What is literature?

August 22, 2015 § Leave a comment

Today’s morning session began just like the previous two days: trying to recap the last chapter and summarise main points. Inevitably, my fingers flipped through the books’ pages in desperation as I struggled to recall last nights’ words. My biggest stumbling block is without a doubt Culler’s Literary Theory. How can such a tiny mole of a book make such pompous clashing sounds on my desktop amidst the thicker bulkier notches of Walder or even Barry? So far, my impression of the language in the texts is that the easiest to digest structure-wise is Walder, maybe having something to do with the fact that the book was actually meant as an Open University textbook for beginning students to literature. Thankfully, though, Culler did manage to get right into belting out its numbers on what literature is and if it matters at all.

Important term to remember: ‘hyper-protected co-operative principle’. Simply put, narratives should contain communicative elements. These are part of a larger class of stories, or ‘narrative display texts’ that rely on their ‘tellibility’ rather than on their relevance to their listeners. Whatever that is communicated should have a ‘worth it’ response. Are they going to find amusement or pleasure in the story? Then it is defined as literature. Also, another factor that plays a role in its being labelled as literature: its having been published, reviewed and reprinted, so that readers will approach them with the opinion of it having been well-constructed. Five qualities are prerequisites to a work earning this mark:

  1. Literature as a foregrounding of language. We have to be able to see a significant linguistic patterning, such as repetition in rhythm and sound.
  2. Literature as the integration of language.  Novels do not foreground language and tongue twisters rarely attract attention as literature. There must be relations of reinforcement or contrast and dissonance.
  3. Literature as fiction. There is a time in fiction that is ethereal.
  4. Literature as aesthetic object. Immanuel Kant observed that aesthetic objects have a ‘purposiveness without purpose’. For literature to differentiate itself from propaganda, it needs no external purpose.
  5. Literature as intertextual or self-reflexive construct. To read literature is to consider it as a linguistic event that has meaning in relation to other discourses. It is created possibly from previous poems or may be a work that seeks to criticise the political rhetoric of the day.

Very very important background knowledge to theoretical schools that followed from 1960s onwards is the question of when English studies began to be studied as a degree course in university. It was only in 1828 that English was offered as a subject at King’s College, now part of London University. Previously, only Classical Greek and Latin were the subjects that the exclusive male class of Anglican communicants could study taught by unmarried clergymen. What began as a shift towards interest in English studies began concurrently with the Chartist agitation of the 1830s, due to fear of an uprising similar to the French Revolution. Loss of interest in religion among the working class meant that some other thing had to replace it to teach them morality and to restrain them. Then come in the major players to the founding of ‘liberal humanism’, or what can be designated as such to students who are not an adherent to any school, whether it be Marxist, feminist, structuralist, or stylisticist. The ten tenets of liberal humanism make up the criteria for what deems good literature. Not so easy to understand on first reading but I must try and read intensively into it again.

Overall, I think today’s readings in both Culler and Barry will be the most foundational chapters that I will encounter on this course. It might be good to read or at least skim through it everyday for the next few months like a well-travelled path to the next bus stop or to the grocery.

On keeping a writer’s notebook. Each activity needs to be done and some of them, whichever works for me, should be incorporated into my daily writing routine. Virginia Woolf wrote half an hour after tea at fast speed, Maugham wrote character sketches that had dichotomy or different co-ordinates, Monique Roffey wrote her entire novel Sun Dog from writing in her notebook each morning right after getting up, American writer Susan Minot writes of her early memories of reading books and how she was particularly moved by a phrase that stuck with her. Lesson learned: keep at writing and use your writer’s notebook for all kinds of writing. These can become material that can grow and explore possible ways forward.


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