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Thursday, August 16, 2007

What is literary writing?


A THING of beauty is a joy for ever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness; but still will keep
A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.


- John Keats, from Endymion

While I was reading the final Harry Potter book, The Deathly Hallows, I was having a conversation with Peter about what constitutes a “literary” novel. I had made an observation that, even though the Harry Potter books are extremely entertaining, they are not literary writing.

So I had to answer the question (both his and mine), What is literary writing?

My stumbling answers included:
  • It has to be universally relevant.
  • It has to be artistic.
  • It has to have aesthetic value.

I then turned to the help of an essay I found online by John Oldcastle titled “What is literary writing?”

Among the answers he offers, does it have:


  • artistic merit?
  • creative genius?
  • the expression of man’s noblest qualities?
  • creation of aesthetic satisfaction?
  • great themes of love, death, war and peace?

The Harry Potter books certainly address love, death, war and peace. And there are some very noble characters. There is also a certain genius in JK Rowling’s creativity.

But also in his essay, Oldcastle includes this quote by William Faulkner:

The aim of every artist is to arrest motion, which is life, by artificial means and hold it fixed, so that a hundred years later, when a stranger looks at it, it moves again since it is life. Since man is mortal, the only immortality possible for him is to leave something behind him that is immortal since it will always move. This is the artist's way of scribbling 'Kilroy was here' on the wall of the final and irrevocable oblivion through which he must someday pass.

So will the Harry Potter books stand the test of time? I think they might. But is it the writing itself that will, if they do?

What of all the people, and they are many, who enjoy the movies without ever reading the books?

This is where I think the answer lies. I think the world Rowling created is phenomenally intriguing. In fact, she launched a phenomenon. Who could have imagined our technology-crazed world, ages 6 to 80, reading a book, reading seven books, waiting in line at midnight to buy books?! Her genius was in creating a world that we can all relate to, a main character who is a nobody, who sleeps under the stairs, and becomes the greatest somebody, because of how he uses his circumstances.

But beyond the story, I do not feel an aesthetic satisfaction when I read her books, and that is the main reason I would not call them literary. I don’t read a passage, close the book and my eyes and savor the moment in words. Her words do not lift me to another plane.

The story? YES! The story is exciting, invigorating, thrilling! (Sorry for the redundancy.) I am delighted to envision each scene. And that is why I, personally, enjoy the movies more than the books. I believe the filmmaking craft of the movies, especially “The Prisoner of Azkaban” and “The Order of the Phoenix,” is brilliant. In fact, it goes beyond the craft of the books, in my opinion.

Are JK Rowling’s words going to stand the test of time? Or, is the phenomenon of the Harry Potter story going to do that? Or both?

20 comments:

lesleyanne said...

you and i also had that conversation, many times. it's very interesting to really dig into it and understand it. esp. for me, since i'm not literary at all.

when i read, i read for the story. i read for my imagination. i've always been this way. so you and i have different perceptions of literature. i think you're right, it's the phenomenon of the story, the world within a world that Rowling created, that will stand the test of time.

did you finish it???

Ruth said...

It's true, Les, you and I talked about this too. I was remembering where it began, with Peter . . .

Yes, I finished it!! I really thought she did a fantastic job at the end. But I won't say more, in case there is anyone out there slower than ME at finishing this book.

So, don't get me wrong at all, I think there are wonderful merits to these books. Pure enjoyment is worth a lot, and if we enjoy these books, what more can we ask?

But, I'm an English major, and I always, always have to ask more.

Loring said...

The definitions might be fine, but what about absurdist, minimalist, etc. literature? We could all agree that someone like Charles Bukowski is great along some metric, but if we're going to include him, why not J.K. Rowling, or L.Frank Baum for that matter?
Personally, I've always preferred absurdism to profundity - example, I get a lot more out of David Thomas of Pere Ubu warbling, "I've got two arms and legs that flip flop flip flop" than I do from any well-meaning political or surrealist song from Bob Dylan or Jackson Browne.
Hell, yes, J.K. and L. Frank and J.R.R. Tolkien can be on the literary shelf, at least on "Young Readers" division, and I'll place them proudly next to Thomas Pynchon and James Joyce, since they all show senses of juvenile word play.

Ruth said...

Loring, cool to see you here again!

You won't get any argument from me about including different genres on the literary shelf. I'm a big fan of both Bukowski and Tolkien, and I am not making an argument for some sort of "sophisticated" literature that has to be Meaningful. I'm sure I'm over my head here, because I am not a literary critic, and I'm going to have to find a way to articulate it better than this, but I don't find her work on the same level as Lewis' Narnia chronicles, or Tolkien's Ring series, or L'Engle's stories. I haven't read Baum, so I can't speak to his. If it's just a matter of taste, I can accept that.

Pop lit has come into its own, and when you think of the graphic novel, and even the comic book, finding their place in genre-land, it's pretty remarkable compared to when you and I were kids at Grand Ledge High School and if someone was caught with a comic book, it was a shame.

But I'm scared of discussing with an editor. I'm just a lightweight.

Loring said...

Oh, I try to keep up with your fabulous photography from time to time, but rarely have anything to say! Anyway, you're probably aware that last week's NY Times Book Review featured a cover review of Harry Potter by everyone's favorite cranky lush, Christopher Hitchens.

Ruth said...

Loring, I hadn't opened the NYT since before my Ireland trip, so I just went and read Hitchens' review. Thanks.

