UNPACKING THE BACKPACK – This thing we call literature

In the teaching of composition and literature, I always remind my students that words have connotations in addition to their denotation, or dictionary definition. It’s worth noting the word literature has a connotation as well. The general consensus is that literature is more highbrow than popular fiction, and it’s almost expected to be less-than-accessible to the average reader. Literature is the long, complicated, sometimes boring stuff we read in school. The definition I’ve tended to use with my students is that literature is “the stuff that matters.” 

I always distinguish between good storytelling and literature. Stephanie Meyer’s incredibly popular Twilight series from 2005, I’ve explained to my students, is a great story, but actually contains rather weak writing, and it certainly won’t ever be studied, nor will it even be thought of a generation from now. Stephen King, one of the most successful and talented fiction writers of the contemporary age once made a similar observation of Meyer, noting she “can’t write worth a darn.” I tend to agree, though many readers of classic literature might make the same criticism of King. Of course, we could be wrong. And there are far more scholarly and erudite people to explain and resolve this. Arthur Krystal is definitely one of those.

Krystal is one of my favorite critics, writers, and thinkers, and I’ve lately been reading several of his books of essays and criticism, notably his latest work This Thing We Call Literature, which is the inspiration for this column. Krystal is, I believe, first and foremost an essayist, and he spends much of his practice in the form pondering the very nature of writing and storytelling. One of his targets in the book is the idea in contemporary society that literature is whatever we want it to be, or even worse, anything that is written. He draws insight and perspective from the theory posited in a book of literary criticism entitled A New Literary History of America, which makes the astute observation that Bob Dylan is potentially the most well-known and significant poet in America today. This perspective is, of course, validated by his award of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016. Add to that the 2018 awarding of the Pulitzer Prize for music to rapper Kendrick Lamar, and you can see the argument take shape.

Exploring the depths of my original comment about popular writers like Stephen King or Stephanie Meyer, Krystal’s discussion of commercial or genre fiction versus literary fiction is the crux of differing views about literature. For example, he notes the significance of popularity in weighing a literary work’s significance, and he concedes the obvious reality that the works of Charles Dickens were actually the popular fiction of their time, read by a public including many who had nothing more than an eighth grade education. I particularly enjoyed his reference to Edmund Wilson’s classic New Yorker essay disparaging popular crime fiction, “Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?” When I ran across an excerpt from that essay years ago, it opened my eyes to the battle over literature and popular fiction. Certainly, popularity is not the barometer by which we measure quality – fast food and reality TV being examples of the flaw in that logic.

That said, Pop Culture has a distinctly different status than it did even twenty years ago. As Krystal notes: “If you think Buffy the Vampire Slayer deserves to be the subject of an academic dissertation … then you are living in the right time.” No doubt. And I am certainly one to elevate Buffy to the body of work worthy of study. For years, I have half-joked to my classes that my first scholarly work of literary criticism will be centered on the three Bs of western culture studies: “The Bible, Beowulf, & Buffy.” But I don’t disagree with Krystal or Lionel Trilling or Northrop Frye or Harold Bloom that there are clear distinctions for that which we deem literature. I’d also agree that postmodern obfuscation of ideas like quality, morality, and truth are doing no service to culture. There’s the good stuff that matters and won’t soon be forgotten, and there’s everything else.

Anyway, if you want to ponder some thoughts on language and literature, check out Arthur Krystal. Read some popular fiction as well. And then perhaps follow that with some classic literature. Having recently introduced my students to Jane Austen’s timeless classic Pride and Prejudice, I can’t recommend it enough.

Michael P. Mazenko is a writer, educator, & school administrator in Greenwood Village. He blogs at A Teacher’s View and can be found on Twitter @mmazenko. You can email him at mmazenko@gmail.com