Thursday, October 02, 2008

Why Literature Matters

Last year a book called The Top Ten presented lists of favorite literary works from 125 popular authors -- Annie Proulx, Stephen King, Jonathan Franzen, Tom Perrotta, Anita Shreve, to name a few. Classics and modern fiction alike fell on these lists, and when all 125 were "averaged", the ultimate top-10 list looked as follows, with Tolstoy's adulterous epic claiming the #1 slot.
1. Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy
2. Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert
3. War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy
4. Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov
5. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain
6. Hamlet, William Shakespeare
7. The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald
8. In Search of Lost Time, Marcel Proust
9. The Stories of Anton Chekhov
10. Middlemarch, George Eliot
These were the high-brow winners, but there were many -- hundreds -- of titles appearing on one list but no others, as various as Ian McEwen's Atonement, Jack Kerouac's On the Road, and Dr. Seuss' The Lorax. (For examples of individual lists scroll towards the bottom of The Top Ten Blog.) That Anna Karenina came out as the best book of all time surprised me a bit, but that's probably just because I never got around to reading it. This month I finally did, and it left enough impact on me to blog my own pick list -- I'm going to be ambitious enough to try a top-20 -- on which Karenina certainly finds a home.

But before my list, it's worth reflecting on what qualifies as literature. "Literature" is usually understood to be writing which illuminates, surprises, and delights in a lasting and transcendent way. I used to think a lot of fiction could be considered literary since the question is so subjective. Glenn Arbery's Why Literature Matters forced me to grapple with the question more seriously. How exactly do we classify literature? The classics are a given, but modern works are endlessly debated.

Consider Tom Wolfe and Toni Morrison, each of whose novels have been hailed as literary masterpieces. Arbery thinks Morrison deserves the praise, but not Wolfe. Wolfe may be a good satirist, but that makes A Man in Full more journalistic than literary. Literature, says Arbery, has to apprehend reality on a level deeper than current politics and social issues, so that when those issues fade, the work still resonates as powerfully.

Satire can be literary (think Flannery O'Connor), but it needs to do more than "expose the follies of things" and register impatience with the world. Tom Perrotta's Little Children, for instance, is in my opinion a brilliant satire on upper-middle class suburbia, but more than that. It works on multiple levels as literature should: characters are defined by their relationship to their children, while they, in turn, remain children on the inside -- even as parents -- as they shun responsibilities and live as in a dream. They reflect a pathos particular to American suburbians, but whose dark emotions and desires take us beyond the surface-value level, and who are capable of surprising us despite how we peg them.

The world of A Man in Full, by contrast, remains flattened and lower-dimensional throughout, never reaching for the more "permanent things" in human experience. "Tom Wolfe's novels are placards of simplicity," says James Wood. "His characters only feel one emotion at a time; their inner lives are like jingles for the self. Everyone is scrawled with the same inner graffiti. As Picasso had his Blue Period, so Wolfe's characters have their Angry Period, or their Horny Period, or their Sad Period. But they never have them at the same time." (The New Republic, 12/14/98, pp 37,41). On top of that, his prose is almost completely devoid of aesthetic appeal. As Arbery puts it:
"I remember hearing a radio story about the way that cocaine arouses pleasure and well-being by activating L-dopa in the brain, but uses up the brain's natural chemicals to such an extent that, without the drug, the addict is left like the knight in Keats' poem, 'all haggard and woe-begone'. In the same way, Wolfe's fictional world is pumped, exaggerated, like a comic book, but the style blanks out the natural pleasure of perception. It is almost impossible to quote from A Man in Full without feeling that Wolfe used plastic and neon for his sentences instead of more expensive materials... The problem is that this kind of exaggeration, like pornography, uses up the imagination and obliterates subtlety." (Why Literature Matters, pp 9-10)
So when a book like A Man in Full is praised unduly (by The Washington Post, New York Times, Newsweek, and Time back in '98), it may be a sign that we've become alarmingly short-sighted. The acceptance of his kind of writing as literature is dangerous, as Wood says, not (hopefully) because anyone will be foolish enough to think this is what life is actually like, but "because readers will read it and think 'this is what literature is like'" (The New Republic, 12/14/98, p 42). Elitist as it sounds, we need to maintain better standards and prefer authors who get at complex human emotions, irony, and even contradiction, rather than posterlike "realism".

