I read this post recently, talking about how the improper teaching of literature has contributed to the death of its study. The main argument seemed to be that it is important to emphasize literature as a way of developing empathy (putting yourself in a character’s shoes) over emphasizing it as a snapshot of its historical period. To help make the point they brought up the example of someone reading Huckleberry Finn and deciding the entire point of the book was ‘slavery is wrong’.
While the idea they presented (that there are two main schools of presenting literature) is fine on its face, I speak from experience when I say it is probably not what kills people’s interest in literature. Let us turn to one of the several definitions of ‘literary’ on dictionary.com for a solid description of what I consider to be the biggest problem here: “characterized by an excessive or affected display of learning; stilted; pedantic.”
In short, the people who consider themselves the gatekeepers of both literature and its definition are the problem. I made it through a creative writing program at a four year university and I can tell you there is no shortage of people who will work very hard to keep the idea of literature very exclusive, narrow, and in my opinion, dull. These are the people who insist that only two genres exist: literary fiction and poetry. Everything else is not serious enough. Nothing else has the raw emotional beauty of their favorite Shakespeare play. Their ideas are founded upon the notion that a true student of literature has to be able to appreciate certain works. Don’t like Shakespeare? You must not know what you’re talking about. You like science fiction? Oh, so you don’t read real literature.
I put up with four years of this. There is no such thing as objectively good literature and I was shocked I had to try to explain that to professors. Fiction is not an inoculation with a success rate that can be represented with a percentage. The person who wrote the post I linked to thinks that the things they see people commonly reading, like crime novels, don’t count as literature because they’re just not as important or beautiful as their favorite work: Anna Karenina.
What is especially galling about literary types talking about their favorite work is the way they seem to think the authors were divinely inspired. They use words like flawless and perfect as if to say that one word’s difference could’ve destroyed the entire illusion. I don’t doubt that if several words, phrases, paragraphs, and chapters were significantly changed, they would say the same things. An author could choose a specific word over another because they have a slight headache or because they sneezed three minutes ago. No small part of their favorite work is as deliberate as they claim.
What really destroys people’s interest in literature is the insistence that their opinions about what they want to read are uninformed and inferior. I can go on and on about the literary value of the works of H.G. Wells, but because he wasn’t a realist his work doesn’t show up in academia all that frequently. I can talk about his Food of the Gods and How it Came to Earth being partially about the idea of socialism, but it won’t matter to the literary types when I mention the main plot involves a fictional substance that makes any living thing that consumes it grow to several times its usual size.
I’ve always despised realist work. I, unlike the author of that post, don’t think good stories require both good ideas and good prose. I think only good ideas and tolerable prose are required. That is my opinion and it cannot be wrong by its very nature. So when they insist that Anna Karenina has such beautiful prose that it must be true literature, I can honestly respond by saying I do not care how nuanced the language is if it’s describing events that could never matter to me. The plot of Anna Karenina involves a princess navigating personal dramas and social expectations. I’m sorry to bruise your ego, but that sounds extremely dull.
I do not read to see more of the situations that make up everyday human interaction. I see those every day. They’re largely mundane and meaningless. I read fiction to see something that superficially does not resemble reality in that every being and action in it actually has a calculated purpose. I don’t have time for the repetitive literary stories about people suffering in silence because of their timidity, or spending months dealing with whatever rote trauma they’ve suffered. (I won’t describe how many stories I was required to read that were just composed of the constant dead-end anguish of rape victims, drug addicts, and the terminally ill.) I think that barely counts as a story.
I read fiction both to enjoy myself and create new perspectives on old problems. I think the single best way to do that is to exaggerate reality, to use interesting, complex, and layered symbols to both represent and codify real-life ideas. So to me the most meaningful literature will always be science fiction and fantasy, especially when compared to my least favorite genre: literary or realist fiction.
After my graduation I came to the conclusion that while it is not wrong to attempt to teach ‘literature’, it is certainly wrong to grade someone’s individual appreciation, or lack thereof, of whatever written works they choose. Your literature is not my literature and if you keep insisting that I will appreciate yours if I just squint at it long enough, the written word will die even faster. It would be your fault too. Okay… rant over.
Mostly Unrelated Note: I’m doing a bit of a project where I write free custom micro-stories in the science fiction and fantasy genres based on reader suggestions. If you would like one please check out this post or the first story I did. (This blog has plenty of longer fiction available to read for free as well.)