Previous posts have attempted to rhetorically tackle the axiological question of what is “literary?” In the gap since writing those posts, I have become aware of the question in more specific ways via my own writing.
When not writing academic papers on the subjects of Rhetoric and Composition Theory, I’m writing fiction. As I write fiction, I find my process continuously intruded upon by precepts ingrained in me during my graduate studies. “Show, don’t tell.” “Incorporate all five senses.” “Description, not dialogue.” And most of all, “never, ever use an adverb.” While these axioms may all be well and good, I sometimes think that they occupy the forefront of my mind while I’m writing, even more so perhaps than plot or character. Which leads me to ask, am I really writing what I want to write?
In order to steer us away from a literary discussion, let’s take a look at this in terms of genre and authorial invention. Bawarshi says that the writer invents the genre. Yet at the same time, the writer is invented by the genre. The precepts of the genre, those constraints that include, say, MLA format for papers, that confines or at the very least guides the author towards an end text that is acceptable to the particular discourse community. Playing into this is what Foucault calls “the author-function.” This, according to Foucault, does not refer to the actual author, the writer, but to the author’s name, “the literary name,” that artistic and philosophical “endowment” or “canonization” that grants a text a certain value or cultural status. The author, in Foucault’s view, “is a certain functional principle by which, in our culture, one limits, excludes, and chooses; in short, by which one impedes the free circulation, the free manipulation, the free composition, the decomposition, and recomposition of fiction.” ASIDE: “Decomposition” and “recomposition” really hearken back to cut-ups, in my opinion.
Upon hearing the description of the author-function, it is not hard to see how most writers want their work to end up in the good graces described above, to be considered more “literary” by that machination that posits, “Faulkner good, L. Ron Hubbard bad.” Whether that statement is true or not, the apparatus is apparent. This function delimits and relegates which works are “important,” “worthy of study.”From said study by the academy, certain similar attributes of texts, “hallmarks” if you will, are identified as benchmarks for “literary” quality writing. Since many writers strive for this form of literature or at least wish to be respected as such, they aim for these hallmarks in effort to make their work “worthwhile.” Indeed a worthy aspiration but I cannot help but wonder just to what extent these constructed genre constraints, constructed either by classroom instruction, critique, or “the inner editor” limit the style of form of texts?