I wandered into the stacks and leafed through old issues of Norsk litterÊr Ârbok, the annual of Norwegian literature, which has bibliographies of every article published in Norwegian that is about “literature”. The categories of literature discussed end by mentioning “trivial literature” (from the examples given this includes comics, young people’s literature, science fiction and fantasy) and “various”. Electronic literature would, I suppose, be included in one of those, if included at all.

Downstairs I leafed through the most recent issues of journals in my field(s). No, there are no print journals of electronic literature or new media, but I had a look at some others. In the January 2006 issue of PMLA I found a piece by Peter D. McDonald about “Ideas of the Book and Histories of Literature,” and was much cheered to be reminded of the following:

Of the many productive clearings that theorizating created, one of the most significant centers on the question of literature, as Eagleton emphasized in Literary Theory: An Introduction (1983). Starting in postwar France, notably in the writings of Blanchot, Barthes, and Derrida and then extending to the Anglo-American world int eh early 1970s, especially through the journal New Literary History, doubts about hte viability of literature as a stable or even valid category of discourse gradually came to form the basis of a new theoretical consensus. This consensus grew largely out of a reaction against various postwar studies – Sartre’s Qu’est-ce que la littÈrature? (1948), Wellek and Warren’s Theory of Literature (1949), and Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism (1957) are especially noteworthy – which, it was argued, reinforced long-held beliefs in the possibility and desirability of treating literature as a clearly demarcatable object, possessing a definable essence. This project, which could be traced back to classical poetics, was, the critics claimed, at best ill founded or at worst impossible. On the one hand, they noted that the literary (however it might be defined) is never restricted to what might conventionally be called literature; on the other, they pointed out that one of the peculiarities of literature (on certain definitions) is that it is always disturbing or overturning traditional ideas of the literary. That these problems at the level of description also frequently presupposed or felt the impact of powerfully normative uses of Literature as an honorific only complicated matters further. Literature, in this sense, did not simply refer to a putatively distinct category, distinguishable in some stable way from, say, pornography or philosophy; it constituted the Literary as an especially privileged public discourse located in or even at the apex of a cultural hierarchy. Behind this privileged position lay the accumulated interests and valuations of various individuals, groups, and institutions as well as the long, always fraught history of Literature’s struggle to defend its often imperiled sense of cultural distinction (against, for instance, journalism, cinema and other new media, political writing, or less acceptably Literary works. From this new recognition of the instability of the category a very different set of methodological protocols followed. In place of a quasi-scientific search for essences, there developed a new preoccupation with teh ideological, historical and institutional conditions that made the category of the literary possible. Instead of repeating or contesting assertions that took the general form “This is literature,” inquiry now focused on radically situated statemnets of the form “X said, ‘This is literature,'” where the demonstrative was understood performatively. (..)

This is familiar, but easily forgotten in a world of literary annuals and university departments. So this is all very well: we may say (performatively) that hypertext can be literature, or that blogs are literary, but what does that achieve? What do we really mean? Simply that we want the evolving cultural forms that we love to be taken as seriously as Ibsen? That we who work in them or study them want the same cultural credibility as an oft-published conventional author of novels or a professor studying Shakespeare? And what does it mean when we are told that no, new media is not and cannot be literature? (Yes, I was recently told this, though unfortunately with the caveat that I can’t tell “the press” or “the general public” about it yet (!) so I’ll have to leave it at that for now.)

I for one had forgotten that there was even such a concept as “trivial literature”. What an offensive term.

6 thoughts on ““literature”

  1. Scott

    Yes, be sure not to tell the press that new media is not literature. They would be up in arms.

    You could probably take some comfort in the fact that Literature, as a field, is traditionally well behind literature in the sense of what people are actually writing and reading during a given historical moment. Contemporary literature in general is still a controversial notion. I haven’t done the research, but I would guess that you could count the number of literature courses at your institution that include the study of work published in the last in the last decade on somewhere between two and no fingers. Although things have softened a bit in the US in recent years, primarily to make room for the study of identity politics, contemporary literature of any kind is still taught only in a small corner of literature programs. Literature with a capital L, it would seem, prefers its authors well-dead.

  2. JoseAngel

    Well, the “cultural capital” accumulated by the classics is both greater and different from the cultural capital of living authors… they’ve proved their staying power if nothing else. Not that there aren’t “living classics”, but nobody can tell whether they’ll still be classics when they are dead. And that is one of the mainstays of literary study: the study of historically significant texts. Of course there are other dimensions of “literary” study: theory-oriented study of textual conventions, sociologically or ideologically oriented study of popular culture… I suppose there is plenty of room for the study of both living people and changing representational conventions (including electronic media) under this heading. Among the plethora of authors writing now any selection of “contemporary literature” is bound to sound arbitary to some degree — as if you were trying to pass your authors as classics, which you needn’t be doing. There are lots of reasons to study contemporary literature, but there’s one thing it can’t be, which is a collection of classics.

  3. tankefugl

    But what would be accomplished by classifying something as litterature anyway? The value or the quality of the work would not in any way be enchanted or degraded, and it would not have an impact on the quality of works within or outside the classification.

    Although, I have to admit I associate the word “litterature” with something of quality, so I can see how classifying something as such would give it recognition as something potentially important and valuable.

  4. Scott


    While I agree with you in general that it’s impossible to study contemporary “classics,” since they have not yet been defined. I’m also interested in the process of how something becomes a classic. I would contend that much of that happens in the classroom, and that those who do teach contemporary literature play an important role in an ongoing process of canon-formation. There’s also an interesting question of how and when something becomes “safe” to teach. The current study of electronic literature is more focused on contemporary work as manifestations of or reactions to larger trends in the nature of textual expression as a result of the shift to networked communication technologies. In an important sense, I think that current electronic literature offers us an opportunity to study the future possibility space of literature more than it offers us monumental acheivements in letters, or time capsules, in the way that a classics-oriented study of literature might.

  5. JoseAngel

    Yes, perhaps it’s a question of basic attitudes towards one’s subject (or towards life): past-orientation (canon, classics, “safe” choices) or future-orientation (experiments, contemporaries, “risky” choices)… It’s so much safer to choose the safe options in a traditional degree! But I agree with you, of course.

  6. Claus

    > And what does it mean when we are told that no, new media is not and cannot be literature?

    My opinion is that the medium as such is just that: a medium. It doesn’t define the quality of a specific work. This would be about the same as stating in the 19th century that photography would never be able to replace painting (or would never produce something of “real” value).

    > past-orientation (canon, classics, ìsafeî choices) or future-orientation (experiments, contemporaries, ìriskyî choices)

    Remember that “classics” were often controversial – if not revolutionary – when they were created, like (to stay with painters) say, Manet, whose “Olympia” was highly controversial (even scandalous) when it was first exhibited.

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