October 19, 2011

"Does this writer's capacity for language expand my capacity to think and to feel?"

The test — proposed by Jeanette Winterson — for what counts as literature.
We are nervous about anything that seems elitist or inaccessible, and we apologise for the arts in a way that we never do for science.

Nobody blames maths for being difficult – and it isn't difficult – but it is different, and demands some time and effort. It is another kind of language. Literature is also another kind of language. I don't mean literature is obscure or rarefied or precious – that's no test of a book – rather it is operating on a different level to our everyday exchanges of information and conversation.
From an essay involving an controversy about who won and who didn't win a literary prize, something I really don't care about. But the test... the test is interesting. I don't know whether it's right, and actually I don't care. What difference does it make, the definition of "literature"? Unless you care about the prize. But it seems interesting, even though I don't care if it succeeds in testing what it purports to test. And frankly, I think it's quite silly to care about the 2 capacities. It's a double aptitude test, looking backward at the capacity the writer brought to the project of writing the thing and forward to the increased capacity the reader took away from reading it. What about the reading itself?

53 comments:

Pete said...

What ever happened to just enjoying a piece of writing? This kind of thinking is what killed the enjoyment of literature for a lot of people - read this, it's good for you because it's literature. Read what you what to read because you enjoy it. To heck with whether it's literary or not.

Bender said...

Apologise for the arts?

Who is apologizing for the arts? When are the arts apologized for, ever?

Mostly what we see is, on the one hand, people taking great pride in producing unreadable crap that totally fails at its primary purpose -- to effectively communicate ideas from one person to another -- and on the other hand, people praising such crap and patting themselves on the back for reading it.

But I don't ever recall seeing any apologizing for it, or apologising either.

ricpic said...

...we apologize for the arts in a way we never do for science.

Because science is useful. Philistine? No, because the most wonderful aesthetic experience can never be useful, can never be quantified, in the way a cancer curing drug is useful and quantifiable.

Synova said...

I think that language that is a bit difficult, both in structure and in vocabulary, does do something good for a person's ability to think about ideas. This is the same reason some advocate learning a language like Roman, Greek or Russian, or even some other language without all the different cases those languages have. I think that early and extensive exposure to the King James does good things for a person's ability to reason, the same way that Shakespeare and verse help develop different brain muscles than you'd use if you never had to process language that was structured differently that what you're accustomed to.

But does that make something literature? I would say, absolutely not.

If I'm reading something a bit older and the maiden fusses that someone is very "hard" or "make love to me" means using pretty words or "I doubt" is used to mean "I'm certain" or someone piles several layers of negatives into one statement because it's authentic to the period, I'm processing those unfamiliar idioms and grammatical structures (and with my Nook, even effortlessly looking up words gone out of favor and noting roots and etymologies) It doesn't matter at all if I'm reading literature or a penny dreadful.

andinista said...

Does the writer tell a rip-roaring story that I will pay attention during the telling, remember for a long time and ponder over? Now we're talking literature.

As for the math analogy, umm, no, I don't think so.

HA HA HA said...

Isn't that a pretty self-congratulatory definition, coming from somebody who would like us to think she reads a lot of literature? It sounds like she's expanding her capacity to think and feel all the time. That capacity must be pretty vast by now!

What a crock.

An intellectual is somebody who can talk about absolutely anything, and always be talking about himself. Any bore can do that trick most of the time, but it takes a really superior kind of mind to hit 100%.

traditionalguy said...

The play is the thing, said Will's writing.

Some writing carries in it a magic to open our minds and advance in communal sensitivity in areas never before shared so clearly by the public.

Bingo. And then we cannot un-ring the bell.

Good writing is subversive of the existing world view, and draws counterattacks.

Tyrone Slothrop said...

Jeanette Winterston's capacity for language is not up to the task she sets for herself.

Synova said...

I think that if we're talking about ideas and not simply brain-work, then accessibility does have to be paramount.

Eschew obfuscation... and all that.

I think that Winterson reveals her own disdain for quality when she says "no first time authors". It may well be that few would ever win, but excluding them on the presumption that they can't possibly be good yet shows that it's not about the work, but about who is worthy.

And yes, Stephanie Meyer's Twilight is painful to read if you've spent much time writing. Obviously a whole lot of teenaged girls adored it. And if it had been written with beautiful and mind-expanding prose, it would still be every bit as trite.

And Meyer earned every last cent she made with that series. More power to her.

Revenant said...

Obviously a whole lot of teenaged girls adored it.

Plus a somewhat disturbing number of teenaged girls' MOMS, judging from the women I work with. I made a snarky remark about sparkly vampires one time and was almost glared in half by our vice president of marketing.

rhhardin said...

Capacity is from L capere, to take; like participle and forceps.

