What even is literature?

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Back a few years ago, the Nobel committee created a minor furore for awarding Bob Dylan – known for his performances in Hearts of Fire* and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid – a Nobel Prize in Literature. At the time, PBS Ideas Channel had an interesting take on this contentious topic. And as is always the case, it isn’t really that simple.

I’m near the front of the queue to criticise literature for being a dry and dreary form of art that sucks the life out of its audience. But of course, as Mike discusses in the video, literature isn’t as easily defined as my dismissive rhetoric would imply. What defines literature isn’t arbitrary, but it is often about who is defining or classifying a work as such.

My criticisms of literature stem from who performs this classifying, as they will often be people like Jonathan Jones – who said Terry Pratchett sucked – who will criticise the literary merits of works they haven’t read. These arbiters of artistic merit (i.e. snobs) like certain things, thus those certain things are worthy. They create lists of these worthy things and tell us we need to read them at school, study them at university, and expound on how much better these works are… until they actually read one of the unworthy ones and have to eat humble pie.

As I pointed out recently, the origins of what we call literature versus genre have their origins in the class divide during the Industrial Revolution. Workers got to read one type of magazine, whilst richer managers (but not the capitalists) got a fancier magazine. The stories that were published in the fancier magazines became literary, whilst the rest was genre. So when I say that literature is based on snobbery, it is quite literally the snobbery of class divides in “Western culture”.

So the literary and artistic merit we often operate under in society is more about what a certain group of people like. But as Mike points out, that isn’t a good definition and literature, and “good” art in general, are harder to define. Essentially anything can be literature. And even then the status of a work being literary may be revoked or instated, as tastes change.

Thus, having the Nobel committee awarding Dylan’s lyrics a literary prize might actually be about them trying to bridge the divide. They could possibly be about making us all think of lyrics as an art-form, something that has social defamiliarization. Lyrics are, after all, a form of poetry that are no less artful. Maybe this award will help us acknowledge that art/literature is all around us.

I look forward to future Nobel Prizes for Literature being handed to Dan Brown and James Patterson. Because they are certainly pushing literature in an interesting direction.

* This is a great reference. Seriously. Check for yourself.

Respect for genre

I’ve previously written about how some literary authors don’t really understand nor respect genre fiction. Of course, that doesn’t appear to give them pause before sitting down with their quill and parchment – literary authors exclusively use olde timey equipment: true fact – to knock out a genre novel. Their attempts at writing genre tend to reflect this disdain and ignorance of the form, and they end up doing a poor job of writing it.

Enter the nineteenth most powerful person in British culture, Mr Ian McEwan, an author so influential that Simon Cowell ranked higher on that list. He – Ian not Simon – recently made headlines for his comments about science fiction.

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Source

Well, at least we know he’s treading on well-worn paths and reinventing all the tropes he’s painfully unaware of with his latest novel. But good on him for flying the ignorance flag so high so we don’t waste our time as readers.

It gets better. I received the monthly recommended review books from Penguin and saw McEwan’s new novel, Machines Like Me, on the list. This was the publisher’s blurb:

Our foremost storyteller returns with an audacious new novel, Machines Like Me.

Britain has lost the Falklands war, Margaret Thatcher battles Tony Benn for power and Alan Turing achieves a breakthrough in artificial intelligence. In a world not quite like this one, two lovers will be tested beyond their understanding.

Machines Like Me occurs in an alternative 1980s London. Charlie, drifting through life and dodging full-time employment, is in love with Miranda, a bright student who lives with a terrible secret. When Charlie comes into money, he buys Adam, one of the first batch of synthetic humans. With Miranda’s assistance, he co-designs Adam’s personality. This near-perfect human is beautiful, strong and clever – a love triangle soon forms. These three beings will confront a profound moral dilemma. Ian McEwan’s subversive and entertaining new novel poses fundamental questions: what makes us human? Our outward deeds or our inner lives? Could a machine understand the human heart? This provocative and thrilling tale warns of the power to invent things beyond our control. Source.

Yes, it even has a love triangle. This is certainly not a bog-standard sci-fi novel at all. No sir. This explores big ideas… This is the cover art…

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Looks very professional. Not a first attempt at self-publishing nor creepy at all. 

