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There's "subjective", and there's "lack of education" DomA Send a noteboard - 21/02/2012 08:58:11 PM
I feel like we as a society are too quick to call something literature because everybody else calls it literature and too quick to tear something else down because no one else calls it literature.

No one who knows the least bit what he's talking about would claim that Brandon Sanderson (or for that matter Stephanie Meyer or Dan Brown) isn't literature.

Are we "too quick" to judge that neither is a great writer? Why? It's rather obvious, I would think, that their works don't have any great or special aesthetics value, merely using contemporary written language, and at a fairly popular level (and sometimes not even mastering fully the technical aspect of grammar/syntax). There are themes, but they are there to serve the storytelling, which main purpose is to entertain. No one would think to claim that Sanderson is bringing anything outstanding to the themes he's working with, nothing that will make people go to his fiction as an example of some of the most meaningful or special reflection on these themes or issues.

These aren't work with a very deep or great cultural resonance. They're typical of certain genres of 21st century mass entertainment, no more. They contribute nothing deeply original, outstanding or special to the form they write in, they follow in the footsteps of their predecessors, in other words they see writing as a craft. Of course Sanderson contributes his own "brick" to the Fantasy genre and his own little twists on some of the tropes, like Jordan and all, but the resonance or importance of his work within the genre isn't so far outstanding not to mention it's a drop in the ocean of 21st century literature.

There's nothing wrong with that. Personally I have a great respect for the good, intelligent entertainers like Sanderson (and my despise for Meyer/Brown and co. have nothing to do with the fact their writing is entertainment).

Part of the problem is just semantic. English can be rather vague (in common speech, anyway) with the whole concept. The term literature is too often undestood (especially anti-elitist on one side, and the snobs on the other) to refer to the great works, not to literature as a whole. I much prefer the French custom to tack "great" before literature when you mean to exclude anything but the great works from the definition of literature.

Of course, it's subjective, but it doesn't imply it's worthless judgement. Scholarship is more than advanced enough in fields like semiology, history (incl. of language), comparative literary criticism, sociology and so on to give people like Austen, Dickens, Salinger, Hemingway a place in the history of literature, or to judge that someone like Alexandre Dumas without contributing much to French literature as an art form or left works of deep significiance that humans can turn to rather than (or before) trying to reinvent the wheel (and therefore rarely included as a great writer, but rather recognized as one of the most important figures of popular literature - one of France's most important entertainers), has greatly influenced popular literature, and left characters that even over a hundred years later, are known and appreciated by masses of people.

It's not a static canon either. Tastes, perspectives, sensibilities and knowledge vary with time, and scholars and readers of great literature are perfectly aware that works that currently have much resonance today are likely to go in eclipse (or have done so for a while), to be appreciated again later, or not. Many works eventually offer ideas and form that no are no longer appreciated much at some point, and they become works mostly known by specialists (amateur and professional) of certain periods or cultures, until (unless) suddenly someone, or the times, sees a new relevance in the work and they're back as major works. And people with more than a basic initiation to literature are also perfectly capable of seeing beyond contemporary tastes to assess the past importance and value of such works no longer enjoying as much favor. It's happened before - countless times, it will happen again. What constitues great literature comes from a very large cultural consensus, often built through centuries and more, not only from the ivory tower of some "elite" (in truth, the great literature touted exclusively by the elites and snobs is often the same that doesn't get recognized in the "canon" for very long).

What's wrong with recognizing that the writing of people like Shakespeare, Gibbons or Austen offer some of the most outstanding example of mastery of the English language of their time, that even for that alone their works are worth introducing to students learning the English language and culture?

Schools aren't mean to keep the kids entertained...

They are plays, meant to be seen, and written to be enjoyed and make the theater money.

Oh please, why bring money into this? If there's any artistic field in which profit (in our days) is only a minor aspect it's theater.

