What is Literature?

As a high school teacher, I often struggle to get kids to read. At all, really. Most of the schools that I have taught in have the usual assortments of novels for teens to read: Great Expectations, Lord of the Flies, Tom Sawyer, the Great Gatsby, etc… Some of my students actually read it all and don’t simply go to SparkNotes for the summaries and some of those students actually enjoy reading the book. Am I doing them a service? What is my goal in teaching literature? If I handed out a Harry Potter book and a majority of the class read it, is that a better success than handing out Lord of the Flies and having them most of them quit reading in the first chapter because they don’t have any idea what’s going on? My focus today is twofold: What is Literature and what should the educator’s primary goal be when teaching novels?

The latest Harry Potter book has fueled discussion about what “literature” really is or should be. I’m going to start by saying that I think that J.K. Rowling (Pronounced like “bowling” apparently. After all this time, who knew?) is an author I enjoy. I really enjoyed reading the Potter series. More on that later.

Many “well-read” professors have dismissed Rowling’s books as adolescent or even as simply bad writing. These critics claim that her books won’t stand the test of time and are simply a fad. Harold Bloom is one of the strongest critics. Of course, there’s also criticism that the Potter books condone witchcraft and are subverting all our youth to the devil. That’s more a criticism of the subject matter, but I want to focus on the writing.

What makes good literature? Should it appeal to all people regardless of age, race, religion, etc…? I doubt that. Does it have to have a compelling plot? Many “classic” literature stories mostly revolve around a strong character and the choices that character makes. That can be fine, but I’ve always preferred a strong plot. Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre is great literature, but the plot is not particularly compelling. If the character does not grab my interest, how can I possibly sludge through 400 pages about her woes? Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe series is compelling reading, but Archie Goodwin and Nero Wolfe’s characters do not really change. The stories are written about plot, but the entertaining characters keep the story fun even if they are static. However, for some readers, character is everything. So, which is more important: Characters or Plot? Or, do “great” novels include both. If so, there are very few “great” novels.

My conclusion as an educator is this: Great Literature is a book that draws you into its world, makes you care about the world, and when you finish it, makes you sad that it’s over. What books are these? I can’t name them for you. Everyone is different, so I think that only a pompous individual can say for sure if a book is “literature” or not. I may not like reading R.L.Stine, but if you talk with a 12-year-old reader, you may hear that Stine’s books are simply the best. Is she an uneducated lout? Or do his books resonate with her exactly right for her age, temperament, and education?

Further, there are a number of things that affect what a person likes or dislikes:  education, background, religion, and intelligence, to name a few.  Can we honestly tell a person who struggles to read the newspaper that James Rollins is a terrible writer?  Should we crush a reader because they prefer an action story to a touching tale of one woman’s struggle to make the right decision in her life?

So, in short, stop railing against Harry Potter and other modern fiction writers. If you don’t like it, read something else. The important thing here is that we need to encourage reading of any kind. Sure, we should push people to have a variety of reading.  We should continue to praise classic works if we find them appealing.  But, if we quash reading because we don’t think it’s good enough, we’ll have a nation, or a world, full of people who don’t read at all.

That’s a crime.

I am the Language Lover, and these are my thoughts.

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3 Comments

  1. renaissanceguy said,

    August 17, 2007 at 12:51 am

    Just as there is a difference between ordinary cuisine and great cuisine or an ordinary performance by a baseball pitcher and a great one, there is a difference between literature and great literature. Obviously personal taste comes into play, but I consider a work demonstrably great if a large number of people feel inspired or challenged by it over an extended period of time. I do my best to get my students to read some ordinary literature and some great literature.

    I read the first Harry Potter novel and wasn’t captivated enough to read any more. I found it easy to read but not particularly enlightening or satisfying. To each his own.

    I don’t particularly like the argument that as long as kids are reading something, it doesn’t matter what. Does that include pornographic magazines? Racist propaganda tracts? Rap song lyrics? I’m sure you are not saying that, but it is important to take an argument to its logical extreme to show that there is a limit to how far it can go.

    Students need great literature, or at least good literature, to help shape their character and to develop their taste. They also need to learn how to evaluate and critique what they read so that they can tell the difference between reading for enrichment and reading for pleasure. Some students appreciate good literature naturally, others have to devlop an appreciation for it, but others apparently never will.

    I’m not trying to argue, just trying to get a it of dialogue going.

  2. languagelover said,

    August 17, 2007 at 3:12 am

    Good Points.

    It’s hard to use absolutes. They’re always wrong in some way. (See how I used another absolute there?) Your comment hit upon the number one weakness in my argument. In reality, I think there are three types of novels: Terrible rubbish, fine reading that doesn’t particularly stimulate, but is interesting enough to read, and novels that inspire or cause change. Unfortunately, it’s hard to really determine trash. It’s a matter of taste, I think. Anyway, I’m glad you know what I mean. I just wish there was a better way to phrase it so that it means what I want it to mean. Know what I mean? (That’s actually one of my purposes in starting this blog. I want to explore my thoughts and try to clarify my positions on literature and education.)

    No. I totally agree that students need to experience good and great literature. It’s just a challenge to turn them on to it. A lot of people get turned off from reading and then they do their best to avoid it for the rest of their life. A friend of mine, who has his masters degree, admitted that he hasn’t read a book in so long that he can’t remember what the last book was. He just knows that he has never liked reading, so he stopped. I don’t think he has any idea how sad he made me when he admitted that. And, I have to say, my opinion of him dropped considerably.

    I got a little sidetracked there. Anyway, I think that convincing students that reading is enjoyable is goal number one. As we read and discuss books, I push them to think beyond. I ask evaluative questions and urge students to think objectively and question the purpose of the reading. Something can be learned from almost any reading. More can be gained from a great book, though.

    Oh, and I can respect your decision not to read any more Harry Potter. All I ask of any critic is to try it first. If you don’t like it after that, no problem from me. It’s like I tell my kids: I don’t care if you don’t think supper looks good. Take one bite and then decide whether or not you like it. If you don’t like it after one bite, I’ll make you something else.

  3. renaissanceguy said,

    August 30, 2007 at 12:20 am

    You have stated your thoughts very well, as I would have guessed.

    I think we language lovers have to finally reconcile ourselves to the facts that (1) not everybody is keen on reading and (2) not everybody sees or hears in great literature what we do. Give me Shakespeare any day over Clancy, but how rare am I?

    I like your three-way division. I love Agatha Christie novels, which aren’t exactly on my 100 Best Books list. Neither are they rubbish. They fall in that in-between category. At least I think so.


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