Sunday, May 01, 2005

But is it Literature?

I read this quote from Helen Falconer in the Guardian book section this morning:
When women write cheerful, upbeat stuff about aspirational females out and about in the world, they are bluntly informed that it doesn't count as literary, it's just chick lit. ... This situation means that there is a vast sea of books by female authors out there that are too well-written and quirky to be trashed, but which by their nature (written by women, about women, for women) do not qualify as literature.
And then over on Booksquare's and Brenda Coulter's blogs there is discussion about the article in The Book Standard which quotes Otto Penzler, 'dean of mystery-writing in America':
“The women who write [cozies] stop the action to go shopping, create a recipe, or take care of cats,” he says. “Cozies are not serious literature. They don’t deserve to win. Men take [writing] more seriously as art. Men labor over a book to make it literature...."
It really worries me that in 2005, any definition of 'Literature' that so blatantly excludes women and women's values and interests can be accepted as the norm - even by women.

I've been mulling all day over how I would define a novel as a 'Literary' one. Not that books have to be 'literary' to be good - there is nothing in the slightest wrong with a rattling good yarn read purely for enjoyment, whether it be romance, chick lit, women's fic, sci-fi, fantasy, thriller, mystery, whatever. But yes, there are books for me which go further than providing an enjoying read, that I would class as 'literary'. So, what do those books have for me? One or more of the following:
  • evocative writing
  • emotional engagement
  • originality of concept
  • deftly drawn, fascinating, complex characters
  • beautifully crafted story-telling
  • a perspective of the world that shows me new things in it
A glance at my bookshelf shows the following books I frequently reread and that I'd class as 'literature': Ursula Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness; Herman Hesse's Narziss and Goldmund; Patrick Susskind's Perfume; Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird; Kathleen Creighton's The Top Gun's Return; Ruth Park's The Harp in the South; Darcy Niland's The Shiralee. And, least you think literature has to be Serious - Terry Pratchett's Discworld series, which meets pretty much all of the above criteria (including laugh-out-loud emotion).

Yes, some of you will have spotted it - I've included a romance in that list. A category romance at that. And I didn't get struck by lightning. Not yet, anyway.

I'm interested in how others define 'literature', and whether there would be any romances on your list of literary books. I know that only about three people per day come here, but hey, feel free to make my life more exciting by leaving a comment ;-)


McVane said...

Hm. Interesting question. I came over here to say that for making me smile with your response about MY BRILLIANT CAREER.

I think that sets "literary" novels apart from genre novels is the target of an author's manipulation.

Authors of genre novels would try to manipulate a reader's emotions, and authors of literary novels would try to manipulate a reader's perspective.

Off my head I can't think of a romance novel that I'd consider 'literary'.

And furthermore, the majority of 19th century English writers is female, using male pen names. They were biggest contributors in developing and shaping the concept of the English Novel. Do they get the credit for it? Of course not. Oh, I'd better shut up. That gender war in literature p***es me off. I don't even want to think about it because every time I do, I get royally fracked off. :D

McVane said...

Oops. I wasn't ready to post, but I pressed RTN, and off it went. *blush*

"Off my head I can't think of a romance novel that I'd consider 'literary'." MISSING BIT ADDED: I know there is a few that successfully hit two targets: emotions and perspective, but quite a few readers - rightfully - dislike those novels. I don't like those, either.

A novel rarely succeeds in having two extreme ends in same place, because one has to suffer to make the other work and vice versa. When that happens, everyone loses. It's a bit like trying to listening to TV and at same time listening to the phone.

I hope that makes sense because it doesn't to me! lol!

Bron said...

Interesting thoughts, Maili, and thanks for contributing them. (Must work out how to put the accent on the 'a' in your name - sorry!)

I think I understand what you're getting at - that in novels regarded as 'literary' there's a sort of objective, uninvolved observation of the characters, rather than the emotional investment and identification that readers of romance put in?

I'd agree that that has been the fashion amongst modern literary critics, but I'm not sure that I agree that it's the only valid definition of 'literature'. But then I also think that if modern literary critics were reading some of the 'classics' for the first time, they'd probably rip them to shreds instead of revering them ;-)

I guess I think of 'literary' more in terms of writing craft and quality, and that engaging the reader's emotions is as valid as engaging the reader's intellect. And in that sense, shouldn't a really good writer be able to do both? And why do we not value as 'literary' something that engages the emotions?

But I shall ponder your words some more, because this really is a question that interests me.

And, on another note, Sam Neill in person is definitely sigh-worthy. Of course, that was back in 1977 or thereabouts and I was only 15, but I still remember him smiling at me.


Dorothy said...

I believe that books fall into two main categories: literary and entertainment (fun, good reads). I don't feel that anyone should "cut down" a book just because it isn't in the literary category and perhaps they just might be missing out on a good, fun read (chick lit, e.g.) just because they were listed in the entertainment category.

I write something that's been thrown in the "hen lit" category which basically is defined as older protaganists with a kick ass attitude, but I wouldn't call it "literary."

Now, would that make my book less worthy? I guess it depends on what you feel is literary or not. Since it does not fall in the literary field, and does fall in the entertainment field, am I supposed to hold my head in shame?

Of course not.

My "hen lit" characters do not stop what they are doing to "go shopping, create a recipe, or take care of cats;" they take on the world and show the readers what strength they have and how far they will go to prove their wit and intelligence.

Granted, there are chick lits that do do these things (and a lot of them are fun reads because I have almost a whole library of them), but I feel that chick/hen lit is growing away from that and are becoming stronger characters within themselves.

I know there are a lot of chick/hen lit writers/authors who are discouraged that the industry thinks of their works as not serious.

These are very serious writers that feel that maybe, just maybe, the world needs something else to read besides literary fiction and are ready to give these readers what they are craving for.

Sorry for going on so, but everytime I come along and find yet another place that condemns chick lit (not yours..I was speaking of Otto Penzler in this respect), it really gets into my crawl because these books pass every test from agent on up to the big NY houses before they are allowed to be published. If these agents - and I'm talking about top agencies - and publishers thought of this genre as nothing but "women who go shopping...," then what does that say about these agencies/publishers?

No, these books are not literary, per say, but that still does not put them in a category that is beneath them. They stand on their own and I believe that you will be hearing great things from these authors in the future.

Thanks for letting me rant. for that coffee...;o)

Kristin said...

I just had to answer someone's thought from the very first comment...that she couldn't think of any romances that qualified as "literature."

The first one that came to my mind was "Gone With the Wind." The next was "Rebecca" by Daphne Du Maurier.

There are plenty of novels out there written by women with romance being the center of the story that I would consider literary.

Just my two cents.

Claire said...

Romance? The works of Jane Austen, for just one example. I'm not sure about what is 'literary' - it's used as synonymous with 'good' or 'worthy' but you can have bad and unworthy literary novels as well.

If we are going into 'gender,' I'd say there are very few men who can get the female perspective remotely believable, but then, when literature is judged, it's judged from a male perspective (even by some women) and anything that conforms to masculine view of women is 'okay.'