Michael said...

Think of literature with a capital L as a factory where the writer produces a piece that requires deconstruction by a critic or an academic to be understood. EzBook does not require the efforts of the academy or the critic and thus cannot be recommended because there is nothing to be recommended that cannot be deconstructed. To suggest that the EzBook is Literature is offensive to the critic or the academic because such writing is like having their jobs shipped to India.

Synova said...

That song "Are we human or are we dancer" is on the rotation at work and it makes me nuts. I decided to fight back by writing a spoof, "Are we human or are we vampire." So far I have a couple of verses (to the chorus tune). The Twilight homage verse goes,

"Do we sparkle in the sunshine. Do we speak with words of old. When I'm on my knees pledging my devotion, should you date me, or should you stake me."

I don't quite like changing pronouns but it's a work in progress. ;-)

rhhardin said...

and when a reader collides with that unruly exuberance, he or she has to shift perspective.

So much for love of language.

phx said...

Because you can't measure it doesn't mean it's not useful.

Henry said...

One night I started reading Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book to my sons for their bedtime story. After several pages, with some interruptions to clarify words, and also, whole paragraphs, my nine-year-old said, "I like this, but I don't know what is going on."

That seems to be a pretty good match to Winterson's test, does it not? At least the "capacity for language" part: Kipling's language is expansive and seductive, even for a boy who couldn't understand all it was about.

But there's still a badger stink of decadence to Winterston's essay. Kipling's writing, like Shakespeare's writing, is hugely inventive, and both definitionally fit Winterston's desire for work that "expands what language can do and what fiction can do." Yet neither of those premodern authors was gripped by the kind of creative paralysis that turns writing into writing about writing. They had more game than that.

edutcher said...

I think the measure of literature is how it changes or enhances the reader.

Something like, "Hamlet", imparts something all the knock-offs over the centuries never have. Which is why we still talk about it.

Or at least those of us who real the works of Dead White Men.

phx said...
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phx said...

I think the measure of literature is how it changes or enhances the reader.

I agree with this - that's what education in general does. Also expanding the "capacity to think and to feel" is more or less the same idea.

Bob_R said...

Why do I doubt that she has any idea of what math really is about?

I agree that the focus on "capacities" is (at best) silly and more probably an attempt to hide the true nature of her test. (Does the novel make us think and feel in ways we have not before? would be a pretty simple test - though maybe a good one (and one that lots of good novels in easy language can pass.))

I am sympathetic to her general point - that "the industry" is making a mistake if it refuses to promote challenging works that have genuine merit.

rhhardin said...

Francis Ponge wrote that words rarely used to nest except in marble, but today fly like barnyard birds and only nest in toilets.

"With all due respect for words, given the habits they have acquired in so many foul mouths, it actually takes courage not only to write but even to speak...There is only one way out: to speak against words."

Sixty Grit said...
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Andrea said...

I knew someone who did their Master's thesis on Winterson and, well... let's just say this person needed to read a whole lot more literature.

Lucius said...

Winterson may be on the gnostic, Emersonian side of things, but she's a visionary, and nothing she's said here (apart from first-time novelists--and even that's more in the context of prizes, not inherent merit) should be too controversial.

There's nothing problematic about the status of *reading* in this equation-- it's not cast aside into some limbo between the writer's exertion of capacity and the reader's wrestling with it toward strengthened capacity. The capacities are about *language*-- the author conjures it, the reader submits to its spell. The virtuosity isn't empty; it's an expansion of creation.

This is not Lacan. She may be against nuclear power, but she's not s simple kook. Mumbling about the merits of "story" in this context is like jerking off to the sound of your own best "With a name like Smucker's jam . . ." impression.

Horny for wholesome=Philistine.

And I'm not antinomian. But story alone is not art.

Coketown said...

From Tolstoy's "What is Art?" (taken from this page of excerpts):

If a man is infected by the author's condition of soul, if he feels this emotion and this union with others, then the object which has effected this is art; but if there be no such infection, if there be not this union with the author and with others who are moved by the same work - then it is not art. And not only is infection a sure sign of art, but the degree of infectiousness is also the sole measure of excellence in art...

The stronger the infection, the better is the art as art, speaking now apart from its subject matter, i.e., not considering the quality of the feelings it transmits...

And the degree of the infectiousness of art depends on three conditions:

1. On the greater or lesser individuality of the feeling transmitted;
2. On the greater or lesser clearness with which the feeling is transmitted;
3. On the sincerity of the artist, i.e., on the greater or lesser force with which the artist himself feels the emotion he transmits.


Point 2 was important for Tolstoy. He thought that esoteric, complex, and ambiguous writing diminished the reader's receptiveness to infection. This caused him to disown and criticize his earlier great works, like War & Peace, and produce simpler works like "The Death of Ivan Ilyich."

