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Customer Discussions > Classics forum

When Does a "Book" Become "Literature"?

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Showing 1-25 of 46 posts in this discussion
Posted on Apr 9, 2011 10:39:01 AM PDT
I haven't read all the posts but this subject is a passion of mine. I believe that true literature elevates writing as a craft such that the language refracts the light like a diamond, or like a lump of clay that is sculpted into a beautiful form to captivate the onlooker. Frankly anyone can write a book if they have a reasonable command of the language, but to hone it and wordsmith it and respect self-editing guidelines requires discipline and an understanding of the craft. Literature is perhaps the perfect meeting of art, linguistics and music - music, because the flow of the narrative needs to sound like a symphony if read aloud. To become a classic, I believe that literature needs to touch the heart, mind and soul, transcend the prosaic and leave its mark on the deepest part of our consciousness, even to shape who we are.

Posted on Mar 26, 2011 9:40:12 PM PDT
jukebox says:
I always think of literature as an 'Idea', characters included. Fiction, I define as a 'Story'.

In reply to an earlier post on Jan 13, 2011 1:14:00 PM PST
yes! ----- one can't help but wonder what may be hailed a hundred years from now, or even remembered.

Posted on Jan 13, 2011 12:55:27 PM PST
A text becomes a classic/literature when it has stood firm against the tide of time. "Moby Dick" did not engage anyone's attention until 1915; "The Great Gatsby" was forgotten until the 1950's; "The Sound and The Fury" could not get arrested for fifteen years after its publication. Ben Jonson, not John Donne was considered the great literary light of the 1620's. Donne has garnered more and more interest while Jonson is a mere footnote (speaking here of poetry, not plays). One wonders how many novels have been hailed as "great literature" that now lie on the ash heap of history. Proust, Tolstoy, and Joyce never won the Nobel Prize (so much for the worth of prizes and critical acclaim).

In reply to an earlier post on Dec 30, 2010 11:05:28 AM PST
That is exactly what I was going to say!

In reply to an earlier post on Dec 28, 2010 12:52:36 PM PST
thank you, Language Lover -- you did a remarkable job "defining" (i use quotation marks because i'm not certain anything that's constantly open to redefinition, to remaking, as literature is can ever be, once and for all, defined) literature. specifically, your last sentence: "specific characters and events...available to people not yet born." i think that may be the "trick," what can make a book (fiction or otherwise) "literature": specificity that is avilable to, accessible by, those who have not yet been born; that is, making the unique universal. again, thank you.

Posted on Dec 27, 2010 6:24:40 PM PST
Last edited by the author on Dec 27, 2010 6:26:06 PM PST
J. Hitt says:
I'd like to raise a question as to the particular criterion of 'standing the test of time.' I see this criterion being used not only in this great thread but in various similar threads all over the internet dealing with the definition of Classic versus run-of-the-mill writing. But isn't this just 'argumentum ad populum'--appeal to the masses, appeal to the majority--in another form? I mean, isn't the idea of popularity across three (or two, or five) decades similar to popularity across three countries or three genres or three academic disciplines? It seems to me it needs to be qualified in some way in order to contribute meaningfully to the discussion.

Perhaps we could benefit from looking at the clear cases as opposed to the more difficult ones. Take Shakespeare, for example. For one thing, he did something profound to the entire genre of drama--at the very least made it by quantum jumps more exciting, deeper, more powerful. Many would say he created drama in the modern sense. Also, he took English poetry to greater heights than ever before--and became the greatest reason why English literature is considered the benchmark. Then, he created a number of totally new plot-types which hadn't been tried out before, a whole host of characters which have burned their way into our minds for 400 years or more (Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, King Lear, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, Falstaff, Othello, to name a few)--and as a result, in at least these ways, he rises above in English literature as a giant. Indeed, he is studied world-wide as a transcendant figure of literature.

I wish I had time to compare him with, say Charles Dickens, who re-invented the novel in many unique ways, employs memorable plot-lines, creates delightful (if not titanic) characters, delights in the English language, and has endured. Critics point out his flaws, however, compare him unfavorably with the great Russian novelists, for example. He certainly doesn't measure up to the greatness of Shakespeare.
Perhaps what Shakespeare and Dickens have in common is that they both stand out distinctly, according to certain generally agreed-upon measurements of literary quality, and have continued to do so for a long time.

If so, then the key is not just standing the test of time, but standing it according to these transcendant qualities.

In reply to an earlier post on Sep 17, 2010 11:46:27 AM PDT
Last edited by the author on Sep 17, 2010 12:29:40 PM PDT
It becomes literature when a bunch of pretentious old farts tell you that you have to like it. Then they over-analyze it finding messages and metaphors that the original authors never intended. Then they try to shove it down your throat.

Trying to analyze the cirumstances around what makes something "classic" or "literary" is folly.

That which is considered litereature is considered so because some historians said that it is.

In reply to an earlier post on Sep 14, 2010 7:34:26 PM PDT
Shotsy says:
If you take the question absolutely literally, one answer is easy: Any work of intentional** fiction is, by definition, literature.

