“literature”

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.

28. March 2006 by Jill
6 comments

Comments (6)

Leave a Reply

Required fields are marked *