And I think there's something to that. The most rewarding books I've ever read were stylistically rather simple, and the worst books were thematically and stylistically complex to the point of retardation. My favorite literature appeals to emotion, not intellect, and intellectualizing this appeal is what, I think, has killed reading as a pastime. Conflating math and literature is a symptom of this. The woman is a dullard.

Henry said...

Coketown wrote The most rewarding books I've ever read were stylistically rather simple...

The most rewarding book I've ever read may be War and Peace. It is fabulously rewarding and deeply life-affirming.

Lucius said...

@Coketown: I think you probably know Tolstoi shrugged off Sophocles and Shakespeare (Beethoven too, I think) as decadents-- or at least, insufficiently pure for whatever the Christian/Russian folksoul he wished to be the Demiurge of was dictating to his inscrutable, mad heart.

Stylistic transparency, almost needless to say, is the product of tremendous effort.

Racine, for instance, is very crystalline, and impossibly stylized.

This question is forever muddied in American discourse, thanks to Emerson's token anti-Europeism, Whitman's soulful ejaculations, the non-starter experiments of the dubious Dreiser, the genius of the almost-impossible-to-emulate Hemingway; and finally, not least, the implacable folly of millions that Harry Potter will be read in five hundred years with the fervor we read Cowper and Thomson today. Oh wait--

Lucius said...

--Oh course, Thomson and Cowper were geniuses.

Alex said...

There is something to be said for inculcating real literature in a child's education. If for one thing, it allows the child to eventually distinguish between good & bad writing. Too many people these days think "Twilight" is the pinnacle of literature, because the poor uneducated saps just don't know any better.

Sixty Grit said...
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Andrea said...

Since the person I was talking about thought that Winterson was the bestest writer ever I tried to read some of her stuff. I couldn't get into it -- not because it was "elitist" or "inaccessible" but because it was boring. I can't even remember what it was -- I think something autobiographical (the usual "I was raised by religious fanatics" Pentecostals, according to Wikipedia "and I was very unhappy especially when they found out I was a lesbian." I think these days to be fully accepted into the ranks of Literary Author you have to be gay and have been raised in a religiously strict household.

Anyway, she wasn't my cup of tea. Another author this friend tried to get me into was Philip Coetzee. I read one of the books of his my friend had, Shame. When I was done I wanted to throw myself in front of a truck. I'm not sure that was the sort of expansion of my "capacity to think and feel" Ms. Winterson is talking about, but Coetzee is undoubtedly literary. I think he's won lots of prizes.

AST said...

Who's to judge that? It doesn't move the answer any closer. That's why we have the phrase, "je ne sais quoi."

It's also why I oppose government funding for "the arts." The government is supposed to represent all of us, but in this area that just isn't possible.

Lucius said...

@Andrea: You mean J. M. Coetzee and "Disgrace"?

Lucius said...

@AST: I just don't think "je ne sais quoi" is quite what you're looking for.

More like "de gustibus non est disputandum".

I hardly think Winterson-- or Aristotle, Horace, Johnson, or Harold or Allan Bloom for that matter, have simply left us where we started.

To fail to quest for aesthetic discernment is as galling as to abaondon moral discernment or the quest for truth. And artistic greatness can surely be a 'fact' as well.

rcocean said...

"I didn't like War and Peace, thought it was ponderous and poorly constructed."

Everyone's a critic (Lol). So what did you want, Johnathan Livingston Seagull fights Napoleon?

What did you think of Beethoven's 9th? Too many notes?

Andrea said...

"@Andrea: You mean J. M. Coetzee and "Disgrace"?"

I see that I need another memory-wipe treatment. I still spelled the last name right.

Andrea said...

Also, just saw this:

"...Whitman's soulful ejaculations..."

Oh dear.

rcommal said...

Ah, but to see to the joy in a child who stumbled upon a poem for himself and thence, in excitement and impatience, read it aloud with great enthusiasm to his dogs! If that's not art appreciation, what could be?

rcommal said...

Why should that marvelous thing not be enough?

David R. Graham said...

"It's a double aptitude test, looking backward at the capacity the writer brought to the project of writing the thing and forward to the increased capacity the reader took away from reading it. What about the reading itself?"

Reality is a triple thread: seer, seen, sight.

David R. Graham said...

@ Lucius - Andover, Yale, Harvard?

Dudley Do-right said...

Push the math far enough and it gets hard.

It's also humbling...something that would benefit most writers and literary types. The 'no BS' standard of right & wrong; of logical proof vs. gibberish is not something they're accustomed to.

Sixty Grit said...
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FloridaSteve said...