Now, if the real intent of the question is when does a book become a classic, that's a whole different kettle of fish.

**I specify "intentional" because literature is of course not limited to fiction, but all fiction is literature. For example, a fiction novel (good or bad) is automatically literature; a book of essays by the same author (clearly intended as his/her non-fiction musings) is not automatically "literature".

Posted on Sep 13, 2010 2:19:20 AM PDT
Last edited by the author on Sep 13, 2010 2:21:49 AM PDT
K. T. Ong says:
When does a book become 'literature'?

When it appeals to lots and lots of people, and appeals to them deeply.

And by the way, I'm not sure about this thing about standing the test of time. Some ancient books which are considered literature today were actually lost for centuries and only recently retrieved from oblivion, if I recall correctly.

Posted on Aug 30, 2010 12:56:55 AM PDT
Arguably, reading is the direct interaction with another person's mind. It becomes literature when you come away the better for it.

In reply to an earlier post on Jul 16, 2008 5:43:01 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Jul 16, 2008 8:03:30 PM PDT
So what, you don't believe that things have quality apart from personal taste? As long as the bindings are similar and there is no extra information, most books cost within a couple dollars of each other. If I were to offer you a choice between a Lexus IS and a Kia for free, wouldn't you take the Lexus? By doing so, even if personal taste for style and label are playing a role in your choice, there is still an undeniable quality difference between the two vehicles. What if you have the choice between a skirt steak and a filet for the same price. Wouldn't you be making this choice in part based on the fact that one is a higher quality cut than the other?

Art mediums have quality attachments as well. And all I'm saying is that quality is not the same thing as personal taste. We, as humans, recognize that some things are worth more than others, but because we are so blinded by a desire to constantly be right, we tend to assume that the things we like must have the most quality. We want to think that what we like is the best, but that is not true. Not for me, not for you, not for anyone.

This entire discussion made me do a lot of thinking and I wrote 4 pages on the subject. Because 1) I don't think I'm allowed to post that much here AND 2) I think everyone would hate me if I posted that much here, I've published it on my blog:

I welcome all to read it, to criticize or praise it. You can comment directly on my blog (if you don't have a google id, then use anonymous, but I ask that you type your amazon name at the end so that everyone knows who posted what) or if you read it and want to keep the discussion here, then post responses in this discussion. Amazon will e-mail me the posts on here and I can respond to them here.

Let's go debate!

In reply to an earlier post on Jul 16, 2008 10:37:55 AM PDT
See what I mean?

In reply to an earlier post on Jul 16, 2008 8:49:22 AM PDT
I would think the problem with your response is that "favorite" and "quality" are not the same. This isn't just you though, probably the most common mistake in our quality evaluations as a society is that we tend to think whatever we like is good. I used to love reading genre fantasy fiction, but I don't anymore. Does that mean that it was once good and now that it's not good? I used to hate reading Hemingway and now I read his books repeatedly. Does that mean that you used to be bad but now they are good? No.

Objectivity is impossible, but quality should best be measured in the nearest to objective terms as possible, meaning that the critic uses the same criteria to evaluate each work. However, to use your Jackson Pollack example, perhaps it would be better to set up criteria for each genre of art. The criteria for evaluating a Post-Modern artist like Pollack would be different than that used in evaluating Monet.

In reply to an earlier post on Jul 15, 2008 9:26:10 AM PDT
I. Sondel says:
Well stated. Art, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. To one pair of eyes a Jackson Pollack painting is masterpiece, while to another a drop cloth. Neither opinion is wrong. Art, music and literature communicate with each of us on an individual level. No one would dream to argue with me if I said my favorite vegetable is broccoli - how could they? Why would they? So, here's an idea: why not let your enjoyment of the book (or music, play, film or painting) be its own reward?

In reply to an earlier post on Jul 11, 2008 6:44:08 PM PDT
A. Fondacaro says:
When some university half-wit decides he/she likes a book so much that it deserves to be "literature" and puts it on the syllabus.

In reply to an earlier post on Jul 9, 2008 7:49:31 PM PDT
A book becomes "literature" when snooty intellectuals start to call it so. For years the horror legend, H.P. Lovecraft was deemed as so-called pulp trash, now his work has been deemed "worthy" of an LOA edition.

Screw "literature" and most literary studies. All that matters in a book is if it reads well and you enjoy it.

In reply to an earlier post on Jul 8, 2008 10:49:54 AM PDT
Last edited by the author on Jul 12, 2008 6:08:34 AM PDT
Panzon says:
When enough "educated' reviewers wax eloquent on the "prose" and "timeless" content, and especially if many people have called it literature before some (impressionable) person reads it.....He or she then perpetuates the illusion of greatness.....It's all about ego, perception, and how those readers want to appear to others.

"Literature" is a useless term, as is "classic" and the like...The opinions of others mean (or should mean) nothing.

Read, and have fun doing it!

