Since I started my Masters programme, I have gone on a journey to delve into as much literary texts as I possibly can. Part of my course is to look at Literature and define it. What is your own definition of literature? Do you only see elitist literature as part of the canon of literature? Can only a select few of works by writers, such as the Brontë’s and Austen, be considered a part of canon? What counts as literature?
This a big question in literary academia and it is quite contested. Literary critics/theorists argue that certain significant works will be considered a part of this grand literary catalogue. However, this becomes elitist. The literary canon consists mainly of classics and works that critics deem exceptional within the literary world. An example of an elitist work would be Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice.
Austen’s novel became influential for its time. I read somewhere that many male readers believed Pride & Prejudice to be women’s literature. Therefore, they didn’t take it seriously. However, Austen’s work places a new perspective on her current society and how it treated women. Moreover, she created the progressive character, Elizabeth Bennet who subverted societies thoughts of women at the time. Pride & Prejudice is up there on the elitist list of literature. However, can a series like Harry Potter, be considered elitist?
Harry Potter would be considered popular fiction. However, does it discredit it as an influential book? As of February 2018, the books have sold more than 500 million copies worldwide, making them the best-selling book series in history, and have been translated into eighty languages. The books have touched so many generations of readers. But it isn’t considered elitist. However, what a critic will think is exceptional, you may think its tripe. Therefore, the literary canon becomes subjective and the question of literature comes into question. To me, literature are works that really grapple you, works that amaze you, leave you speechless and change your view on the world.
I dont consider popular fiction, or elitist fiction when I read. I read what interests me, and what grabs me as a reader. But more importantly, I read something that teaches me something. I want a novel that doesn’t provide me with all the answers. I want to be on the tips of my toes when I read a novel, and many things to be left up to interpretation.
I had a conversation with my Gender & Sexuality professor, about this topic. She started to compare two novels: Asking For It by Louise O’ Neill and Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney. Both are well-known Irish novelists and both books portray similar scenes or themes. Asking For It delves into the trauma of sexual assault and the continued assaults made to the victim by society after the event. According to my professor, O’ Neill’s novel delivers a simple story with an obvious message behind it. It starts a conversation, but it doesn’t create new avenues to explore that. Whereas with Conversations with Friends, you have to read between the lines to explore the full extent of the story. The narrative is not taken on face-value. You must read further into the plot thats given to you.
And thats what literature is.
Stories that leaves you with more questions than answers. Stories that make you return to the same characters over and over again. Stories where you take away something different each time you read it. Literature insights so much emotions and intrigue. It is a beautiful form of art and knowledge. Ill find a place in the literary world. It’s my home and that’ll never change.