2.06.2008

Making Sense of Literature

Mmmmm...long days and pleasant nights indeed. Today was just beautiful here in Northeast Florida. We had a high of 85 and the humidity was moderate. The beach was clear of fog and the tide was up when I went over the Intracoastal.

But you want to know what I really love about days like today? I love it when the night rises and the insects begin to hum and the air cools. I can open every window in the house and get the fans going, and I think it's just about the most comfortable temperature a body can relax in.

That makes for a pleasant evening, but so does my time spent working with students on our understanding and appreciation of literature. Thankfully, I have the all the answers (seriously! after all of these years, why didn't anyone just ask?)...

So I suppose we're all doomed to debating the definition of literature in some form of Bill-Murray-Groundhog-Day-existential-hell until...well, forever. I've been following the discussion over at Galleycat concerning the distinction between literary and genre fiction with lots of interest. Lots of quality snark in that thread of posts.

And I've spent the last week designing an American Literature course here at the college and I think, in terms of the short fiction, we'll be straddling that line pretty evenly.

We're reading Bierce, Twain and Poe. We're reading King, Hornby and Lethem. Throw in some Cather and Carver. Add a dash of Dubus. Fold in equal measures Faulkner, O'Brien, Chopin and Chekhov and top with a little number by Cory Doctorow and you have...BAM! Literature, baby.

It's a little more difficult then that, of course. Editor Ron Hogan adds this snippet when discussing some of the prevailing (pretentious) attitudes that persist about popular fiction:

Which leads to a lot of discussion about how thrillers can so be real literature, how some genre writers work their way up to canonization while others don't, and backhanded compliments like the way P.D. James delivers "a characterization so rich and detailed that for long stretches you can forget you're reading a crime story in the first place."

This type of sentiment leads me to believe that it's content (what some lit. texts call "enduring questions") that governs the characterization as to what is literary (which carries the connotation of being serious, meaningful and artistic).

Come on, now. Have any of these guys ever read John D. MacDonald?

To my thinking, literature is the verbal expression of thought and action. It's the marriage of stirring language and compelling content. It has its own rhythm and cadence, and when you encounter it--well, you know it right away.

It exists in music. It's there in drama, poetry and all lengths of fiction. And it's up to the individual to make the distinction for himself or herself. These currents of taste change with time and experience, so it's an ongoing definition.

And I'm thankful for the opportunity over the next three months to go deeper into my own...

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