Tuesday, June 7, 2011

But is it "literary?"

“Literary.”  This very word has connotations that are at once sublime and controversial.

In many rhetorical situations, calling written work “literary” gifts the text with a blessing, if not altogether a canonization, granting it access into an “upper echelon” of literature.  By way of comparison, calling a given piece of writing “genre fiction” tends to create a diametrically opposite response.  “Genre” evokes connotations of flash, gaudiness, emptiness, and perhaps worst of all, entertainment.  A perhaps more succinct way of summarizing this comparison might be that “literary” means “art" whereas “genre” means “commerce.”
The tropes, the trappings, the “furniture” of various genres are easily identified.  If a reader is told that a book is a “Western,”certain expectations are formed in connection with that term.  There are thoughts of mesas, men riding the range, and so forth.  “Science fiction” conjures thoughts of space travel, advanced technology, or perhaps just life in the future.  Yet what are the basic attributes of “literary” fiction?
Those are murky and ambiguous at best.  Where the above examples of genre tropes are perhaps oversimplifications, the same type of over-generalizations might be made after a cursory cull of literary fiction.  “Literary” means dysfunctional families, substance abuse, men brought to ruin by philandering, and harsh political points of view.  But where is the demarcation point between “genre” and “literary?”  “Horror” is a genre, but many would consider Edgar Allan Poe, one of the luminaries of that genre as well as others, to be a
true “literary” writer.  What accounts for this?
In terms of composition, this is really a question of axiology.  What is “good” writing?  As I habitually do in essays of this nature, I will invoke Aristotle and his concept of the “three goods:” that which is useful, that which is pleasurable, and that which is of the highest moral quality.  Let us belay the “useful” for the purposes of this discussion and focus on the remaining two “goods.”  “Genre” writing, with its connotations of entertainment and escapism, could certainly be viewed as “pleasurable,” but cannot reading “literary” be equally enjoyable?  “Literary” fiction might derive its identity by imparting a morally good message or by being upheld as a standard of high craftsmanship, the “morally” strongest paragon of the art form.  Could “genre” writing such as The Spy Who Came In From the Cold provide the same thing?  Or is this all more along the lines of how Collins and Gentner define "good writing": "writing that conforms to a set of rules based by some authority."  A definition that Bizzell questions by asserting, "This approach leaves no way to justify the authority's decisions as other than arbitrary, and hence there 'rules' are situation-bound."
That may be the key.  What about the writer’s situation and intentions, born out of "the politics of location?"

More to come...

No comments:

Post a Comment