The real "literary elites", if by this you refer to all the widely-read amatateurs and the professionals such as scholars, don't care much at all how popular or profitable any writer is or was. It may make them suspicious of a writer at first, but that doesn't last very long when the quality's there. Beside, there are many prominent scholars of literature who appreciate massively popular literature, when it's good.

If by "literary elites" one means the far more visible shallow literary circles in mass media and such, those aren't elites, it's show-business. They can't tout the new this or that as the ultimate masterpiece of the month, all they want, and trash popular literature all they want, this doesn't influence society for all that long, some years before the readers and scholars alike form something like a consensus over a writer or work.

If you mean Shakespeare was an entertainer making a living of his craft, of course he was. That's got little to do with the oustanding quality and cultural importance of his work as a great writer, though.

Of course the playwrights should be experienced in theaters. Their literature is not meant to be read, though some formal education is crucial to be able one day to appreciate writers like Shakespeare, beside there's the fact that Shakespeare's English has value beyond literature proper, and is entirely relevant to native speakers of English in the process of learning their language. A growing problem (and not only in English) is how mastery of languages are in decline. Many people can't convey abstact or more complex concepts, can't read great literature, can't derive much from philosophy not because they're idiots, but because they no longer make the effort to learn the language well enough and no longer take the time to put what they learn in practice, rather rushing everything they write. They struggle to understand or express more complex ideas and notions. And where could they remedy that? By turning to the classics. Of rhetoric, of philosophy, by expanding the vocabulary way beyond what's required for daily communications, by exploring how the best writers of all time have managed to communicate their ideas, in all of forms, including fiction.

As for drama, many schools offered both the classroom studies and the stage experience. We saw four plays a year at the school I attended, 3 classics and a contemporary work. 8 plays for those who wished to take the extracurrecular field trips. Our teachers didn't try to make us read works like Tristan and Iseult, or classic or modern poetry, they made us listen to them, as they were meant to be experienced.

But let's not go further for nothing in this topic, very few argue the fact the way great literature is introduced in most schools leaves much to be desired and manage to grab the interest or awake the curiosity of only a few students, and it's nothing new, just worse than it used to be.

But it's not by introducing Brandon Sanderson and co. in classrooms that this would be solved. It's perfectly all right that teachers encourage their students to read entertainment literature in their own time, if they were not so lucky as to grow up in a family that awoke their taste for reading, but lit. classes are meant to introduce everyone to great literature, not teach them about entertainment literature (which is as ridiculous as teaching students to like TV series like Lost or American blockbusters). Yes, yes, one could learn the rudiments of literary criticism by analyzing a Wheel of Time novel, but the whole point is to bring the students to more critical and deeper reading while at the same time introducing them to great works. If they want to put critical grid later on on their favourite entertainment novels in their own time, they will.

Assuredly, but his lasting legacy is grounded in the fact that he was in fact a very good storyteller who wrote engaging, complex dramas set primarily in Victorian London.

It goes beyond that. The form of Dickens's novels, the quality and truculence of his prose, his social importance too, are major aspects of his legacy and of his importance in English literature.

People who are strictly interested in seeking entertainment from Dickens, who enjoy just his stories usually won't go and pick Bleak House or any of his novels, they'll go an buy the DVD of the mini-series, which offer entertainment far more in tune with contemporary tastes.

It's people who have made the effort to widen their horizons and develop the sensibility and skills to appreciate and enjoy the literary quality of Dickens, or who have an interest in literature from that period, who still read Dickens (only or beside audiovisual adaptations). Very few people who have no sensibility or taste for great literature at all will find Dickens "entertaining", because time has raised quite a few barriers between the average audience and Dickens's genius as a storyteller. His Victorian prose, the effort required to read it, appreciate it, and to understand the cultural references stand in the way of "pure entertainment" to most people.

