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Wednesday, October 19, 2016

There is no such thing as literature

Wednesday is a socially constructed concept. There is no such object as Wed. in the natural world. That doesn't mean that we can arbitrarily decide that it is not Wed. Social constructions are very strong in this sense. When I say that it is a fact that today is Wed., I am pretty sure of myself. I could make a mistake, for example during a vacation I might lose track of what day it really is, but that's the exception that proves the rule.

Literature is also socially constructed, but in a more profound way. Once again, there is no object out there called literature. It is a category, not a set of objects. Who gets to decide what gets called literature? We do. There is no God of literature who tell us what it is; rather, it is the collective decision of people who use that category.

Let's look at some definitions.

"written works, especially those considered of superior or lasting artistic merit: a great work of literature.
• books and writings published on a particular subject: the literature on environmental epidemiology.
• leaflets and other printed matter used to advertise products or give advice."

Let's take the first one, because the others are clearly different meanings of the same word.

*The first idea we have about literature, is that it should be written. The idea of "letras" or "letters" is at the heart of the matter. Yet I don't think anyone seriously believes that works of a primarily oral nature do not belong to the general category we are talking about. A few dumb journalists might think this, but nobody who has contemplated the problem for more than a few hours.

*The second idea we have about literature is that it has to be good to count as part of the category. In other words, bad plays or poems are not "literature," only good ones. This is very strange, since categories like this are usually not honorific. I guess colloquially we can say: "You call that breakfast!"[Where the breakfast is a badly cooked one.] I was always puzzled by the idea of "literary fiction" because all fiction [prose narrative] is literary. It might not be good, but it is literature. But since we are talking about a social construction, we have to look at the way people decide to construct it, and that honorific term is certainly part of it. If I said I was a drummer and you hired to play on my record, and I give you an incompetent rhythm track... you wouldn't be very happy if I said: "Well, I never said I was a good drummer." In order to fulfill the drumming function it has to be good drumming, in a certain sense.

*A third idea is that idea of "fiction" itself. The idea is that the essence of the literary is it made-up quality. So a science fiction novel set in the future does not describe reality, and even a confessional lyric constructs a fictional self. I'm not sure that's a defining concept, because a lot of things that are literary aren't primarily defined by it, but we have to recognize that it is part of the way we construct literature socially, despite the rise of "creative non-fiction."

*A fourth idea is that if it's non-fictional, it has to be even better written. In other words, the absence of one "literary" element means there has to be some compensation. So a diary, or essay, or lyric poem, or real-life letter is literary if it is good enough, whereas a pulp fiction potboiler is literary because it is made up. Other things are literary because they seem to aspire to the honorific quality, even if they aren't actually good. So a middle-brow "literary" novel (not genre fiction) is literary like a Mary Oliver poem is. It may be crap but it wears its literariness on its sleeve.

Since these ideas about literature are shifting, there is no such thing as literature: only shifting frames of reference. We don't have the same conception as obtained in previous centuries.

So the Nobel prize in literature is a prize in nothing in particular. There isn't the consensus we have about Wed, even.

Let's look at the case of Bob Dylan. The easiest objection to rebut is the idea that his art is mostly musical and oral, and hence not literary. But everyone knows that literature derives from something that used to call "poetics" and that lyric poetry, sung to the lyre and in modern times the guitar, is a major genre. Musically, Dylan is not that great. He can't sing, is an average guitar player, and I don't think his melodies are great. If you gave him an award for music (and in fact he's won many awards) nobody would object that his actual achievement is in the words. But it would be true. That is his strong point for most who admire him.

The second objection is that he simply is not good enough. This is fine, if you really believe he is not that great a writer. But I fear that there is a confusion here. The idea he is not good enough also stems from the fact that he belongs to a world that people have constructed as music, or entertainment, or pop culture. But those are just categories too, right?


Thomas said...

I was half hoping that Bob would not accept his Nobel. (I also thought it was in poor taste for Obama to accept his.) My reason, at first, was that I think the Nobel should be given to people who produce reading material. But then I realized that this would have rendered Harold Pinter's prize inappropriate, and I certainly didn't feel strange at the time about that one. I still feel that there's something not quite literary about my experience of Dylan. I don't engage with his songs as literature. But maybe I just never paid proper attention.

Leslie B. said...

Well, it appears he hasn't gotten back to the Nobel committee yet, so maybe he's still thinking about it. He is on his way here as we speak -- I have never actually seen perform, am sort of afraid to because I sometimes like him and sometimes don't, and if I see him, I want to see stuff I like.

He's got a good ear for words and a good eye for images, and his words (even when borrowed) have duende, so yeah, I'd say it's poetry.

Anonymous said...