That's what makes a novelist like Toni Morrison (though perhaps not Alice Walker) so superior. Instead of using a book like Beloved to skewer social problems or angrily demand justice, she engages social drama and tests ideas by showing what happens when they naturally unfold. Paradoxes result, uncomfortable ones, and the reader is left struggling (as much as the novel's characters) with the more timeless dilemmas. Arbery again:
"Morrison does not promote the 'black experience' so much as she questions its meaning and locates it thoughtfully within an American literary tradition that includes Hawthorne, Melville, Faulkner, and Flannery O'Connor... She finds universal qualities with her subjects, because she chooses, not Us-vs.-Them, but Us-vs.-Us situations... Rather than group grievances of race-gender-class issues, she concerns herself with revealing especially the self-contradictions... [In Beloved] slavery is the backdrop, the memory, the threat, but the drama played out is one that stems from contradictory, tragic reactions -- as in Exodus -- when the promise of freedom is both offered and deferred. And not black reactions, as though 'black' really did, in some secret depth, mean something other than 'human': the reactions of humanity in these conditions." (Ibid, pp 62,66-67)
Authors like Morrison (and Cormac McCarthy and Ian McEwan, to name others) not only address the more "permanent things", not only understand human experience in all its messy irony, they write with an aesthetic language layered with multiple meanings. Literary authors constantly struggle to find the right ways to express things on more than one level, even often against their personal preferences and tendencies -- not to bamboozle readers with impressive diction or show off sophistication, but to take their work as seriously as they want the timeless reader to take it.

Some writers, of course, are good storytellers without being literary. I've often pondered the difference between Stephen King (a great storyteller, but hardly literary) and Peter Straub (who I think achieves literary form in at least some of his books). King forcefully engages -- dare I say rapes -- our attention, with garrulous prose, while Straub teases our minds so that we really want to pay attention. Straub is clearly concerned with the art of his books, so that readers can ponder ambiguity and see through it to other levels; I'm thinking especially of Shadowland and Mystery, though others too. I've certainly enjoyed some of King's books, but aside from two (The Gunslinger and The Stand), I doubt that any qualify as literature.

But why does it matter? Literature matters, says Arbery, because ultimately what lasts is something that satisfies the imagination more than just a good page-turner or a mirror of hot social issues. Nothing about the social circumstances of the Trojan War pertain to us today, but Homer was able to take up those things, elevate them, and find what's permanent in them so that The Iliad sustains our interest anyway. The same with Tolstoy: Anna Karenina is saturated with the socio-political debates of Czarist Russia -- the relation of peasants to the land, education of the poor (and women), the question of zemstvo activism, the Serbian war against the Turks -- but Tolstoy transcended politics as he engaged it. What really hits the reader of Karenina (certainly me, recently) are the bigger and more tragic questions about life, death, religion, love, jealousy, and ambition.

There's nothing wrong with non-literary fiction when it's recognized for what it is. But when we start lumping Tom Wolfe with Charles Dickens, or Alice Walker with Toni Morrison, there's a problem -- a sure sign that we need to step back and reassess how much we're willing to allow cultural pressures determine the shape of our literary canon.

Here's my own stab at a list of literary favorites. If I could save only 20 works of literature for my home library, I'd choose the following, rated roughly in order of preference:
1. The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien.
2. Shogun, James Clavell.
3. The Divine Comedy, Dante Alighieri.
4. The Iliad, Homer.
5. The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, Stephen R. Donaldson.
6. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain.
7. Paradise Lost, John Milton.
8. Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy.
9. Dune, Frank Herbert.
10. Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte.
11. The Judeo-Christian Bible.
12. The King of Vinland's Saga, Stuart Mirsky.
13. The Hyperion Cantos, Dan Simmons.
14. Hamlet, William Shakespeare.
15. The Book of the New Sun, Gene Wolfe.
16. Boy's Life, Robert McCammon.
17. Perelandra, C.S. Lewis.
18. The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck.
19. Weaveworld, Clive Barker.
20. The First Man in Rome, Colleen McCullough.


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