UNPACKING THE BACKPACK – That Thing We Call Literature


In teaching composition and literature, I always remind my students that words have connotations in addition to their denotation, or dictionary definition. It should be noted that the word literature also has a connotation. The general consensus is that literature is more scholarly than popular fiction, and it is almost expected to be less than accessible to the average reader. Literature is the long, complicated, sometimes boring subject we read in school. The definition that I have tended to use with my students is that literature is “the things that matter”.

I always distinguish between good storytelling and literature. Stephanie Meyer’s incredibly popular Twilight series from 2005, which I explained to my students, is a great story, but actually contains rather weak handwriting, and it will certainly never be studied, or even thought about in a generation from. From now . Stephen King, one of the most talented and talented fiction writers of the contemporary era, once made a similar observation about Meyer, noting that she “can’t write worth it”. I tend to agree, although many readers of classic literature might make the same criticism of King. Of course, we could be wrong. And there are many more erudite and scholarly people to explain and resolve this. Arthur Krystal is definitely one of them.

Krystal is one of my favorite critics, writers, and thinkers, and I recently read several of her books of essays and reviews, including her latest book This Thing We Call Literature, which is the inspiration for this column. Krystal is, I believe, first and foremost an essayist, and he spends much of his practice reflecting on the very nature of writing and storytelling. One of its targets in the book is the idea in contemporary society that literature is what we want it to be, or worse yet, everything that is written. He draws insight and perspective on the theory laid down in a literary critical book titled A New Literary History of America, which makes the astute observation that Bob Dylan is potentially the best known and most important poet in America today. . This prospect is of course validated by his awarding of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016. Add to that the awarding of the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2018 to rapper Kendrick Lamar, and you can see the argument take shape.

Exploring the depths of my original commentary on popular writers like Stephen King or Stephanie Meyer, Krystal’s discussion of commercial or genre fiction versus literary fiction is at the heart of divergent views on literature. For example, he notes the importance of popularity in weighing the importance of a literary work, and he concedes the obvious reality that the works of Charles Dickens were in fact the popular fiction of their time, read by audiences many of whom had nothing more than an eighth quality education. I especially liked his reference to Edmund Wilson’s classic New Yorker essay denigrating popular detective fiction, “Who cares who killed Roger Ackroyd?” When I came across an excerpt from this essay years ago, it opened my eyes to the battle of popular literature and fiction. Admittedly, popularity is not the barometer by which we measure quality – fast food and reality TV being examples of the flaw in this logic.

That said, pop culture has a distinctly different status than it did twenty years ago. As Krystal notes, “If you think Buffy the Vampire Slayer is worthy of a college thesis… then you’ve come to the right time. Without a doubt. And I’m definitely the type to elevate Buffy to study-worthy work. For years, I half-joked in my classes that my first college assignment as a literary critic would center on the three B’s of Western Culture Studies: “The Bible, Beowulf, and Buffy.” But I don’t disagree with Krystal or Lionel Trilling or Northrop Frye or Harold Bloom that there are clear distinctions for what we consider literature. I would also agree that the postmodern obfuscation of ideas like quality, morality and truth does culture no service. There are the good things that matter that won’t soon be forgotten, and there’s everything in between.

Anyway, if you want to think about language and literature, check out Arthur Krystal. Also read popular fiction. And then maybe follow that up with some classic literature. Having recently introduced my students to the timeless classic Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, I cannot recommend it enough.

Michael P. Mazenko is a writer, educator and school administrator in Greenwood Village. He blogs at A Teacher’s View and can be found on Twitter @mmazenko. You can email him at [email protected]


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