"Literature"

Last week, Canadian author and UBC Creative Writing professor Steven Galloway wrote a letter to the National Post in response to an editorial disparaging a work of Canadian fiction. Galloway suggests that the article in question puts down the work as being too “literary” or more specifically, too “CanLittish.” He goes on to say that the editorialist would have preferred something more Hollywood-esque.

Fine. I’ve not read the original article, nor have I read any of the books in question, so I’m not going to pretend I can comment about them specifically. My issue really has little to do with them. From what I understand of Galloway’s letter, he’s right on many accounts.

My objection is about “literature” in general, or more accurately, the common perception of what makes “literature.” In his objection to the editorial, Galloway seems to suggest that blockbuster-type bestsellers seemingly made purely for entertainment’s sake cannot possibly be “literature.” He says, “Most contemporary literature is overwhelmingly reflective, personal and not ripped from the headlines. And that’s the way it should be. Novels are not twitter, they are not sitcoms and they are not action movies, and the moment they are, literature ceases to exist.”

I’ve heard arguments like this before–the teacher who refuses to allow a book report to be done on a fantasy novel because it’s not “literature,” the English student who looks down on the bookshelf containing pulp fantasy novels and comic books and raises their nose to people who think The Great Gatsby is boring as hell, etc. The implication, of course, is that fantasy and science fiction, perhaps pulp mysteries, comic books, anything that could be called “genre fiction” isn’t literature, and–as a result–is not worth reading.

I don’t know about you, but I look for two things when I sit down to read: 1) something that will stir me intellectually and emotionally, and enrich my life for having read, and 2) entertainment. It’s the exact same thing I look for in a movie. Or a TV show.

dictionary.com‘s first definition of “literature” is: “1. writings in which expression and form, in connection with ideas of permanent and universal interest, are characteristic or essential features, as poetry, novels, history, biography, and essays.” Now, I’m not saying dictionary.com is the be-all-and-end-all of meaning, but in this case I think it sums it up nicely. It’s writing about the human experience.

Every single book I’ve read whose “literary” merit may be called into question explores the human experience. Every single one that I have enjoyed is intellectually stimulating and makes me reflective, and yes, they’ve been entertaining as well. The “blockbuster commercial fiction” that Galloway says is different from “literature” can be just as literary as The Stone Angel.

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