If that's the definition then the average economics textbook could be considered literature.

J said...
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J said...

Miss Synova at 7-57 stated it effectively.

Reading early Americans such as Franklin or Jefferson, Madison...one perceives something like gravitas--they had read a few classics, a bit of latin, even french (Jeff. spoke it fluently supposedly), the sciences of time. (And the King James bible). We infer intelligence (or not) from a writer's prose. The Founders were not exactly TS Eliot-ish elitists, but no Rush Limblows or Sarah Palin populists either.

Jose_K said...

The description of Borondino´s battle is the best in the history of war literature. Only four are close: Sthendal in La Chartreuse de Parme( Waterloo), Grossman in Life and Fate (Stalingrad) , Junger ´s Stom of Steel ( WWI)and Hemingway´s A Farewell to the Arms( the italian retreat after the defeat to the austrians). Hemingway only knew and mentioned Sthendal in the Green Hills of Africa.
The winners of the Brooker prize, intended for english speaking writters not born in the USA. Its that way because according to the president of the jury( some years ago)otherwise the prize would go to Roth and Delouise since those poor bristish authors can compete.
Still, the lsit of the winners make a good reading list: the best english speaking author alive: VS Naipaul, the Nobel Prizes winners:Coetzee and Golding.The Amis, father and son. Some popular works like "the remain of the day" and The English patient. Banville and Barnes. And especially , Ian MacEwan

Dave said...

The best test for literature is it's effect on the culture as measured by endurance and the linguistic distance traveled. Great works last, are translated enthusiastically and become part of the lexicon. Evaluating anything too recent/too popular is handicapped by fad/fashion. The other extreme are authors like Joyce who are nearly inaccessible by design, written for the literary elite.
In college I trudged through half of Ulysses on the recommendation of a poet roommate before the tossing it aside. Some books are all work and no reward.

Jose_K said...

Or at least those of us who real the works of Dead White Men
Safo,Lady Musaraki,Shei Shonagon,Margot de Valois, Marie de France,George Elliot,Virginia Wolf.
You are forgetting a good part of literature.

J said...

It's AM, and time for lying from Byro the stoner-sockpuppet, psychotic aka Jose K, Dave, etc.

You never read Ulysses or Stendhal , latin American writings, or even Hemingway, dreck. You never read anything, except the plot summary of your favorite RA Swinelein potboiler, and that was too much for you.

Brom said...

What is literature?

I guess literature is like art. Stephen King's books and all of those velvet Elvises out there can consider themselves excluded. But Jackson Pollack is in.

Or maybe literature is like pornography - you know it when you see it.

Or maybe the dichotomy between "literature" and "other books" is just something that smug, pretentious people use to make themselves feel superior.

Doc Holliday's Bastard said...

I dislike trying to define Literature with one easy definition. There are at least three major subsets of what qualifies as Lit based on what we were taught in High School (and college for those lucky and stupid enough to be Lit majors).

The first is historical: The Histories, The Odyssey, The Iliad, Gilgamesh, Beowulf up to Chaucer and the early Arthurian legends. Were it not for their profound and lasting impact on the Western psyche. They are all great works, but other great works have fallen out of favor and are barely read now.

The second is the type of Lit that does expand one's mind, so to speak. Read Ulysses, read Infinite Jest, read Dostoevsky and Conrad and Nabakov and Heller and you come out of it with a different way of thinking. But these authors are hugely varied in their styles and the way they affect a person. Nabakov was master of language and loved to pun in a darkly comic, somewhat nihilistic fashion. You leave Nabakov feeling a trickster. Dostoevsky is the height of sincerity. You leave Dostoevsky questioning the viability of your soul.

The third is the hardest to pin down because it often falls into the other two categories if really well done, and that is the work written to please the audience of humanity. Really please the audience, across time and temperament. Here the Arthurian legends come back into play. Here reside Sherlock Holmes and H.G. Wells. And here is the grandaddy of them all: Shakespeare. He clearly falls into the first category and has shaped Western thought for 400 years. He clearly falls into the second category as the standard bearer of modern English and father of a thousand phrases, as the creator of Hamlet and Lear. But, and this is just a personal opinion, Shakespeare is so highly regarded still because he is so much fun to read and to see acted out. Puns fly, romance, intrigue, murder, hope, fantasy, love, death and everything in between. We are drawn to him because he understands us so well, and we enjoy seeing caricatures of ourselves engaged in ridiculous pursuits. Everything was written to please the audience, not academics, not the Queen, not the other playwrights. This category changes with the times as audiences themselves change, but if done really well the works here probably have the greatest impact since they can reach across that divide in sensibilities.

mythusmage said...

The question to answer is, is it under copyright. It becomes literature when it's in the public domain. :)