Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Dickens to Dr. Seuss

I've been thinking on and off about what defines literature, not just since yesterday, but for a few months now. When most people the world think of "literature" they immediately think of difficult and complex books written by men and women of such esteem as, Faulkner, Austen, Steinbeck, and the like. There are a handful of authors and works that everyone can agree have achieved literary merit, but there are even more that are, to put it lightly, debatable. 
The best example I can think of is the Bible. At my high school they started a course called "The Bible as Literature," and it created quite the controversy. Before it was all over (and, in a way, it still isn't) there was a team of ACLU lawyers preparing to take the school district to court saying they violated the separation of church and state, and people were driving around with bumper stickers that read "We Support the ECISD Bible Curriculum." The base of the schism was that many Christians in town felt as if the bible wasn't "Literature" at all, they felt it was a book to live by. 
This episode is what originally made me decide that literature is relative. What I consider to be of literary merit might read like complete poppycock to someone else, and visa versa. Two of my favorite authors are Shel Silverstein and Theodor Geisel (Dr. Seuss). Occasionally I'll get into an argument with someone about how important Silverstein and Geisel's works are in the grand scheme of all things literature, but people usually agree or at least see my point of view on the subject, which tells me that people are generally willing to accept that their schema of literature might differ from other people's, and that it is okay. 
It might seem like a cop out answer, and maybe it is, but I can't help but think that literature isn't something that should have a set of requirements. It seems to me that as long as you walk away having learned something substantial from whatever you read, and enjoyed yourself in the process, it was literature. 


  1. I very much agree that literature is relative. If it wasn't, then we would not be in this class reading a book (LT) that shows how literature is defined along so many different lines. And we would also not be in this "English" class whose curriculum requires more movies/TV shows/music albums than it does books.
    Before this class, I had never thought for myself about what literature really is. Literature was always defined for me, in the form of a book being shoved in my face. When I told my mom all the material that I needed to get for this class, she thought I was lying. She actually made me show her the syllabus before she gave me the money. As I was trying to explain to her the reason we would be examining a TV show, music and movies in an English class, I surprised myself by saying that you can read more than just books.
    After my mom asked me if I was drunk, I sat down and really thought about what I had said. You CAN read more than just books, and by that, I mean you can read INTO more than just books. To me, literature and any other forms of art (screenplays, song lyrics, paintings) are great outlets for social commentary. While you can find some great social commentary in "literature" (Animal Farm, 1984, Grapes of Wrath) you can also find it in songs and movies.
    Also, a lot of great "classic" works of literature have been made into movies and have spawned great songs and TV shows. If this is the case, then why can't a movie or song be considered literature if it did not originate as a book?

  2. First off, I think that course about the Bible would be an awesome one to take, not just because I am a Christian, but because I do consider the Bible to be literature because it is a beautiful piece of work, along with other religious books (as someone else mentioned earlier). And I also do believe there cannot be a certain set of requirements set for what can be considered literature. Either because I have never really thought about the definition of literature or I had always had a concrete definition drilled into my head, the Literary Theory text really intrigues me. I especially like the part on page 8 about literature having the same but opposite definition of weeds in a garden, "weeds are not particular kinds of plants, but just any kind of plant which for some reason of another a gardener does not want around" and literature is said to be "any kind of writing which for some reason or another somebody values highly. I think the quote "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder" fits this topic nicely. To one person a book can be literature but to another it could not be. I'm not sure why that really stuck me as such an interesting view, but it did.