Strictly "popular" and entertainment-oriented works tend to follow two main paths: either they fall out of favor rapidly after a while and eventually into oblivion (there were hundreds of writers who wrote feuilletons like Dumas or Dickens, no one remember their names or stories and not necessarily because they were not well regarded or popular in their own times), or they get picked and reinterpreted by later storytellers, keeping the stories alive, if not the original work. That used to happen mostly in oral and written forms for centuries, but nowadays this phenomenon includes also (and mostly, since copyrights) audiovisual adaptations.

If not for the prominence of ACC in popular culture (and that owes a lot to the fact it's a christmas story, a time of the year that make people return to traditions), and the many TV/movie adaptations of his other works, Dickens would most definitely NOT be forgotten, but it's fairly likely he wouldn't be read nearly as much as he still is and that in a fairly limited way he is still a "popular writer" today. The same is true for Dumas (and Austen), whose characters and stories are still so familiar to many not because (or mostly because) of the original novels, but because the entertainment industry has kept them alive through adaptations custom-tailored to please each generation (and the popularity of those adaptations are often short-lived).

Literature with a capital L, the kind that gets assigned in college classes, were once very well written stories that people wrote hoping others would like and maybe get something out of

That's what "great storytelling" is, not great literature. Great Literature is far more inclusive than this, it's the sum of the really meaningful or aesthetically achieved written works produced by humanity. Most of it isn't even fiction. And of course the canon fluctuate at any point in time, though the fluctuations are mostly at the fringes, not quite at the core.

Even for fiction literature, even for novelists, I think if you scratched the surface, you'd find very few of the great writers (and even many of the best contemporary novelists) who wrote to be popular, or in the hope that people would like their stories and be entertained. For most of them it was far more primal, visceral or intellectual than that - and if they hope to scrap a living out of their writing, it was so they could spend most of their life writing (and before Dumas/Dickens and co., it was mostly fairly rich people who had the luxury to attempt to write great literature, fiction at least. Everybody else had no time to spare to develop and hone the craft). Fairly few great novels were written by people who didn't put their heart, soul, brains and bowels into their books, focussed far more on getting out what they had to say than caring for how they work would be received at the other end. Entertainers are far more social animals, artists far more rarely are. For having spoken of this very briefly with Sanderson at a signing, the guy is far from uneducated (heck, he would definitely fall under Anonymous's "literary elites" not only from his education but also for his day job) and far from unintelligent, and yes he includes some of his culture, and worldviews and his favorite subjects of deeper reflection (like religions, for him, the ethics of science etc.) in his books (and it's not because he has very deep things to say about that, it's that he likes those topics so he likes to incorporate them in his stories), but he's the first one to say his English is functional at best, that even as a professional with a lot of practice by now his mastery of the language isn't great or integrated enough that he can even bother with his prose as he writes, that even with many revised drafts and editors he can get only so far before he's reached his limit as a prose writer. He's also totally frank and unashamed about the fact his primary motivation to write, and to write in the genres he writes in, is because he loves it, it's a way to entertain himself and be happy, and that he's discovered he can entertain others so decided to try make a living out of that. An entertainer. Sanderson would be the last one to be bothered by the fact people call his novels light/fun/fluff. Go ask him, he'll say it's what he wants to write. But you might be surprised that Sanderson occasionally refer to great writers in conversation or during his explanation about the craft of writing - it's not because he's not writing great literature that he glorifies ignorance of those works. He's studied them! There's a time for Dostoïevsky, for widening horizons, get a greater understanding of the human experience through literature (without many of those works and great writers, we'd be condemned to exploring the same issues over and over each generation. These great works are our legacy, what lets us go forward, and often what let us understand where we come from too), for feeding your thoughts and challenge your brain with meaningful issues, and there's a time when you turn to books simply to relax and spend a good time like you would watch a movie or play a videogame, and it's when you put yourself in the hands of the entertainers that best fit your tastes, people like Sanderson.

