Monday, June 10, 2013

Good "Literature" - Warning: This is a Rant

Warning: This is a rant.

Second Warning: I wrote this post several months ago, set it back in my list of "to publish" stuff and then forgot about it. (I still feel the same way, but the heat came from a moment that I'll be explaining on Friday (Wed has a different planned post).

Literature comes from a Latin word that means "of letters". We've taken that word as a society and twisted it to mean, "books with snob value that lesser mortals will never enjoy."

Admittedly I like to read some classic literature, but I don't like to define certain books as "literary" and others as "fluff." I think those are dangerous and foolish definitions that ruin reading for everyone.

Why do we need to put up a boundary between "good" "literature" and "bad" "literature"?

Why can't we all just read books and enjoy them?

I happen to like Scifi books by Orson Scott Card; fantasy books by Tolkein, C.S. Lewis, and Jessica Day George; classic fiction by Charles Dickens; plays by Shakespeare; poetry by modern poets and classic poets. I like YA and MG books because they have amazingly well developed characters and usually hopeful endings.

I don't like books that expound on the misery of the human condition like Faulkner's As I Lay Dying, or Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. I wish I could take back the time in my life when I had to read those awful books for university English classes.

However, I still like Hamlet and Macbeth . . .which both show human suffering and misery, but end with justice. To Kill a Mockingbird is an awesome book that doesn't pull any punches when it comes to real, painful issues, but it has a bittersweet ending that I love.

There's nothing wrong with books that get into real life woes, I just don't like the ones that leave us with the feeling that hope is futile. A number of books on the "good" literature lists are books that start and end in the misery of the human condition with no hope offered. In those books, the characters don't appear to learn anything, and the story ends not far from where it begins even if decades have passed. And yet, because the prose writing is beautiful and some group of stuffy professors decided they liked it, it gets the seal of "quality" literature.

Given the choice between "life is misery and that's all there is" books and books that show character development and end with a brighter horizon, why does it surprise the literary snobs that so-called "literature" is being overlooked for "fluff" fiction?


Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I agree - why does there have to be boundaries?
I don't enjoy hopeless books either. I don't read to feel depressed - I read to escape.

mshatch said...

I think the important thing is that people read, not what they read. We all have preferences for certain things, bright colors over pastels, mystery rather than biography, tea vs coffee. It's these differences that make the world a more interesting place.

~Sia McKye~ said...

Oh, I've read classics too. Some are well written and enjoyable some aren't. Bad things may have happened but the character moves onto a better place by the end.

Just because a person can paint the misery of human emotion well doesn't make literature.

Conversely, if you write using a good character arc and move the character to a better place by the end of the story it's not fluff.

For me reading is entertainment and escape. I see more than enough negatives without hope in everyday living. I don't chose to visit those places in my entertainment. And if that makes me plebeian, who cares?


L. Diane Wolfe said...

A good story is all about growth. If there's no hope at the end, where was the growth?

T. Drecker said...

I don't like stories without a 'better' ending. If the characters aren't developed and I'm left emtpy or depressed, I wonder why I took the time to read the book in the first place. Sia said what I was going to - life is serious enough. I don't want my fiction to pull me down too.

D.G. Hudson said...

Some books are intended to make you think. Some are pure entertainment. A reader may get good things from both.

I definitely have my fave books and some of them are literary. I select books because I like the time period or the author. I don't like labels, either, but too many people 'don't want to think' when they read. Rather a sad state of affairs.

Tyrean Martinson said...

Alex - I think the boundaries between "good" and "bad" literature just make reading less appealing for a lot of people. Reading is a wonderful thing, for whatever reason we read.

Marcy - I agree, and I like how you said it better than I did. We need diversity, and the important thing is that we read.

Sia - I agree! Many of us see the icky part of life all too regularly and don't need to immerse ourselves in it when we read.

Diane - Exactly!!!

T - agreed! We need the hope offered in some books to see the possibilities of a brighter real world.

DG - True. I think that the best books make us think, entertain us, and give us a horizon to aim for in our lives.

L.G. Smith said...

I just like good books, I don't really care what genre they come from.

And that was my total gripe with Cormac McCarthy's The Road. I loved the novel, thought it was genius writing, but then there was zero hope at the end. No glimmer of life left for anyone, not even a single blade of green grass. If he had just added one tiny sign of life my heart would have soared for the characters at the end. But he didn't and it soured the ending for me.

ib said...

I like the feeling of progress so, when I read a book, I like there to be progress made by it's conclusion. Whatever happens in between the first page and last page is part of the ride. So long as there is something positive to digest at the end. I.M.H.O. a perfect example of this can be found in the book called "The Shack." It was torturous for me to read and on several occasions, I wanted to chuck it into a fire but by books end, I was happy that I stayed with it.

Natalie Aguirre said...

I really like the hopeful books better. Life can sometimes be hard without an end in sight. I'd rather read books that inspire and uplift me.

Christine Rains said...

Excellent post. I don't need a happy ending to enjoy a book, but there definitely have to be character development and a marvelous plot.

Quanie Mitchell said...

Well said! I am so with you on Heart of Darkness (by the time I finished reading it I was yelling "the horror" myself). It's almost as if snobs believe that books aren't meant to be enjoyed, but suffered through. In some of my writing classes I was about the only one who dared to admit that I actually wanted to write commercial fiction that people would enjoy. Why is that some literary crime??? Great post!

M Pax said...

I do like 'literary' and sci-fi and genre books. I can really get into those deep exploratory books. But I guess that's why so many different kinds of books are published... we all like different things.

Heather Holden said...

I agree with you that there shouldn't be distinctions like "literary" and "fluff," and that a book should simply be judged by its quality, not how "literary" it is. However, I must admit, I do love hopeless endings as much as the hopeful ones. Blame the lifelong horror fan in me!

Tammy Theriault said...

Break down those boundaries...glad you reposted

Allison said...

Hear, hear! I hated Heart of Darkness. A good book is a good book, whether it's Harry Potter or Shakespeare, I say.

Allison (Geek Banter)

Maurice Mitchell said...

You're right, Tyrean. There are many painful issues that tell tales of human drama and courage, but there's a place for fun too.