I was recently raving to my best friend about a book (10:04 – Ben Lerner) I discovered in a little Dallas bookstore while traveling there for work (http://thewilddetectives.com/ – go! Check it out!), and he asked me about the book’s genre.
“It’s literature,” I said.
“No, but what genre, is it sci-fi?”
“You mean like contemporary fiction?”
“No. I mean literature.”
Which is not to say it does not have certain genre components. Nor do I mean that genre fiction cannot be literature. Jules Verne blows that idea out of the water. Followed by Neil Gaiman and so many mystery, science fiction, young adult, and other writers.
When I say literature, I mean several things.
First, I mean the prose is exceptional. The writing is clean, flawless, takes no prisoners. If the book is bloated, that was a decision by the writer; much like a decision to misuse a semi-colon for emphasis.
Second, I mean the book contains a certain number of universal truths. These don’t need to be big truths, but can be small moments of humanity. They don’t have to be plausible or even possible. But they need to, on some level, be true. Neil Gaiman’s Coraline, which I consider both literature and a perfect book, although perhaps not for small children, has a number of moments of implausibility that are, in fact, completely true. Coraline’s Other Mother provides everything we believe a Mother should be, and yet she is horrifying.
Why? Because she may do and say and act in the ways that we consider in an ideal mother, but she does not love Coraline in that way that her real mother, who acts and behaves in a way that one considers unmotherly. Yet the reader knows, virtually from the beginning, which mother is the real mother.
Moments like this are what I mean by true.
Third, the book has a sense of permanence. Very few serious readers will doubt that Harry Potter will last. At this point, it is probably a universal law of reading that the next generation and the next will read Harry Potter along with Narnia. Along with White Fang and Tom Sawyer and all of those books we call Children’s Literature when we buy then for Children, and Literature when we buy them for ourselves. These are the books that add to the cannon. Perhaps even knock a few out of it.
I have been fighting with writer friends off and on for ten years about the origins of Chick Lit (a genre I love but judge so harshly that outside of Helen Fielding, Helen Fielding, and Rebecca Wells that I almost never read it). I maintain (loudly) that Helen Fielding invented chick lit and rescued it from the pink corner of shame (romance) in the book store. How those genres differ from say the modern mystery (invented by Megan Abbott, Tana French, and Gillian Flynn) or household fiction is a topic for another post. But as far as I can tell, it’s not just me and the publishing houses who draw a distinction.
Others suggest chick lit has its origins in nineteenth century literature. Not the Brontes, not George Eliot, not even the socialite Edith Wharton. By others, I mean one of my warrior princess sisters who argues OVER AND OVER that Jane Austen is chick lit.
To say I fundamentally reject the notion that five books I have read well over 100 times founded chick lit during the regency period of British Literature, fundamentally changed the notion of the novel, and shaped the idea of the modern heroine is an understatement.
I might entertain the idea that Austen provided the foundations for Fielding, but Austen wrote literature. Exceptional prose (including intentionally long paragraphs replete with semi-colons), universal truths (stated within the first page), permanence. I love Bridget Jones. She is a masterpiece of a character.
But her books are not pushing the notion of the novel forward or in a new direction.
The fourth reason is metaphysical and resides well within the modern question: “What is Art?” Jonathan Franzen perhaps captured it best in a 2004 review of an Alice Munro short story collection (Munro being perhaps the most talented living writer of short stories) when he said, “Reading Munro puts me in that state of quiet reflection in which I think about my own life: about the decisions I’ve made, the things I’ve done and haven’t done, the kind of person I am, the prospect of death. She is one of the handful of writers, some living, most dead, whom I have in mind when I say that fiction is my religion.”
For me both Franzen and Munro are in that handful. What I often call my top five (or top ten) living writers, along with the same dead writers, make up the back bone of classic and modern literature for me.
Even on my goodreads page, I distinguish between modern literature and modern fiction (https://www.goodreads.com/review/list/411786?shelf=read). I love to read and read constantly. I am a huge fan of genre fiction of all types (not so much on romance, but even that I will give a whirl, although I prefer it in the YA crack delivered by Rainbow Rowell and John Green). But when I worship, I worship at the alter of high art and when I say something modern is literature, it is me saying “THIS! THIS! THIS! is what changes the modern novel.”
Literature is my religion.
Inspired in part by that snarky dude from St. Louis and his musings, and in part by conversations with my best friend, who is perhaps even Snarkier than Franzen (assuming that is possible).