Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Literature of Value

I was trying to explain something in class last night that I've always kind of known, but I didn't have a very good explanation for. In trying to talk through my thoughts, I came up with some great terminology. This is probably a concept you are familiar with, even if you've never heard it spoken before. My terminology is classic of value vs. academic classic.

I think every one of us can name a book we read "because we had to," but admittedly, we really didn't like it. Maybe we even questioned the point of it. Then there are other books we've read that we come back to over and over because they always contain something new for us.

Last night we were talking about The Picture of Dorian Gray and how its themes and moral dilemmas are timeless. Shakespeare is the same way. I compared that to something like Ulysses by James Joyce which even the critics agree is not read for its story, but instead to "figure it out:" to try to reveal all the literary allusions, and the experimentation with style, and its revolutionary effect on the novel, and...and...and. In other words, unless you are in an advanced English studies program, you will never read it. Hence, an academic classic.

I just cannot fathom anyone writing something for the sole purpose of confusing and frustrating his/her readers. But according to his own word, that is essentially Joyce's purpose. That way he guaranteed he would be immortal.

So most of us probably aren't writing "literary" pieces per se, but I would contend that the best pieces of fiction (and nonfiction) have literary elements to them. Look at Lord of the Rings. Written as a piece of fiction decades ago, but still as enjoyed and applicable today. Fifty years from now, will people still be reading the Twilight series?  Probably not. Not that it isn't a fun series; I personally quite enjoyed it. But I read it purely for pleasure, and there isn't much of a literary element to it. Harry Potter, on the other hand, although primarily a "fun" piece of fiction, still has the age-old good vs. evil theme complete with its tragical aspects, sacrifices, and loss in the midst of triumph. So I would guess that one will stick around for a while.

So how will your writing be remembered? Valuable? Academic? Or simply forgotten?