There are several potential explanations here:

  1. McEwan is one of the arrogant literati who would never stoop to reading such crass material as genre fiction. Of course, when they write it, it is very important literature that you should absolutely buy and praise them for writing it.
  2. McEwan is painfully ignorant to the point that someone really should have taken him aside during the (above quoted) interview and shown him the Wikipedia page for Science Fiction on the magical communication box they carry in their pocket.
  3. McEwan is hoping that his comments will stir controversy that will help sell more copies of his books.

Now I am a bit late to the internet pile-on that inevitably results from modern faux pas as it is reactionary and lowers the quality of discourse. Definitely not because I got distracted on other things. Anyway, the reason why I have come back to this incident is that it ties into a thread I have been commenting on for several years now: Literary snobbery, or the Worthiness argument.

People like to think of the difference between genre and literature as akin to the difference between entertainment and art. Because no art is entertaining. Some have suggested the difference is in the plot-driven versus character-driven narratives. This doesn’t hold up to much scrutiny, as some call literature just another genre, and others have suggested it is more about genre being built on structure. A lot of people will also exclaim, “I know it when I see it.” But this ignores the reality that literary merit is a spectrum.

But the most interesting argument I have seen defining the difference between literature and genre fiction was around the class divide. The snobbery was literally built into the divide because genre stories were published in cheaper books for the workers and the more literary stories were published in fancier books for the new middle class.*

So it is quite possible that the reason why we have comments like McEwan’s is because they are tapping into 150 years of class snobbery that disallows them from reading or appreciating genre fiction. If they do read some, it will be classed as a guilty pleasure, because they can’t be seen actually acknowledging genre as having substance.

Or it could just be about attention seeking to sell some books.

The argument doesn’t really discuss what rich people read. I assume that the rich people were too busy counting money to be bothered reading either genre or literature. 

The Beauty and Anguish of Les Misérables!

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It’s Lit! returns to discuss Les Miserables.

Yeah, I haven’t read it, nor seen the musical nor the musical movie. A title that literally means the miserable and a narrative to match isn’t really my cup of tea. The issues discussed in Les Mis were very real, if romanticised somewhat, and still bear some relevance to the modern day. I discussed one such issue in a previous It’s Lit post.

Maybe I’ll read it one day. Meanwhile, quick overviews will have to suffice.

Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables is one of history’s most famous novels and one of the longest-running musicals in Broadway history. On this special episode of It’s Lit! we explore how Les Miserable became both a national and revolutionary anthem, and so publicly adored that all 1,900 pages never went out of print.

How Greek Mythology Inspires Us

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Did you know that James Joyce’s Ulysses is a (relatively) modern tale inspired by Ancient Greek Mythology? Well, even if you did know that, this video has something for you.

Given this video series has focussed on literature and books made into movies more than popular fiction, I knew that one of my favourite genres wouldn’t get a mention. The vigilante hero/anti-hero traces its origins back to the Ancient Greek Myths as well. The most obvious versions are The Wanderer or Knight Errant which draw upon themes and ideas from heroes like Perseus. This early creation underpins later takes on the hero. And thus, Jack Reacher could be slaying gorgons and saving royals.

Interestingly, the Knight Errant is also prevalent in literature not influenced by Ancient Greek Mythology. So it is possible that convergent ideas are at work.

Ancient Greek Mythology has worked its way into modern pop culture so deeply that it would be an almost Sisyphean task to compile every way it’s manifested!

It’s Lit! is part of THE GREAT AMERICAN READ, a eight-part* series that explores and celebrates the power of reading. Hosted by Lindsay Ellis

*Eleven part series now.

Food & Fiction: Memorable Meals in Literature

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This month’s It’s Lit! covers everyone’s favourite topic: food.

If it isn’t your favourite topic, just give yourself 48 hours without it and see if that changes your mind.

I’ve always found food scenes in books to fall into two categories: needless exposition, or important showing (Oliver Twist is a great example of this). While the video discusses the latter, it is all too common that the former is what we read most.

While I was watching the video I was reminded of something I read last year. The discussion of bread in Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, particularly around the hard bread that needed to be soaked, was something that Karl Marx wrote about in Das Kapital. The hard bread was actually due to deliberate contamination to make cheap bread that workers could afford, knowing full well that it was bad for them to eat, and the employers knowing full well that the workers couldn’t afford to eat properly (keeping them hungry so they would work).

A great way to remind us future people of how society used to run.*

Food varies wildly from place to place and from culture to culture; since humans are such sensory creatures, using words to evoke the experience of eating is an excellent way to bring a text to life.

It’s Lit! is part of THE GREAT AMERICAN READ, an eight-part series that explores and celebrates the power of reading. Hosted by Lindsay Ellis.

*Let’s be honest, society would quite happily go back to those conditions, and in some areas of the world, it still is operating in that way.

How speculative fiction gained literary respectability

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Biologists are gathering evidence of green algae (pictured here in Kuwait) becoming carbohydrate-rich but less nutritious, due to increased carbon dioxide levels. As science fiction becomes science fact, new forms of storytelling are emerging.
Raed Qutena

Rose Michael, RMIT University

I count myself lucky. Weird, I know, in this day and age when all around us the natural and political world is going to hell in a handbasket. But that, in fact, may be part of it.

Back when I started writing, realism had such a stranglehold on publishing that there was little room for speculative writers and readers. (I didn’t know that’s what I was until I read it in a reader’s report for my first novel. And even then I didn’t know what it was, until I realised that it was what I read, and had always been reading; what I wrote, and wanted to write.) Outside of the convention rooms, that is, which were packed with less-literary-leaning science-fiction and fantasy producers and consumers.

Realism was the rule, even for those writing non-realist stories, such as popular crime and commercial romance. Perhaps this dominance was because of a culture heavily influenced by an Anglo-Saxon heritage. Richard Lea has written in The Guardian of “non-fiction” as a construct of English literature, arguing other cultures do not distinguish so obsessively between stories on the basis of whether or not they are “real”.

China Miéville in 2010.
Pan MacMillan Australia/AAP

Regardless of the reason, this conception of literary fiction has been widely accepted – leading self-described “weird fiction” novelist China Miéville to identify the Booker as a genre prize for specifically realist literary fiction; a category he calls “litfic”. The best writers Australia is famous for producing aren’t only a product of this environment, but also role models who perpetuate it: Tim Winton and Helen Garner write similarly realistically, albeit generally fiction for one and non-fiction for the other.

Today, realism remains the most popular literary mode. Our education system trains us to appreciate literatures of verisimilitude; or, rather, literature we identify as “real”, charting interior landscapes and emotional journeys that generally represent a quite particular version of middle-class life. It’s one that may not have much in common these days with many people’s experiences – middle-class, Anglo or otherwise – or even our exterior world(s).

Like other kinds of biases, realism has been normalised, but there is now a growing recognition – a re-evaluation – of different kinds of “un-real” storytelling: “speculative” fiction, so-called for its obviously invented and inventive aspects.

Feminist science-fiction writer Ursula K. Le Guin has described this diversification as:

a much larger collective conviction about who’s entitled to tell stories, what stories are worth telling, and who among the storytellers gets taken seriously … not only in terms of race and gender, but in terms of what has long been labelled “genre” fiction.

Closer to home, author Jane Rawson – who has written short stories and novels and co-authored a non-fiction handbook on “surviving” climate change – has described the stranglehold realistic writing has on Australian stories in an article for Overland, yet her own work evidences a new appreciation for alternative, novel modes.

Rawson’s latest book, From the Wreck, intertwines the story of her ancestor George Hills, who was shipwrecked off the coast of South Australia and survived eight days at sea, with the tale of a shape-shifting alien seeking refuge on Earth. In an Australian first, it was long-listed for the Miles Franklin, our most prestigious literary award, after having won the niche Aurealis Award for Speculative Fiction.

The Aurealis awards were established in 1995 by the publishers of Australia’s longest-running, small-press science-fiction and fantasy magazine of the same name. As well as recognising the achievements of Australian science-fiction, fantasy and horror writers, they were designed to distinguish between those speculative subgenres.

Last year, five of the six finalists for the Aurealis awards were published, promoted and shelved as literary fiction.

A broad church

Perhaps what counts as speculative fiction is also changing. The term is certainly not new; it was first used in an 1889 review, but came into more common usage after genre author Robert Heinlein’s 1947 essay On the Writing of Speculative Fiction.

Whereas science fiction generally engages with technological developments and their potential consequences, speculative fiction is a far broader, vaguer term. It can be seen as an offshoot of the popular science-fiction genre, or a more neutral umbrella category that simply describes all non-realist forms, including fantasy and fairytales – from the epic of Gilgamesh through to The Handmaid’s Tale.




Read more:
Guide to the classics: the Epic of Gilgamesh


While critic James Wood argues that “everything flows from the real … it is realism that allows surrealism, magic realism, fantasy, dream and so on”, others, such as author Doris Lessing, believe that everything flows from the fantastic; that all fiction has always been speculative. I am not as interested in which came first (or which has more cultural, or commercial, value) as I am in the fact that speculative fiction – “spec-fic” – seems to be gaining literary respectability.
(Next step, surely, mainstream popularity! After all, millions of moviegoers and television viewers have binge-watched the rise of fantastic forms, and audiences are well versed in unreal onscreen worlds.)

One reason for this new interest in an old but evolving form has been well articulated by author and critic James Bradley: climate change. Writers, and publishers, are embracing speculative fiction as an apt form to interrogate what it means to be human, to be humane, in the current climate – and to engage with ideas of posthumanism too.

These are the sorts of existential questions that have historically driven realist literature.

According to the World Wildlife Fund’s 2018 Living Planet Report, 60% of the world’s wildlife disappeared between 1970 and 2012. The year 2016 was declared the hottest on record, echoing the previous year and the one before that. People under 30 have never experienced a month in which average temperatures are below the long-term mean. Hurricanes register on the Richter scale and the Australian Bureau of Meteorology has added a colour to temperature maps as the heat keeps on climbing.

Science fiction? Science fact.

A baby Francois Langur at Taronga Zoo in June. François Langurs are a critically endangered species found in China and Vietnam.
AAP Image/Supplied by Taronga Zoo

What are we to do about this? Well, according to writer and geographer Samuel Miller-McDonald, “If you’re a writer, then you have to write about this.”

There is an infographic doing the rounds on Facebook that shows sister countries with comparable climates to (warming) regions of Australia. But it doesn’t reflect the real issue. Associate Professor Michael Kearney, Research Fellow in Biosciences at the University of Melbourne, points out that no-one anywhere in the world has any experience of our current CO2 levels. The changed environment is, he says – using a word that is particularly appropriate for my argument – a “novel” situation.

Elsewhere, biologists are gathering evidence of algae that carbon dioxide has made carbohydrate-rich but less nutritious. So the plankton that rely on them to survive might eat more and more and yet still starve.

Fiction focused on the inner lives of a limited cross-section of people no longer seems the best literary form to reflect, or reflect on, our brave new outer world – if, indeed, it ever was.

Whether it’s a creative response to catastrophic climate change, or an empathic, philosophical attempt to express cultural, economic, neurological – or even species – diversification, the recognition works such as Rawson’s are receiving surely shows we have left Modernism behind and entered the era of Anthropocene literature.

And her book is not alone. Other wild titles achieving similar success include Krissy Kneen’s An Uncertain Grace, shortlisted for the Aurealis, the Stella prize and the Norma K. Hemming award – given to mark excellence in the exploration of themes of race, gender, sexuality, class or disability in a speculative fiction work.

Kneen’s book connects five stories spanning a century, navigating themes of sexuality – including erotic explorations of transgression and transmutation – against the backdrop of a changing ocean.

Earlier, more realist but still speculative titles (from 2015) include Mireille Juchau’s The World Without Us and Bradley’s Clade. These novels fit better with Miéville’s description of “litfic”, employing realistic literary techniques that would not be out of place in Winton’s books, but they have been called “cli-fi” for the way they put climate change squarely at the forefront of their stories (though their authors tend to resist such generic categorisation).