Check this out (as you would say, a free idea from me) -- https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/oct/21/dylan-is-not-the-first-songwriter-to-win-the-nobel-prize-for-literature

Thomas said...

@Leslie: I don't mind calling him a poet, and can certainly grant he has duende (though I'm not really qualified to do that). I was under the impression (which may be mistaken) that the Nobel is given for major innovations or for breaking new ground in poetry (or other literary art). I'm still not sure he qualifies. But, like I say, I probably haven't given him a chance. The idea that he might win the Nobel had never occurred to me.

@profacero: There seems to be a big difference between giving the prize to a poet who also wrote songs, and giving it to songwriter for writing songs.

PS: I thought I read somewhere that he acknowledged the prize on his website. But I can't find it now.

Anonymous said...


That, above, is one of the more interesting objections to the prize I have seen.

He seems to have removed the acknowledgment from the website.

I think it is hilarious and fun that he won. I thought WTF initially but as I thought about it could see it more. And you know Ginsberg thought he was best US poet of 2d half of 20th C, for what that is worth.

It's all the blending and crossing over that he does. Modern Times, a 21st century album of his that I liked (I don't follow him consistently) borrows from Ovid or quotes him, and was accused of plagiarizing him. There are a lot of other literary references and dialogues with literary works, and then also folk song traditions that themselves keep walking back and forth between oral and literary, high and low culture, etc. (you know those "primitive" blues players actually got a lot of their tropes from books). I am not enamored of certain famous songs he has, the kind that go down easy, are sanitized and remixed as platitude, but Desolation Row, Hattie Carroll, Hollis Brown, those are searing songs and there is material there. Innovation or breakthrough, I don't know, it depends on how you look at it, but I'm not on the prize committee and they're the ones who get to decide. I notice everyone thinks they know what the committee should have done and has an opinion on whether Dylan is good or bad, and they use these ideas to back up their real ideas, which are that there is a clear distinction between song and poem and that someone who's a commercial success (like García Márquez by the time he won his Nobel) is tainted.

Thomas said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Thomas said...

An argument for Ginsberg could have easily been made in his lifetime. "Howl" alone deserves the prize (from an innovation/influence point of view). And in many ways (in my opinion) that is why Dylan does not. As a poet, he was doing something that had already been invented. Ginsberg's remark about "the best US poet" is, I would think, an intentional kind of nonsense. He knows it's not true but he's challenging this whole idea of a "best" in poetry.

None of this is to take away from Dylan's greatness as a songwriter and performer. For me, however, giving the award to him means we'll have to consider all "storytellers" candidates for the prize too. So one day we'll be suggesting that David Chase or David Simon should win. It was easier when I just thought it should reward exceptionally dedicated producers of reading matter.

Thomas said...

PS. I guess I'm saying Ginsberg was maybe also trying to be "hilarious and fun" when he called Dylan "the best US poet of the late 20th C".

Jonathan said...

I'm sure there are novelists and poets who've won the prize who are not particularly innovative. Saul Bellow? It is not the modernist prize for literature. Obviously if one's archetype for the prize is someone like Pynchon, then you should think Pynchon should get it. In other words, though postmodernist, a practitioner of difficult complex works in that tradition. My candidates are Gamoneda and Ashbery, but I think John Cage or Wittgenstein should have won. Maybe David Antin. Remember that the prize was awarded to Winston Churchill too, whose achievement was not "reading material" but rhetorical influence. I think that I will award the Mayhew Prize every October. I has no money attached to it, and no prestige, but I would give it to Alice Notely, I think.

Thomas said...

Yes, it's possible that I think of the Nobel for literature too much on the Nobel for physics. Maybe it's harder to get it right with literature because of how controversial innovations are until after the innovator dies. Wittgenstein should definitely have won if he had lived twenty years longer. Though this assumes something which can't be taken for granted: that he would have published the Investigations while he was alive.

Jonathan said...

Right. So changing the whole field like Einstein is Nobel worthy. Even in physics not all Nobel prizes are going to momentous like that. And Einstein didn't even win for relativity but for something else, I think.

Thomas said...

Well, there's a sort of concreteness about the discovery that a Nobel in physics or chemistry or physiology is given for. I think Szent-Gyorgyi won his for discovering something as now-ordinary as vitamin C. Ezra Pound liked to approach literary history as a series of "discoveries" and "inventions", explicitly on the model of scientific discoveries. I think Hemingway's Nobel is the one I understand best. It's clear what technical innovation he's said to have introduced.

Yes, Einstein won the Nobel for discovering the photoelectric effect, not (it seems) for turning the whole universe on its head. It's like giving it to Galileo for discovering the phases of Venus or something. Or putting Al Capone away for tax evasion.