The Daily Bongo
What is literature? If we look up the definition of the word in the Merriam-Webster dictionary, we find that it states: "writings in prose or verse; especially : writings having excellence of form or expression and expressing ideas of permanent or universal interest". The question that I have is who determines what has excellence of form and what ideas are of permanent or universal interest. This question came to my mind during my fiction writing class. The teacher of the class was quite adamant that you could not be considered a writer until ten years had passed after getting your MFA (Masters of Fine Arts). That's all fine and dandy, but how about the folks who don't get MFAs? Are they by default not even considered writers because of the lack of a degree? What really perturbed me was her quick dismissal of Stephen King's works. She held up her hand and wrinkled her nose as if a fat, gassy dog had just passed her. "That is just crap" she declaimed.
What it all comes down to is that if you consistently write popular fiction that sells well, you must be writing crap. Talk about an elitist attitude. I think that a part of this attitude comes from the fact that the MFA writer is jealous of the success of the crap writer. How is it that Stephen King can make millions while the poor MFA is forced to work at Starbucks while writing on the side? Of course, the majority of people who write for a living don't really make a living from it. Only a small percentage make up the corps of well paid authors. So I suppose that if you are a starving artist, chances are that you aren't writing crap. You are writing Literature! I think that King's work is of universal interest based on the fact that so many people read and enjoy his works. So in my shabby opinion that classifies it as literature.
One of the problems that I have with the definition of Literature that this teacher has is that it totally excludes any form of genre literature. Where are the mysteries, science fiction, fantasy, romance, and horror? (I use Literature with capitalization to denote the types of material this elitist would put under her nose.) As the teacher stated, if you want to write, you have to read to understand how to write. Well, if you want to write in a genre then you shouldn't exclude the genre from your reading list. I suppose that genre writing should be beneath us. We should have higher aspirations. Who cares about the entertainment for the masses? They are just a bunch of uneducated slobs anyway.
I wonder how the teacher would view Charles Dickens. At the time that Dickens wrote, he was extremely popular and one out of ten people who were literate would read his material. His novels were originally conceived and written as newspaper serials that would have cliff hangers to make the reader want to come back for more. Of course, now Dickens is one of those feared dead white men, so his books probably wouldn't fall into the type of literature the teacher would want us to read anyway. I think that she is fonder of contemporary Literature--anything earlier than 1930 need not apply. However, I think that if Dickens were alive today, he would be of the ilk of King or Michael Crichton. Perhaps Dickens might give more thought to the poor and disadvantaged, but I think that his main focus was writing to the majority of his audience while trying to educate them about the injustices of the world.
Personally, I aspire more towards Agatha Christie. I don't think that anyone would refer to her books as great literature, but the plots were tight and cohesive. The characters were consistent and true to real life, especially Jane Marple. She is your typical, busy-body neighbor who knows everything that is going on, and always has her finger in every pie. Hercule Poirot may be more of a caricature, but we make him more human in our minds. Throw in a puzzle and what more could you want from a book? Agatha Christie had a way with a plot and would use elements that others didn't even dream of. For example, one of her books is narrated by the murderer. The twist is that you don't realize that he is the murderer until it is unveiled at the end.
The only hope that I have in this class is to absorb the teacher's definition of Literature and to regurgitate it to her. The teacher assigned some short stories to give us an idea of what she believes Literature is. For this coming week, we have to read John Steinbeck, Flannery O'Connor, Amy Tan, Margaret Atwood and Alice Munroe. Having more plebeian tastes, my favorite story was Tan's Two Kinds. It was excerpted from the Joy Luck Club and was the one story that I connected to. The vignette was about the author as a little girl who wasn't a prodigy even though her mother had high aspirations for her. I could empathize with the feelings of rebellion on the daughter's part because I think that is something every child feels at one time or another. That is the sign of a good writer and a good story. The emotions and situations are ones that are common place and could possibly come from anyone's life. The Steinbeck story was undecipherable. It was The Chrysanthemums, and I couldn't figure out what Steinbeck was trying to get across at all. Perhaps my problem with Steinbeck is that I have never really been a fan of his. When I was a child, I read the The Red Pony, and found it utterly depressing. The only story of Steinbeck's that I did like was Of Mice and Men. I suppose that I will have to wait for the in-class analysis to figure this one out.
I do love to read, and I understand the premise that in order to be a writer, you must be an avid reader. I just don't think that I should limit myself to one subsection of a genre because it is deemed an acceptable one. Give me the Stephen Kings and the Agatha Christies and let me enjoy them for what they are--books that allow the reader to escape from the stress and calamities of the everyday world. As a writer, I would rather give the reader a release into another world that really doesn't require the reader to pay attention to my flowery analogies. Give me "crap" any day!
September 6, 2005