that there’s fine literature, with literary qualities, that doesn’t necessarily fall into the category of literary fiction as a genre (and vice versa? probably). Yes?

  9. Jonathan Langford says:

    I no longer know exactly what No Going Back is (as you probably know if you followed my recent post about genre over at AMV). Ironically (by at least some values of "ironic"), there’s a fair amount of evidence that some readers (at least) find the ending highly ambiguous…

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