I was mulling on the concept of ‘literature’ as a separate entity to writing in general. The idea being that it’s of a higher quality, a finer essence, that it contains something hard to define but that qualitatively raises it above writing in general.
But what makes one book literary and another not? Is it time? Fashion? Being the subject of academic study? I really don’t know. Many writers who were much-studied at a particular time have fallen away. DH Lawrence isn’t read much at all now, but at one time he was a literary giant. He’s as ignored now as is John Buchan or Dorothy L Sayers, perhaps even more ignored, considering the height of his fall from grace, but none of them are read much at all now, even though all three were hugely successful in their day.
I’m thinking of this because I’m currently re-reading Breakfast At Tiffany’s, and I’d forgotten how beautiful it is to read, just how wonderful a writer Truman Capote was. Is it literature, or is it just a novella that got lucky? Capote was a bit of a fame-hound, almost a dilettante when it came to writing, but when he turned his mind to it, he could really write.
Then again, Dashiell Hammett could write. Virginia Woolf could write, Alan Sillitoe could write, F Scott Fitzgerald could write. And in a century’s time most of those will be forgotten. Some random few will be remembered, for reasons that we don’t grasp now but will be understood in the future, but most will be gone.
One of my favourite books is An Edge of the Forest by Agnes Smith, and you rightly will ask, Agnes who? And I really don’t know. She’s not on wikipedia. She’s barely on Goodreads. But the novel, about a maimed panther who takes care of a lost lamb, is sheer poetry. Literature? Yes. No.
I don’t care.
But then, my favourite ever piece of music is Ondas by Mike Nock. The most beautiful album I’ve ever heard, and so resonant with emotion that I cannot listen to it without crying. I defy anyone in any century to sit back and listen to that album and not feel. But you can’t find it on youtube and it scrapes a bare few lines on wikipedia.
So, literature. What is it? And should we care? My answers are: I don’t know. And no.
All I can say is this: we should love books for what they are. We should love stories for the journeys we take, for the people we meet, and for the destinations at which we arrive. Let the academics decide what is literature, but let the reader decide which stories to love.