This seems like a fastidious thing to debate but bare with me.
‘What is literature’ has been a hot topic of discussion for centuries, definition has always been important for academics, and they spend a large amount of time on prolonged discussions of outdated ideas. This also means new genres or contributions to literature won’t make it on the agenda for a few more decades.
Countless essays and books have been written to argue on the point of what makes literary writing literary, and not just ordinary. Often, however, these essays were written simply to argue that a genre (penny journals during the 19th century, for example) has no literary value on offer. The whole debate can easily turn into a dull gyrating war of terminology.
However, the whole debate can be simplified and broken down into two parts:
a) That Literature has an inherent quality which can be measured, i.e. there is a clear divide between what is literature, and what is just ordinary writing. In other words ‘High’ literature or ‘Low’ literature, and thus the existence of Canonical writing or the ‘Classics’ (the insistence that certain books are unquestionably literary whereas others are not)
b) Literature has no inherent quality, and therefore the ‘literariness’ of all writings/books is up for debate. No one book, or type of books, are better than others.
Which is correct?
Usually when the argument is in favour of Literature having inherent qualities, the argument relies on certain types of books to be automatically assumed as inferior. To argue in favour of a piece of writing being ‘high’ literature, you would need to break down convincingly your own opinion as most enjoyment of literature and art, whether intellectual or emotional, all relies on our own experience as an individual.
Which is why the argument falls short if you disagree, for example, that popular literature is not an inferior genre. This side of the argument also begins to crumble when you know how the ‘Classics’ were categorized in the first place.
Brief History of Classics and Popularity
To understand how Canonical or ‘Classical’ literature came about one needs to understand the history of the term ‘popular’ as well as the hierarchical nature of pre-20th century society.
Historically the word ‘popular’ wasn’t seen as ‘well-liked by many people’ as it is today. Originally it was a derogatory term for something or someone who panders to or tries to win favour with the general public. This was used to describe people who cared about “the masses.”
To be associated with the common people was to be like them, and to be like them meant being lesser. “The people” had no power in an undemocratic society, and therefore to win over their favour was not as meaningful as it is today. Today popularity can be used to gain power whereas before the power of public opinion it was more important to win over the favour of the Elite, the so-called ruling class. It was important to be liked by the elite minority.
So when books were favoured by upper class, or even middle-class readers, then they could be considered ‘high’ literature. When higher education was only available to the rich, their opinion of what was good writing was taken into consideration.
Until the 20th century the ‘Elite’ which decided the Canon was often male writers writing about other authors. At the turn of the 20th century (generally speaking) the ‘Elite’ changed as society changed, and became more representative of classes and genders.
Are ‘Classics’ better?
When the populace gained more power through education, and literariness could be openly debated, the barriers between ‘high’ and ‘low’ literature has become blurred.
Though the category of ‘Classics’ persists, it is important to recognise that this genre does not necessarily reflect ‘good’ writing but rather a time when Elite Authors were favoured by Elite Readers. And the word ‘Literature’ itself meant a person was ‘literate’ rather than a special set of qualities in writing.
In John Carey’s book ‘What Good are the Arts’ he coins a phrase:
Something may be a work of art for one person and not for another. If you think it is art then it is art, though it may only be art just to you.
Art in this sense is synonymous with Literature.
John Carey highlights that in our social climate of acceptance for others, and their experiences, it is illogical to then categorize art into ‘good’ and ‘bad’.
So if one enjoys online fan-fiction, for example, it does not mean that your enjoyment of these writings makes your tastes any less inferior to someone who enjoys the so-called ‘Classics’. Equally, if you do not enjoy reading the classics, you are no less ‘cultured’ than someone who does.
And that, in short, is what Literature is: it is anything you think is literary because one’s experience or enjoyments are all equally valid, and varied.
The real essence of literature, if there is to be one, is actually Story. This means that a wide range of media can also be seen as Literature. Ranging from comics to films or series, and everything in between. Stories are the single most captivating thing to people. It’s the reason we enjoy gossip, TV, and Literature!