I have to agree with him on many counts. The two that mirror my own conversations with Hubby and my kids are:

1. The magic is too easy. Yes, she has certain rules and structures. But when the kids get into bad trouble, they can dissaparate and get away. Not always, but you know what I mean. Her world is not created with the solid foundations of say, a Tolkien. Obviously he spent his lifetime creating the worlds and languages of his imagination.

2. Why is this particular book series so fascinating and a phenomenon? There are other fantasy tales with and for kids (and adults). Why this one? I think one of the great appeals for me is the British school setting. As Hitchens writes, there is an appeal for those of us who didn't go to one, as if it is a romantic setting and life, even though people like Lewis hated it. Even the British trains are so appealing they become a setting I long for in these books. Whenever they're in a train car, I sit back with my coffee and relish it.

JoAnn - NL Photography said...

Hi Ruth, I just found out (by reading in the past blog of G.) that you are the younger sis of G.? Or am I wrong, just wondering...

I once tried a book of Harry Potter, I could not followall the figures, but I LOVE THE TV MOVIE!! But I also think ,that book was not my style, I like Mysterious thrillers such a the books of Dan Brown, "The Da Vinci code' But NOT the movie of this book!!!

So it depends... sometimes I like the movie more other time the book,

Today another 'cow' picture,
greetings from JoAnn

Ruth said...

JoAnn, yes! Ginnie is my sister, friend and blog buddy. Aren't I lucky?!

I didn't get too interested in the HP books until the 3rd one. I'd actually like to read them again.

I'll check out your cows . . .

Heather said...

Hi Ruth,

Interesting question you bring up. I look at the Potter books as being part of a hero mythology, and so I suppose I'm looking at them in a very literary manner. The books are quick reads, but I don't think that means they are not literary. Hmmmm, I will think more on this.

lv,
Heather

JoAnn - NL Photography said...

Hi Ruth,
OK good quess (or I red the blog of your sis G.) yes .... are you lucky? perhapse :) we meet your sis G.and I in Holland.. who knows.

today more cows... thats the lst shot than about the cows I mean...

:) JoAnn

R said...

Aunt Ruth, this type of literary discussion is delicious. I have never read one of the books- I suppose this is probably because I see the books as "just a best-seller" and not a work of literary genius. It's not that I have ever actually thought this, but your blog has caused me to think more deeply on it.

When I walk through a book store, I am quite the snob! If I walk into a private bookstore, and I see lots of best sellers on the shelf, my opinion of the place instantly turns to one of disappointment.

It's a surprise that I have become so judgmental without even having read it and experienced it myself. Where does this prejudice stem from? -Rachel

Ruth said...

Heather, so glad you came, I was hoping you would. Since posting this and the ensuing discussion both here and elsewhere (as often happens) I'm sliding the bar more toward the literary side. I haven't done much with youth lit, and I don't think I should assume that only those I've admired (Lewis, l'Engle, and some others) are "worthy" of the title "literary."

I can totally see the HP books being taught in an MSU ENG classroom, but I'm guessing the question might come up in the first class: are these books literary? So I don't think I'm too far off the mark to raise the question. It probably reflects a similar trend in class discussions about other genres too, which have become subjects of scholarship in these past decades (e.g., comic books).

I've wondered about authors such as Clancy and Ludlum too. Or what's his name, the attorney. Or Dan Brown. How is youth lit different from these other "pulp fiction" types?

Ruth said...

JoAnn, I was wondering if you and Ginnie and Donica might meet up in the Netherlands. Sounds fun!

Ruth said...

Rachel, I understand your resistance to reading a book because it is a bestseller. I do that too. My family pulled me into this love, and now that I've finally finished the last one, we'll be able to discuss it (at my birthday dinner tonight with Don, Peter and Caitlin -- Lesley!! where are you!).

It's interesting about popular culture, that I also tend to judge things BECAUSE they're popular. We have a professor in our department who studies popular culture - actually there are a few of them - and since meeting him I am trying to "objectify" pop culture and see it for what it is, without judgment. I mean, I'm a fan of Adbusters and not being duped into believing everything I read, or following trends just because they're the thing. I'm the girl who had to choose between two pairs of shoes and the clerk would say "everyone's buying these" and I'd say, ok, give me the other pair.

But it's good to be conscious of stuff, to stop and ask myself "why am I judging that?" and look again. Some things that are popular are pretty great!

Rauf said...

Ruth, i thought lord of the rings and Harry potter is the same.

Ruth said...

rauf, ok, now I need to talk to you . . .

Welcome back, for a minute, until you leave again!

Ginnie said...

Glad I came to this late, Ruth, for the great discussion! This is when I can claim I know nothing. :)

Raw Kale said...

I love your analogy of the shoes!!! I am so glad you can share this reading circle with your family. Swede and I love to read to each other and discuss things- sometimes we do it with the kids, too (but they are a little young yet to appreciate our book choices). I have recently thought of starting a reading circle in my area. I was thinking about reading "Seth Speaks," and seeing if others would like to join me.
I am so glad comfy yoga style clothes are popular- because I can find them everywhere!

Ruth said...

Ginnie, well, I'm just glad you came. :)

Raw Kale, Don and I read George MacDonald's Donal Grant 4-book series aloud, and that was a trick with all the Scottish brogue, but it was fun. It takes a different part of the brain to listen to someone read from reading yourself.

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