What is literature?
This is the question my professor asked the group of bright-eyed English majors on the first day of 20th century British lit.
One student happily raised his hand: ‘Literature is a published work with artistic merit.’ He said. The professor nodded.
‘Good. Now, what separates works of literature, then, from the written canon? What makes the pieces we will be reading in this class special?’
Another student cut in: ‘They say something important in a unique and artistic way.’
The professor smiled, pleased.
‘Very good. You see, what makes a work part of the literary canon, as opposed to other novels purely written for entertainment, is that it has a greater meaning that is expressed in often unconventional ways. These are the works that change the world, class, and as English Majors it is your job to understand what differentiates true literature from the drivel produced merely to entertain.’
It was at this point that I realized I was in for a very long, very difficult semester.
You see, despite being one of the masses of pen-wielding, book-loving masses is that I personally do not at all enjoy reading that rare classification of works bestowed with the title of ‘literature’. I have not suffered through ‘Moby Dick’, I cannot say I chose to read the ‘Illiad’ on my own time and name any modern author of any sort of ‘merit’ and I will draw a blank.
So what do I read in my spare time, you may ask?
Well, Young Adult Novels for one. And not the slice of life stories with some greater moral perspective on growing up and becoming an adult. I’ve already experienced the transition to adulthood and would really rather not go through it again, romanticized or otherwise.
No, I read the most cheesy, trashy, overly romantic and predictable works I can find. The twilight wannabes with their mary sue heroines and contrived plots so slapped together you wonder where the deus-ex-machina ends and the actual plot begins. I have been reading such novels since middle school, and even after all the ‘literature’ I have read, at the end of the day my favorite series is still a middle school level fantasy and the books I can be found reading during my breaks at work will always bare overly photoshopped covers and titles so contrived you could swear they were pulled from a perfume commercial.
And, as it seems, this is true of most of the general masses. Those works that balloon in popularity are not generally fantastic works of literature. In fact, more often than not they are overwrought pieces of self-satisfactory sludge. They are written purely to fulfill some ridiculous fantasy – whether it be beauty or adventure or wealth or love.
So what makes, say, Fifty-Shades of Grey any less of a work of literature than Metamorphoses? Well, one is certainly more well-written than the other. One contains a greater analysis of life and of human nature. Metamorphoses, one could say, underlines the human predicament and why people are the way they are.
Well, as a human myself I like to think I understand the human predicament pretty well. Or, to be more exact, I have my own human predicament to suffer through and I really don’t need to evaluate someone else’s problems right now, thank you very much. I exist in this world where I wake up, go to work, get yelled at for hours on end because I am not good enough, will never be good enough, and was born into this position simply because not everyone can be rich and happy.
I get paid to little because society says my work isn’t worth anymore, I am thousands of dollars in debt because society says my work will be worth more once I get approved training. I feel self-conscious because I am not what society has dictated is ‘beautiful’. I feel embarrassed because I do not have the money to buy the clothes that society has labeled correct. I am odd because I like things society deems odd. I am defined just as much by the things I am not as the things I am.
Now society is telling me that the novels I read are a waste of time and do not bear the same worth as those greater works deemed true literature.
Now, do not misunderstand. I am not trying to argue that ‘Fifty-Shades of Grey ‘is by any means on the same level as the works of Ovid. Nor am I trying to argue that one should not read meaningful works of literature simply because they do not enjoy doing so. I did not enjoy reading the ‘Illiad’, true, yet what I learned from reading it has greatly changed my perspective on literature as a whole.
What I am trying to say here is that we should not shame people for what they read. Likewise, we should not shame authors for what they write. Whether it be a trashy romance novel or a break-down of the human condition or a fanfiction or a poem – all written works serve a purpose. And, no matter the purpose, all written works are equally important. Novels written for entertainment ease the weight of the daily humdrum. They lift the reader from a complicated world filled with malice and uncertainty into a place with a clear beginning and end where anything can happen and anyone can be happy. Who are we to judge which type of story is really more important?
One year later, and my semester within 20th century British literature is long over, the stories I read therein all but forgotten. Such tales really bear no importance to me – the woeful tales of Joyce and the dramatic and heartfelt scenes of Winterson have been forgotten.
I get up. I go to work. I am yelled at for those things which are beyond my control. I remain silent. I suffer through. At lunch, I sit in the breakroom and pull out the most current novel I am reading, about a girl and a boy who inevitably fall in love and save the world like they always do.
At least between these pages, everything has a happy ending.