There's no such thing as literature

My missus, who is French, is very proud of the fact that, along with temperature and secretary, she can pronounce literature correctly. All three words are pretty difficult for most foreigners and more horrifying than Cube Zero to French people.

But literature is a pet hate of mine.

"Do you," people ask me, "edit literary fiction as well as genre fiction?"

"How," authors complain, "can I cross over from pulp to literature?"

"It's not literature," readers excuse themselves, "but it's what I like to read."

Definition #4 from Wiktionary knows what I'm talking about:

4. Written fiction of a high standard.
However, even "literary" science fiction rarely qualifies as literature, because it treats characters as sets of traits rather than as fully realized human beings with unique life stories. - Adam Cadre, 2008

I'm very lucky in that I grew up in exactly the kind of household which would traditionally have differentiated fiction between "literature" and "entertainment or light reading", but my mother was an instinctive iconoclast with a deep suspicion of categories of any kind; racism and sexism are forms of prejudice that are communicated and reinforced by lazy and thoughtless categorization. I don't actually remember what her opinion on the question of what literature is might have been. Perhaps I'll ask her.

In any case, the idea that fiction could be sorted into what is, and what is not, literature is a familiar one, but neither instinctive nor natural for me, and with my borderline Marxist anarchist social politics, one which reeks of prejudice and discrimination. Specifically, intellectual snobbery.

Intellectual snobbery is a form of status rivalry. It is perpetrated by people who feel that they have no real power, but have enough education, and are widely enough read, to use that as a means of saying that they are better than others. The label of literature is one of the pillars of intellectual snobbery. It is a way of saying: you haven't read the right books.

My missus, correctly, challenged my assertion that there is no such thing as literature saying that some books are clearly better than others. And some books are absolutely dreadful. This is true. But there is no way of defining a dividing line above which all the books are literature and below which all of them are "light reading". Rather like a Monk of Cool selecting his outfit, what makes a book literature is that it is on the list of books read by, or books to read by, whichever intellectual snob you are unfortunate enough to be talking to.

I'm not accusing you of being an intellectual snob.If you think you know which books are literature and which books aren't, that's because all forms of snobbery are endemic and unconscious in our culture. You're only actually a snob if you think that people who haven't read the literature that you've read are inferior to you.

Mostly, of course, I'm speaking to struggling writers here. Among struggling writers there are various attitudes towards literature:

"I'll never be able to write literature."

"I hope some day to be able to write literature."

"I don't want to write literature."  - often followed by quite sensible reasons.

"People don't think I'm writing literature."

"People don't realize I'm writing literature."

"You don't like my work because you aren't used to reading literature."

No prizes for guessing what I think of the last one. What I'd like writers to think is that it doesn't matter. It matters that you write what you love and love what you are currently writing. (I don't expect you to love what you wrote ten years ago. It's probably awful. Everything I wrote ten years ago is awful.)

It matters that you want to write a satisfying book. It matters that you want to understand and improve your craft. It matters that you want to understand how to give your readers the book that they want to read.

These are far higher goals than getting yourself placed in a category that gives you a spurious, divisive status.

There's no such thing as literature.

No comments: