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.

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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.

Death, Personified

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Finally, an episode of It’s Lit about everyone’s favourite Terry Pratchett character. Oh, and a few other versions of it from lesser authors.

Lindsay Ellis fans will have noticed similarities between this video and an earlier Loose Cannon video she did on the same topic. Worth watching both and noting what having a production budget allows for.

Death as a character reveals how we process one of life’s greatest mysteries, and there’s a lot more breadth to how the grim reaper is depicted than you might think.

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.

Who Can You Trust? Unreliable Narrators

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The first rule of this month’s It’s Lit! is that you don’t talk about the narrator.

Unreliable narrators are an interesting topic. To some extent, I regard all narrators as flawed in some way. Unless you have omniscient narration you always have a limited viewpoint, and it could be argued that even with omniscient you still aren’t pulling away from the main narrative so it is limited as well. So I would argue that unreliable narrators are more a case of how unreliable are all narrators.

Who is the most powerful character in fiction? Villains may doom the world, heroes may save it, but no one has more control over the plot than the narrator – expositing the who, what, where, when and how directly into the reader’s mind. But how can you tell that the person telling you the story is telling you the whole story?

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

Fear of Ghost…Writing

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Is ghostwriting cheating? Well, this edition of It’s Lit discusses just that.

I think the most interesting point raised in the video is around the idea of the solitary author. This is the creative genius whose work you love or the dolt whose work you loathe. All praise and ridicule can be easily directed at one person. But outside of some indie authors, a book (or series of books) isn’t the work of one person. A lot goes into bringing a story to life and placing it in front of us readers for our entertainment. From the cover art to the editing, from the writer’s group feedback to the publisher’s request for a sequel, lots of people are involved in influencing, shaping, and ultimately creating a book.

Now, I have been known to take a dig at authors like James Patterson for their co-authoring ways. And I find it a little unseemly that Tom Clancy is still releasing new books despite having been dead for five years – seriously, half as many as his releases while alive. But that is probably as much about the mass-produced book under a name-brand that we used to associate as the domain of pulp titles. To have that become part of the big-name author stable cheapens the experience somewhat.

That cheapened feeling is probably related back to the idea of the solitary author. Or possibly that I’m not a huge fan of Patterson or Clancy. You know, one of those.

You might being asking yourself– Why do ghostwriters even exist? Isn’t that cheating? Isn’t literature supposed to be the result of one person’s agonizing need to create? Aren’t books supposed to be the blood, sweat, and tears of the tortured auteur? Well, the answer is more complicated than you think!

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.

Can you judge a book by its cover?

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The new episodes of It’s Lit are finally making it to YouTube. In this episode, Lindsay Ellis discusses book covers.

It is interesting that everyone in the reading industry* talks about not judging a book by its cover. Yet the entire industry is built around judging books by their covers.

We have the publishers and their creative team designing covers to attract readers. We have the readers browsing the stores and picking something that catches their eye. There are plenty of statistics around showing the improved sales based upon book placement in stores, whether they are face out or not, and whether they are in big piles – which makes all sorts of subconscious suggestions to shopping readers.** All of these factors are about presenting us readers with the cover of the book in the hopes that we’ll be interested enough to buy it.

But don’t judge it by its cover!!

*I honestly think we should stop using the term publishing industry and refer to the end user instead. I think we lose sight of who matters at times.

**Online stores have similar sales statistics related to cover design. Indie authors will often talk about the success of changing covers and improving sales.

How Is Tech Changing the Way We Read?

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With the rise of social media and smartphone use, we are all reading fewer books than we once did. All, not just those pesky millennials. Some people are worried about what this means for the future of literature and, well, our brains. But is it true that we are really reading less? And should I care?

Above The Noise recently did a video in which Myles covers some of the research on reading.

I always appreciate it when a Youtuber or Journalist manages to discuss a topic without devolving into head-shaking admonishment, especially when it comes to the topic of reading and books. Too often these sorts of videos and articles cite bad research or buy into industry propaganda.

I’ve previously discussed the misrepresentations made about reading ebooks, the overstating of the benefits of reading – when there are some well-researched benefits documented –  and even the way we write. And the Pew Research into reading was one of several references I’ve used in my discussion of Who Reads, something I cover quite a bit here.

And yet, there were still some things in the video that I hadn’t been aware of. So I think it is worth sharing. Enjoy.

From the video:

Reading has been an important part of the human experience for thousands of years, but believe it or not, that’s not a long time on the evolutionary timescale. Before the internet, it made sense to read long texts in a linear fashion, but that’s now changing as people are adapting to skimming shorter texts on their computers or phones. But what does this mean for the future of books?

What is literary reading?

Literary reading is, quite simply, the reading of any literature. This includes novels, short stories, poetry, and plays.

Are we reading less?

The rate at which Americans are reading literature for fun is down around 14% from the early 1980s. This doesn’t necessarily mean we are reading less, however. Many people still have to read for school or work. Then there are all the words, sentences, and messages we read on the internet from emails to texts to tweets. Some people believe that this means we are possibly reading more individual words than ever. It’s just being done in a different way. I’ve also discussed the decline of literature.

And this is changing our brains?

Some neuroscientists believe that scanning shorter texts the way we do on the internet, often jumping from hyperlink to hyperlink, is actually changing the wiring in our brains. We are becoming better at searching for key terms and scanning for information, but this means it can become more difficult to read a longer text all the way through without missing major points.

SOURCES:
Children, Teens, and Reading
The long, steady decline of literary reading
Who doesn’t read books in America?
Serious reading takes a hit from online scanning and skimming, researchers say