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Forgive me for really obviously writing this in the middle of class, but I just want to get my thoughts out in a more coherent fashion that doesn't waste everyone's time.  Somebody (goodness forgive me, but I couldn't see who it was) asked what the sort of "quality level" for literature is, and whether something's level of writing/discourse qualifies or exempts it from being literature with a capital L.  Someone else brought up the idea that literature ought to be defined by a reflection of the human experience, and I'd like to bring those two together.  Some stories, let's face it, are just downright awful.  Not to name any names, but I can see the elephants in the room labelled "Stephanie Meyer" and "E.L. James".  However, there are many, many people who find these stories to be deeply engaging–as much as those of us with higher tastes in our reading may grumble and groan, best-sellers don't come up out of nowhere.  No matter how subjectively (or objectively, I say to over 200 uses of the phrase "my inner goddess" in a single novel) "bad" a story's writing or content is, there are people out there who will relate to it in some way.  If even one person can connect to a story, be it a trashy romance novel at the grocery store, a Jane Austen novel, or even a television series or a comic book, then that story reflects the human experience, and it falls under the aegis of literature.

Of course, there are tiers, both of literature and Literature–some subjective, and some generally upheld.  So while Literature would hold Shakespeare at the top tier and deign to even acknowledge anything written after the mid-1900s, my personal tiers of literature might have a bit of space for a cartoon that plays out an intricate Faustian allegory and an environmentalist message under the guise of girls in pretty costumes alongside both Literature and more modern novels that tread a less-traveled road to interpret the human condition.

To get into this subject fully would take more time than I have (especially with an essay due Monday!) and more words than anyone really wants to read, but I would like to hear people's thoughts about the matter!  What do you think of literature versus Literature–is there always a distinction?  Is there no distinction at all, or is the distinction merely contextual–say, our pleasure reading versus the kinds of text we discuss in class?

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  1. Unknown User (snl4)

    It seems you were reading my brainwaves from across the room, Cob!  I was the one who mentioned quality as a factor in the definition of literature, and when I brought it up, those two authors (and others like them) are precisely of whom I was thinking.  While every fiber of my being hesitates to call legitimately poorly written work as literature (capital "L" or otherwise), if one were to place more value on the impact of the narrative than the actual quality of the writing when defining literature, then there would be no other option but to put these famously dreadful works of prose into the category of literature, lowercase.  The fact is, the quality of the prose has had little effect on the success of these pieces.  Somehow these stories have greatly impacted people, and the books as a result have gained a following.  Of course, there is also the matter of phenomena, the concept that something such as a book becomes popular not due to its own merit (or lack thereof) but due to the buzz surrounding it.  Essentially, it is popular because it is popular.  Because each reader's experience of a book is personal and unique, one could not say absolutely that "Fifty Shades of Grey" is popular because of the phenomenon and nothing more. 

    Jack Zipes, former professor of German at the University of Minnesota, applied the same principal to the Harry Potter series in his book Sticks and Stones: The Troublesome Success of Children's Literature from Slovenly Peter to Harry Potter.  He argues that the series is not only formulaic but sexist, and that the series became popular because of phenomenon and word of mouth.  Harry Potter is arguably better prose than "Twilight" or "Fifty Shades of Grey", but the machine that drove it to popularity is the same - phenomenon. I don't mean to discount phenomenon.  It can be incredibly useful and good, but it must be evaluated carefully.  Perhaps there was something in the narratives of "Harry Potter", "Twilight", and "Fifty Shades of Grey" that spoke to the readers and started the phenomenon in the first place.  It's an interesting sociological question as well as a literary one.  If a critic places more value on the narrative than the construction, then they would view this entire scenario in a different way than a critic who places more value on form.

    To draw back a little, could the concept of phenomenon be applied to other works from the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries that belong in the category of Literature (with a capital "L")?  Though there is clearly no question that the works of Tolstoy, Hugo, and Dickens use the English language more expertly in their prose than the most talked-about books of today, could it be that these works may have been first considered for inclusion in Literature because of phenomenon?  I don't know the answer exactly, but I know that in days gone by it was considered stylish and trendy to be well-read and to read the most distinguished authors.  Is this an example of phenomenon influencing the definition of Literature or deciding which works were to be labeled as such? Are some equally as well-written books not Literature because they were not as popular when they were published?  I leave this open-ended, as the entire conversation surrounding literature and Literature is open-ended.


    I spent forever trying to articulate this in the best way I could ... I hope it made sense!