Enjoying great literature is very much a matter of taste (but also education), but discerning what is and isn't great literature not so much - at least it's a consensus reached over very long periods of time and through many generations, and nowadays by many cultures as well. By way, way too many people to call this "the elites" without being ridiculous, and blindly anti-elitist to the point of celebrating the lowest common denominators as superior to the the few outstanding works produced at any given time.

This message last edited by DomA on 21/02/2012 at 09:37:00 PM
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I just wish he'd be done with the RJ shit and go back to writing his own books. - 19/02/2012 05:40:59 PM 1198 Views
Agreed on both points..... - 19/02/2012 08:00:41 PM 1154 Views
Well, but he is a "fluff" writer from a literary standpoint - 20/02/2012 02:16:11 AM 1207 Views
Not a fluff writer in my mind..... - 20/02/2012 03:12:46 AM 1155 Views
You don't seem to want to hear what I'm saying - 20/02/2012 03:51:13 AM 1118 Views
And I am saying that storytelling is more important..... - 20/02/2012 04:52:39 AM 1245 Views
Storytelling is crucial... - 20/02/2012 05:59:57 AM 1218 Views
A few comments/replies about your post..... - 20/02/2012 02:57:16 PM 1188 Views
You are correct in one respect: all of this is opinion. - 20/02/2012 07:01:11 PM 1158 Views
You sound like one of those nasty "literary elites"! - 20/02/2012 08:07:13 PM 1103 Views
Literature is subjective - 21/02/2012 12:26:35 AM 1203 Views
Very well said..... *NM* - 21/02/2012 01:12:40 AM 501 Views
I agree with your point about reading Shakespeare from textbooks. - 21/02/2012 03:18:37 AM 1241 Views
Never heard of Thomas Mann and the real Mona Lisa..... - 21/02/2012 03:34:12 AM 1079 Views
Conversely, why should I trust the likes of you? - 21/02/2012 06:19:18 AM 1316 Views
Oh, come now... - 21/02/2012 10:35:18 AM 1229 Views
When it comes to evaluating schema, I'm not going to trust someone who only had English 101 - 21/02/2012 11:26:03 AM 1039 Views
Mostly agreed - 21/02/2012 09:00:51 PM 1130 Views
Mostly true - 21/02/2012 09:27:09 PM 1167 Views
Re: Mostly true - 22/02/2012 12:58:55 AM 992 Views
Larry = snob - 21/02/2012 05:34:22 PM 1094 Views
Amusing - 21/02/2012 07:49:20 PM 1089 Views
Wow, you lack basic reading comprehension skills..... - 21/02/2012 08:29:24 PM 1078 Views
Uh...Faust is a play. Doctor Faustus is a novel. The former is Goethe, the latter is Mann. *NM* - 22/02/2012 12:00:22 AM 538 Views
D'uh.....notice the smiley face. Good grief! *NM* - 22/02/2012 12:50:23 AM 513 Views
Just checking... *NM* - 22/02/2012 01:07:40 AM 487 Views
Wait, let's look at the gross disconnect between two statements. - 21/02/2012 01:59:34 PM 1214 Views
I have not blindly rejected the literary elites..... - 21/02/2012 05:27:35 PM 1184 Views
So true about the Mona Lisa. - 21/02/2012 07:57:41 PM 1244 Views
Yes, I was at the Louvre and you are right..... - 21/02/2012 08:32:40 PM 1106 Views
This is where your own rethoric defeats you... - 23/02/2012 06:38:54 AM 1089 Views
There's "subjective", and there's "lack of education" - 21/02/2012 08:58:11 PM 1128 Views
Re: There's "subjective", and there's "lack of education" - 21/02/2012 09:23:38 PM 1273 Views
Thank you. That was excellent. *NM* - 20/02/2012 07:01:31 PM 567 Views
Seems like an awful lot. - 19/02/2012 08:11:22 PM 1328 Views
Sanderson is a machine. Also, the books (so far) have been wildly different - 20/02/2012 12:50:41 AM 1238 Views
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I love it. - 19/02/2012 10:00:28 PM 1073 Views
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