Thursday, April 03, 2008

Booking Through Thursday "Lit-Ra-Chur"

Today's question from Booking Through Thursday is:

When somebody mentions “literature,” what’s the first thing you think of? (Dickens? Tolstoy? Shakespeare?)
Do you read “literature” (however you define it) for pleasure? Or is it something that you read only when you must?

The first thing I think of is of course books and reading. I don’t think of any particular author or period or type of book – I just think books! A more considered thought is more complex. I may be reminded of school and English Literature lessons. These were a mixture of pain and pleasure. Pain because sometimes I got so bored with analysis of the texts that I came to dislike them, particularly Shakespeare; pleasure because I really loved the stories and the way they were written, I just wanted to read more and more. I suppose that is the measure of “literature”. I used to hate those questions such as “define literature, culture etc, etc”; over-analysis can kill a book.

I also think of a course I took on “Literature in the Modern World”, which covered the twentieth century before 1990 and considered what comprises the ‘canon’, the novel, poetry and drama and ‘literary theory’. It was Literature in English, not English Literature and opened up a whole new world of reading to me, including Terry Eagleton’s writings on literary theory. In considering what is meant by ‘fine writing’ he wrote, “Value-judgements would certainly seem to have a lot to do with what is judged literature and what isn’t …”. My thoughts are who is making the value-judgement and why should we take any notice anyway? My English teacher at school once told me I should be less sceptical - sorry, I still am.

I have A Dictionary of Literary Terms by Martin Gray (I bought this for the course). This defines literature as
“A vague, all-inclusive term for poetry, novels, drama, short stories, prose: anything written, in fact, with an apparently artistic purpose, rather than to merely communicate information; or anything written and examined as if it had an artistic purpose.’ Literature’ also an evaluative word: to say that a novel not is ‘not literature’ is to imply that it is badly written, or has for some other reason failed to achieve the status of art.”

We’re back to the value-judgement again and there is much disagreement over what is accepted as being worthy of being read.

Anyway, I do enjoy reading books by Dickens, Tolstoy, and the rest, just so long as I don’t have to subject them to minute analysis and literary criticism. I prefer to watch Shakespeare’s plays rather than read them, in fact I prefer to watch any drama rather than reading a play, because after all they were written to be performed.


Marianne Arkins said...

I think I lost a lot of the joy in reading when I took those old English Lit classes and subjected the writing to being viewed under a microscope. I do admit to enjoying doing just that with Shakespeare, though. He was so sneaky with his words, you almost HAVE to!

Happy BTT.

Chris said...

"just so long as I don’t have to subject them to minute analysis and literary criticism"

I agree completely with that statement!

I'm off to answer on my blog.

Kay said...

I think you are absolutely correct when you mention the minute analysis being the turnoff. It brings back the whole classroom scenario and, for me at least, that was not fun at all. In fact, it gave me a bad attitude about what the world considers classics and kept me from reading many of them for years. Happily, I have since read a few that I have enjoyed (while not minutely analyzing them).

I also think that many "learned" people feel that one should only read "literature" and get rather snobbish about reading genre books. I am a great fan of mysteries and dislike having them looked down upon. That goes for romances, sci-fi, fantasy and any other book considered a particular genre. Books are books and they all fill a niche.

gautami tripathy said...

Minute analysis kills the book for me! I seldom go for it!

Here is my BTT post!

joanna said...

I used to love the analysis part! I remember one lit class I took where we analysed one Shakespeare play for the entire semester, word by word. I remember that I was shocked that there was so much in there, I wondered how much of it Shakespeare actually intended...

Mrs. B. said...

I tend to think of literature as a higher form of writing. The classics ring as literature to me while Harlequin romances don't quite make the grade.;)
It has to be skillful writing.

bethany said...

I really like what you have to say. and I agree full heartedly with what you said about us saying something is not literature, and it implies it is not well written.

I would go a little further than you, and say that I would include oral tradition as well, and some early forms of communicative expression such as cave drawings...I know that may be strange, but they were trying to convey things to generations to come through art. check out my answer...let me know what you think!

Table Talk said...

Now I, on the other hand, love having to analyse a work. I end up with a much greater appreciation of what the author has achieved, but then isn't it a good job we don't all think the same way. The world would be so boring if we did.

BooksPlease said...

Thanks everyone - I should add that I do like analysis but not to the extent that you lose sight of the text itself and of course you have to analyse Shakespeare to get the most out of the plays.

pussreboots said...

Analysis can be useful but some teachers are too heavy handed with their approach. Happy BTT.

Paula Weston said...

Thank you for a very thoughtful post on the topic.

One of the things I most enjoy about reading in general is the way great stories make you think more about how you view the world. I enjoy books that do that - and discussions and reviews that highlight those types of themes - but I agree: over-analysis is the quickest way to suck the joy out of a story.

As Joanna mentions, I'm sure there's been more than one author throughout history who's been surprised to find their writing has meanings they were oblivious to! (JRR Tolkein, for example, was adamant Lord of the Rings was not meant as an analogy of World War II, and yet there are plenty of "experts" who are just as adamant it was.)

Nithin said...

I always think of classics as "literature", but there are plenty of modern novels out there that would qualify as literature. I usually don't read too many classics and stick to modern novels (not necessarily literary works) because they're always much easier to read.

Aria said...

"A value judgment..." I suppose that is often an unconscious element for me but it does fit. Perhaps that is why I usually link "classics" and "literature." Even if I have not read that particular classic, if it has lasted long enough to be considered one, I typically assume that it has some sort of value, whether I can recognize it or not.