In reply to an earlier post on Jul 7, 2008 3:31:47 PM PDT
I have a few answers, some my own, some from others:

1) An esteemed, anti-post-modern English professor I had during my undergraduate education several years ago, said that in his old age, he had finally come to the conclusion that the "cannon" of literature was decided by the consumer. Whatever people were still willing to buy years later was "cannonized." People are still buying Fitzgerald and Hemingway in droves, but O'Hara either has one novel on the shelf or none at all? Then John O'Hara gets left out while Fitzgerald and Hemingway get put in. Of course the obvious objection here is that if the people stocking the book stores don't put O'Hara on the bookshelf in the first place, then no one will buy him.

2) As someone who dabbles in writing myself, I sometimes consider great literature the books that I feel like I learn how to write from. I read James Joyce's short story "The Dead" (the last in Dubliners-and not at all like Ulysses for the haters out there) and I understand how to portray the deepest disappointment and sorrow possible. I read Hemingway's short stories and I learn how to write with economy and to make my reader think several minutes after the last page is finished. Of course, what I learn doesn't matter, but I tend to consider great literature those books and writers that the most lauded writers of today say inspired them. But the problem here is that I doubt anyone of merit today is going to say that Dickens inspired them, but Dickens could have inspired someone who inspired someone that inspired the writer of today. Do we track backwards in patterns of influence then?

3) Someone earlier mentioned re-readability. I tend to consider plot minor. If I can read a book for a second or third time and still be enamored with the words, the style, the settings and the characters, already knowing how it will end, I tend to think that it is good (I apply the same to television and movies).

4) I do think English department academia has a role. These people dedicate their lives to studying literature (at least most of them do) and they know an awful lot about it. True, some of them are more concerned with their ideologies, but there are enough of them that still read well that I think their opinions matter.

you can read more of my thoughts at:

In reply to an earlier post on Jul 3, 2008 1:43:21 PM PDT
First and fore most you should read what ever you like to read. There are current trends to deconstruct what is called literature in the western cannon, some of it is good. But there are great novels, poems and writings that are considered good literature. It really has everything to do with what you want to read and how you like to read. Reading is not something most people that I know do on regular basis, like watch tv for instance. I think Science Fictionk, Zane Gray, Grisham, Pat Conroy are all fine to read. Comic books can make good reading. Reading should be fun, but also like a good work out when running or lifting wieghts, literature can be a challenge and you can get rewards from reading a difficult book cuz it can be entertaining and can help you think differently. Running a 10K is athletic and an achievement, so Finnegans Wake, the Magic Mountain, Wallace Stegner can asl be stretching and exercising your mind and an achievement.

In reply to an earlier post on Jul 3, 2008 1:33:58 PM PDT
Although I must say that Kurt Vonnegut is considered a part of the western canon by many critics.

In reply to an earlier post on Jul 3, 2008 1:32:16 PM PDT
Sorry for you not liking Joyce. He is not meant to be an easy read, but he is one of the most fun authors. His intention is to involve you in his process. Ulyssyes has some of the most erotic passages in English History. It most certainly not like a popular novel to be read thru at a glance. Joyce engages you as do many great writers. Josesph Campbell has a series of essays on Joyce and Ullyses which really help to explain some of what is being stated in the novel.

In reply to an earlier post on Jun 27, 2008 4:40:48 PM PDT
Lawa says:
I agree Payne. Literature is fiction that has simply rised above. Many works that we consider to be literature were written for the general public and the common audience. Some were blasted for being low-brow and others considered immoral simply because it told a story. The depth of these works and the social commentary were often missed because they discussed normal operations. With the distance of time the value of these works came to be seen and they bypassed other stories that were much lauded during the same time period.

But here is another question: Do we consider literature to be only those works that stand the test of time? Must all literature be classic in nature? And if so, why are new releases labled as literature if they have not yet proven to stand the test of time?

In reply to an earlier post on Jun 27, 2008 7:59:33 AM PDT
Ravenskya says:
I disagree that genra fiction cannot be literature... I would be easy to say the "Gone With the Wind" is a Drama, "Neuromancer" is sci fi or cyber punk, "The Three Musketeers" is Action/Adventure.

I think what makes them literature is that the trancend above their genre and are accessible to even those who dont venture into the genre. For example, I don't like Sci Fi... yet I find that "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep," "1984," "Neuromancer" and "Ender's Game" are all books that I not only enjoyed... but stuck with me long after I read them.

In reply to an earlier post on Jun 24, 2008 9:22:07 AM PDT
My wife found a book titled "Sir Evelyn's Charge" in the Church library that is mostly made up of books saved from England before WWII.
This book although not well known today is one she has read many times and has the quality where it becomes "Alive" to the reader.
Although she is a great fan of Austin and Dickens and others like them this obscure book is the current favorite.
Does this qualify?
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Discussion in:  Classics forum
Participants:  38
Total posts:  46
Initial post:  May 20, 2008
Latest post:  Apr 9, 2011

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