Both novels, told across time and from multiple points of view, are concerned with radically changed and catastrophically changing environments, and how the negative consequences of our one-world experiment might well – or, rather, ill – play out.

Catherine McKinnnon’s Storyland is a more recent example that similarly has a fantastic aspect. The author describes her different chapters set in different times, culminating – Cloud Atlas–like, in one futuristic episode – as “timeslips” or “time shifts” rather than time travel. Yet it has been received as speculative – and not in a pejorative way, despite how some “high-art” literary authors may feel about “low-brow” genre associations.

Kazuo Ishiguro in 2017.
Neil Hall/AAP

Kazuo Ishiguro, for instance, told The New York Times when The Buried Giant was released in 2015 that he was fearful readers would not “follow him” into Arthurian Britain. Le Guin was quick to call him out on his obvious attempt to distance himself from the fantasy category. Michel Faber, around the same time, told a Wheeler Centre audience that his Book of Strange New Things, where a missionary is sent to convert an alien race, was “not about aliens” but alienation. Of course it is the latter, but it is also about the other.

All these more-and-less-speculative fictions – these not-traditionally-realist literatures – analyse the world in a way that it is not usually analysed, to echo Tim Parks’s criterion for the best novels. Interestingly, this sounds suspiciously like science-fiction critic Darko Suvin’s famous conception of the genre as a literature of “cognitive estrangement”, which inspires readers to re-view their own world, think in new ways, and – most importantly – take appropriate action.

A new party

Perhaps better case studies of what local spec-fic is or does – when considering questions of diversity – are Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things and Claire Coleman’s Terra Nullius.

The first is a distinctly Aussie Handmaid’s Tale for our times, where “girls” guilty by association with some unspecified sexual scenario are drugged, abducted and held captive in a remote outback location.

The latter is another idea whose time has come: an apocalyptic act of colonisation. Not such an imagined scenario for Noongar woman Coleman. It’s a tricky plot to tell without giving away spoilers – the book opens on an alternative history, or is it a futuristic Australia? Again, the story is told through different points of view, which prioritises collective storytelling over the authority of a single voice.




Read more:
Friday essay: science fiction’s women problem


“The entire purpose of writing Terra Nullius,” Coleman has said, “was to provoke empathy in people who had none.”

This connection of reading with empathy is a case Neil Gaiman made in a 2013 lecture when he told of how China’s first party-approved science-fiction and fantasy convention had come about five years earlier.

Neil Gaiman.
Julien Warnand/EPA

The Chinese had sent delegates to Apple and Google etc to try to work out why America was inventing the future, he said. And they had discovered that all the programmers, all the entrepreneurs, had read science fiction when they were children.

“Fiction can show you a different world,” said Gaiman. “It can take you somewhere you’ve never been.”

And when you come back, you see things differently. And you might decide to do something about that: you might change the future.

Perhaps the key to why speculative fiction is on the rise is the ways in which it is not “hard” science fiction. Rather than focusing on technology and world-building to the point of potential fetishism, as our “real” world seems to be doing, what we are reading today is a sophisticated literature engaging with contemporary cultural, social and political matters – through the lens of an “un-real” idea, which may be little more than a metaphor or errant speculation.

The Conversation

Rose Michael, Lecturer, Writing & Publishing, RMIT University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Why did I have to read that book in high school?

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This month Lindsay Ellis discusses the Literary Cannon, or how books become “worthy“, in It’s Lit.

I swear that when I started posting these videos that I didn’t know the series would cover one of my pet topics. Worthiness, important books, snobbery, guilty pleasures, are all things I love to bang on about. This video feels like a worthy addition to my posts on the topic.*

Let’s explore what makes a book “important.”

Literary critics, writers, philosophers, bloggers–all have tried to tackle where and why and how an author may strike such lightning in a bottle that their works enter the pantheon of “Classical Literature”. Why this book is required reading in high school, why other books are lost to history.

It’s Lit! is part of THE GREAT AMERICAN READ, an eight-part series that explores and celebrates the power of reading. This all leads to a nationwide vote of America’s favourite novel. Learn More Here: https://to.pbs.org/2IXQuZE

*Pardon the pun, it was father’s day recently.